Rutgers Alumni to the Class of 2023: Dream Big and Follow Your Dreams

Alumni from classes spanning six decades offer advice and warm wishes to graduating students.

By Sam Starnes and Debbie Meyers

As more than 19,000 Rutgers University students prepare for commencement ceremonies, we asked a wide range of alumni who have walked that walk for their advice for the Class of 2023.

Do what you love and love what you do
Ken Johnson

Ken Johnson ENG’66

Having finished exams, papers, lab work, and all the rest—it’s now your turn to shine!

My advice is to work in your field of dreams. Find activities and assignments that make you happy, and build your careers around those—none of us working in our own passions will ever be underpaid.

You may not know what your passion is yet, but don’t worry, you will find it. If you remain open to the idea and resist becoming discouraged if your first or even second attempt doesn’t get you there—you will find it. Keep learning and looking. I’m certain you will find your passion and find that doing that work is not even “work.” My wish for you today is that you land in a career that makes you happy. We spend more of our precious time working than in any other part of our lives, so please: Do what you love and love what you do!

Ken Johnson ENG’66, aerospace engineering leader, 2022 Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee

You can be whatever and whoever you want to be
Richard Roper

Richard Roper NCAS’68

As you begin this new and somewhat uncertain adventure, stay open to all that life has to offer. Approach the future with optimism and confidence, and don’t be afraid to think big. Remember that you don’t live in isolation; what you choose to do and how you choose to do it will impact others. The pursuit of self-actualization alone will not be fulfilling; that pursuit should not obscure your sense of responsibility to community writ large. Fulfillment will come from helping to shape, for the better, the contours of the human condition. Keep learning and expand the knowledge frontier with which you began the journey. In so doing, the growth you achieve will enable you to experience life’s wondrous complexity and beauty. You can be whatever and whoever you want to be. The world, indeed, is your oyster. Enjoy the journey.

—Richard Roper NCAS’68, public policy leader, 2022 Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee

Your story will be epic and unique
Lavett Ballard

Lavett Ballard CCAS’14

My time at Rutgers–Camden helped to awaken me to what I wanted out of life. Mind you, this was while commuting back and forth to school, raising a family, trying to pass my third class of college math (argh, I hated college math), and figuring out what I wanted to do with my art interests and talent. Rutgers professors helped me by building my artistic, social, and intellectual skills, all while introducing me to the historical and contemporary art world.

Thanks to my time at Rutgers, I left with the direction of my next steps and connections that I still hold to this day. I have been blessed to gain artistic notoriety and live the life I wanted. Living with new beginnings means living with ambiguity. New beginnings can seem scary, but so exciting. But when it comes to your story of graduating in 2023, your story will be unique with experiences of being a college freshman exclusively online, while watching the world around you warp and change during a worldwide pandemic!

Critics have called me a visual storyteller in my art, and as one storyteller to another, I urge you to be the authors, screen writers, and producers of your own stories. Your story will be as epic and unique as you are.

Lavett Ballard CCAS’14, acclaimed artist whose work has appeared on two TIME magazine covers

Follow your dreams
Jen Robertson

Jen Robertson CC’97 with Maya, a snow leopard at the Philadelphia Zoo

From someone who has been in your shoes, I can tell you that the road to attainment is not always easy. There will be challenges to overcome and obstacles to face. However, do not let these life experiences defeat you. Adversity doesn’t determine how your life will go—instead it’s how you react to adversity that will. And from one Rutgers graduate to another, I know deep inside you have the strength and determination to power through anything.

As you embark on this new chapter in life, my advice to you is to simply follow your dreams. Focus on what makes you happy and do not let the naysayers bring you down. Be true to yourself and never compromise on what you want to achieve in life. Never place limits on yourself. Seek what you desire and allow your passion to become your purpose. Believe in yourself and keep moving forward. Enjoy the ride to success. Your journey awaits.

Jen Robertson CC’97, zookeeper for big cats at the Philadelphia Zoo

Remain true to who you are and who you want to become
Dr. Steven Stylianos

Dr. Steven Stylianos RC’78

Prioritize, don’t compromise! You have limitless possibilities ahead, so don’t be afraid to learn about what the world has to offer. However, always remain true to who you are and who you want to become.

At pivotal times, be brutally honest with yourself. Try to muffle all the distracting noises in your life and pursue what makes you challenged and fulfilled.

Don’t be risk averse in life, as long as you are not being reckless.

Explore, investigate, and welcome adventure but have a PLAN! Be young, be free, and stay safe!

—Dr. Steven Stylianos RC’78, Chief, Division of Pediatric Surgery, and Surgeon-in-Chief, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital

Stay in touch through the RUAA
Michael Adler RC’95

Michael Adler RC’95

Congratulations to the Class of 2023! You are now members of the Rutgers University Alumni Association. The diploma you are receiving to put on your wall is like currency: It’s only worth what you and your employers and the world think it is worth.

Help each other. Help those who come to our university after you. Even encourage other people to go to the college you are proud of. Networking matters more now than ever. The best jobs are not going to be posted on job boards, they are going to be filled by people reaching out to their network.

Our alumni association board knows the value of spending extra time building or maintaining their networks. Stay in touch with us, your professors, and fellow classmates. Always be proud of your school, and be proud of each other. So go out there and make us proud! Go RU!

Michael Adler RC’95, attorney and Rutgers University Alumni Association (RUAA) board member

Explore the endless possibilities
Dominique Flores SN’19

Dominique Flores SN’19

Enjoy how far you’ve come and explore the endless possibilities in store for you!

Even if you wind up somewhere that you didn’t think you would be initially, I promise you that every moment that happens in this life, it is preparing you for what comes next.

And to anyone feeling lost after graduating or with what to do next, I refer to Proverbs 3:5-6 frequently, and it’s given me a lot of hope and faith for the future: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Dominique Flores SN’19, general pediatric nurse, (RUAA) board member

Dream big
Gloria Vanderham RC’00, SCILS’00

Gloria Vanderham RC’00, SCILS’00

Dream big and always remember your Rutgers University Alumni Association network. They can help you achieve your dreams! #scarletforever

—Gloria Vanderham RC’00, SCILS’00, chief executive officer, Bliss Bio Health, RUAA board vice chair