They lined up in black robes, some with blue and white honor cords draped around their necks, some with striped hoods dangling down their backs. They snapped selfies and hugged each other’s necks, their black mortar boards balanced or fastened to their heads.
Nine hundred sixty-six University of New Orleans graduates and undergraduates filed
into UNO Lakefront Arena Friday, Dec. 18, in the age-old commencement ritual designed
to honor those who have completed the academic rigors required to achieve a degree.
The stories of those who took their places and waited to cross the stage varied from seat to seat. There was the student who started straight after high school and finished in four years. And there was the one for whom life’s interruptions made the diploma feel like a finish line she never thought she’d reach.
Anielka Pham, 29, stood and accepted her cum laude honor, one she’d worked 10 years to achieve. In between enrolling in 2005, Pham ran out of money, joined the U.S. Air Force and became a mother. Today, she was receiving a bachelor’s degree in international relations.
“I feel like all the hard work paid off,” Pham said.
Out on the floor of the arena, Rebecca Gaffney held her four-month-old son in her arms, her own mother seated beside her. The mother-daughter team participate in training for the visually impaired at UNO’s Training, Resource and Assistive-Technology Center. But on this day, they were there to see Gaffney’s husband walk across the stage.
James Clement Jr., who spent his last semester as the father of a newborn, was receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration after four and a half years of study.
“I’m just excited,” Gaffney said as tiny James Clement III wiggled on her lap.
Joseph Zolfo, producer of "NCIS: New Orleans" who has worked in the television and film industry for more than two decades, delivered the commencement address. "NCIS: New Orleans" is filmed at UNO’s Nims Center Studios and, he said, employs several UNO graduates.
During his speech, Zolfo emphasized the importance of being on time, working hard and researching all there is to know about the industry and employer you hope to work for.
A former stock boy, waiter and pest control technician, Zolfo credited his early advances in the film industry to his work ethic--even when that ethic was devoted to the job of a “parking production assistant” on Woody Allen’s 1992 film “Husbands and Wives.” It was a job he described as “moving orange traffic cones and telling angry New Yorkers they couldn’t park.”
Despite the stature of the position, Zolfo said he made it his goal to work hard, show up early and be available. The reputation he earned in his two years in that job set the stage for him to obtain his next job, working with legendary costume designer Ann Roth on “Wolf,” a 1994 $70 million production starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Spader.
Even when the producer told him they didn’t have the budget for him to work the hours Roth desired of him, he showed up anyway.
“Know where you’re going,” Zolfo implored the graduates before him. “You’re not distracted or waiting to see what happens. You are focused. You are making the most of each opportunity.”
Friday’s graduates came from 45 states and 50 countries. The degrees conferred included 21 doctorates and 354 master’s degrees.
UNO President Peter J. Fos, who presided over his final commencement ceremony prior to retiring, congratulated the graduates and their families. In UNO tradition, the ceremony ended with a second-line out of UNO Lakefront Arena.