St. Francis College Graduates its Class of 2019; CBS' Michelle Miller Keynotes Ceremony at Historic Coney Island Boardwalk
Leah Schmerl

Arianna Sartzetakis (l) and Dana DiRenzo (r)

Imploring graduates to never fear failure, CBS Early Show: Saturday Co-Host Michelle Miller urged the St. Francis College Class of 2019 to live a life of integrity and fidelity to one's values and purpose.

"A setback is nothing but a setup for a comeback," said Miller, in the Commencement's keynote address. "When you fall, you get back up...you will need to stand by your deeds, because you will be held accountable to them...you rent your title, you own your reputation."

In a year marking the 50th anniversary of the first lay women admitted into its student body, the majority of the nearly 350 diplomas St. Francis conferred at Coney Island's Ford Amphitheater on May 23rd went to women.

Miller, along with Bishop Octavio Cisneros, auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Brooklyn, were presented honorary degrees during the ceremony.

St. Francis President Miguel Martinez-Saenz, Ph.D

St. Francis President Miguel Martinez-Saenz, Ph.D. encouraged graduates to express gratitude towards those who have supported them, and to carve out a life of service after graduation. "We invested in you," he told the graduates from the stage. "We're hoping there's a return on our investment and [that happens when] you reflect on what it means to be in service to others."


With passion matched only by his devotion to the Borough he leads, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams encouraged graduates to embrace New York's diverse culture. "You come from a city that's full of rich diversity. No matter who you are, you came from somewhere else...America belongs to all of us."

A trio of exceptional women graduates earned spots behind the Commencement podium, too.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams

Amal Hawari '19, a DACA student who transferred to St. Francis last year and earned a perfect 4.0 grade in her coursework here, officially welcomed graduates and guests to the ceremony.

"When I first arrived to this country, I didn't speak a word of English and now I am speaking before you all...your dreams don't have borders," said the Communication Arts major who emigrated from Venezuela at age four. "I am a dreamer, a DACA dreamer to be precise...Today...is proof to me that I have broken many stereotypes: woman, Latina, Middle Eastern, Muslim and first generation college graduate."

St. Francis' two Spring '19 valedictorians, Dana DiRenzo (BS/MS, Accounting) and Arianna Sartzetakis (BA, Economics and Political Science), each completed their four years at St. Francis with perfect GPAs. Their speeches expressed deep gratitude towards their families and the individuals at St. Francis with whom they forged significant relationships.

DiRenzo, a two-year captain of the women's basketball team, singled out the College's Franciscan values as particularly meaningful to her. "These values have taught us to be kind to others, to be accepting, and to have respect for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures," DiRenzo told fellow graduates. "I mean, let's face it: St. Francis is like the 'melting pot' of schools. It is so diverse and just teeming with individuals from all over the country and the world."

Dana DiRenzo

Sartzetakis, who served as president of St. Francis' Student Government Association and of the Duns Scotus Honor Society – the first woman to hold both titles in the same year -- lauded the camaraderie St. Francis fosters. "One thing that I am forever grateful for is the ability of St. Francis to feel like home for so many people. We have been instilled with the Franciscan values of hospitality and servant leadership."

This Spring's graduates also included seventeen McGuire scholars, the first such cohort to earn St. Francis diplomas. The College established the Robert J. McGuire scholarship program in 2014, made possible by the generosity of Fred Wilpon, Chairman and CEO of the NY Mets, his wife Judy and other benefactors. The program has since provided more than $2.4 million in scholarships to more than seventy students.

Thomas Flood, St. Francis Vice President for Advancement, announced from the stage that both Fred Wilpon and McGuire, the former New York City Police Commissioner, would receive honorary degrees from the College.

"It's an incredible honor to be a McGuire scholar, and I credit the program for opening so many doors of opportunities for me," said Danielle Francavilla (BA, Communication Arts). "I became involved in journalism during my time at St. Francis, and that fueled my passion to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. It's a dream I trace back to the scholarship."

Luis Pelaez (BA, Criminal Justice) collected his diploma at Thursday's ceremony thanks to his participation in St. Francis Post-Prison program, which helps formerly incarcerated women and men enroll in St. Francis and earn degrees here.

"The Post-Prison Program means everything," said Pelaez. "It gives a lot of opportunity for guys to move forward who wouldn't normally have that opportunity...I want to prove to the people that believe in me that I'm able to make myself and others...better than we ever could have been."

Other notable participants in the ceremony include graduating nursing major Nicole Madrazo, who performed the national anthem, Sydney Bell (BA, Communications Arts), who introduced keynote speaker Michelle Miller, and Bob Smith '72, President of St. Francis' Alumni Board of Directors for the Alumni Association, who provided concluding remarks

Video of the ceremony will be posted on St. Francis' YouTube channel the week of May 27th: www.youtube.com/stfrancisny

About Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." Miller joined the broadcast in July of 2018. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News," "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning." She has also appeared as a correspondent on "48 Hours." Miller joined CBS News in 2004.

Michelle Miller

While at CBS News, Miller has reported on many stories of national and international importance. She provided extensive coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of Michael Brown. She also covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.; the shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio; the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections; the death of Whitney Houston; the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking; medical care for the rural poor in South Africa, and Hurricanes Sandy, Irene and Katrina.

Miller's reporting has earned her several prestigious journalism awards including an Emmy for her series of reports on the National Guard's Youth Challenge Academy, an Edward R Murrow for her coverage of a day care center stand-off in New Orleans, and she was part of the Alfred I. duPont – Columbia Award winning team for coverage the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. In 2019, Miller won a Gracie award for her reporting on the hidden world of sex trafficking in "'48 Hours': Live to Tell: Trafficked."

She's also earned a Salute to Excellence Award from NABJ and was voted Woman of the Year by the National Sports Foundation. In 2014, TV Week named Miller as one of the "12 to watch in TV news."

Miller has interviewed global leaders, politicians, artists and celebrities, including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, renowned artist Peter Max, Beyonce, John Goodman, Tony Bennett, James Earl Jones, Lenny Kravitz, LL Cool J, Carlos Santana, Denzel Washington and violinist Yo-Yo Ma.

Miller earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Howard University and studied abroad in Kenya and Tanzania. Miller also holds a master's degree in urban studies from the University of New Orleans.

Her career in broadcast and print journalism includes work at the Los Angeles Times; the Star Tribune in Minneapolis; WWL-TV in New Orleans; WIS-TV in Columbia, S.C; the Orange County Newschannel and ABC News "Nightline" in Washington, D.C. Miller also taught journalism and mass communication courses at Dillard University in New Orleans.

In addition to her co-hosting and reporting duties, Miller is a member of the Board of Advisors at Hampton University's Scripps Howard School of Journalism and the Greater New York Chapter of the Links, Inc., as well as a board member for the School of American Ballet. She is a founding member of the Women's Leadership Initiative for the United Way of New Orleans and has served on the March of Dimes National Communications Advisory Council. Previously, Miller served as vice president of the YWCA of Greater New Orleans and president of both the Black Journalists Association of Southern California and the New Orleans Association of Black Journalists.

Miller has also participated in the Poynter Institute, was a Hitesman Lecturer at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication, a guest panelist for the Annual H. Naylor Fitzhugh Conference at the Harvard Business School and a guest speaker for the National Model UN Program. She has lectured at several colleges including Drew University; Howard University; Wellesley College; Stony Brook University; Southern University at New Orleans and Loyola University.

Miller is married with two children.