Newbury College’s last class graduated on Sunday, the final students to turn their tassels before the school shuts its doors for good.
After several years of financial troubles, officials at the small Brookline liberal arts school announced last year that it would close after commencement. The school serves mainly low-income students and those who are the first in their family to attend college.
It is one of many such schools in New England and around the country struggling to survive in an era of declining enrollment and rising tuition costs. President Joseph Chillo, who navigated the college through its final days, called the graduation bittersweet.
“It is sad in a lot of ways, but we know that the tradition of Newbury and the work that our students will be doing will carry that forward,” the president said after the ceremony.
Despite the finality, the celebration on Sunday was boisterous. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and babies crowded into the John Hancock Hall in the Back Bay, cheering loudly and holding signs and flags as their loved ones crossed the stage to accept a diploma.
The school, which has roughly 600 students, 111 of whom graduated on Sunday, feels like a family, many said. “We made it! We made it! We made it!” one family stood and shouted as their student passed across the stage.
Student speaker Hillary Cayetano Zapata Fernandez, of Dorchester, said graduation felt like a dream come true. She told how her mother emigrated from Honduras with only a sixth-grade education, determined that her daughters would do better in the United States. She said she first enrolled in a different college but struggled and believed she had failed.
Then she transferred to Newbury, where she said she found a supportive environment that gave her a second chance. She graduated on time even as she got married and had a baby. She hopes to attend law school soon.
“I became the student I knew I could be,” she said. “Although sadly its physical doors will shut soon, [Newbury] allowed me to open new horizons.”
As she spoke, her mother, Albina Cayetano, held Hillary’s 17-month-old son and waved the flag of Honduras. After the ceremony, Albina said she was very emotional and proud of her daughter.
“She’s always encouraged us to be our very best,” Hillary said about her mother.
The school conferred an honorary degree on Myechia Minter-Jordan, the president and CEO of The Dimock Center, a well-known public health center in Roxbury. Minter-Jordan told graduates they have earned the responsibility to carry on the mission of the college: to be professionals but also ethically and socially conscious.
“This institution will always be a part of you,” she said.
In his speech, Chillo reminded many students what a milestone they have passed in becoming the first in their family to earn a college degree. He said they now have a responsibility to seek the same for their own families.
“You’re the trailblazers,” he said.
Hamido Hassan, of Lewiston, Maine, ran track and cross country at the college. She said it was a blow to the program when younger student athletes found out they would have to find a new college where they can compete.
“It was really tough,” said Hassan, who hugged her coach after the ceremony.
The ceremony took on an extra level of significance because it took place on Mother’s Day.
Damicka Johnson, of Dorchester, said her daughter and her niece both graduated from Newbury Sunday, a double celebration for her family. She said her daughter is the oldest of her three children and the first in their family to graduate from college.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s a bittersweet moment,” she said.
Rochelle Dixon decorated the top of her mortarboard with flowers and the words “Mama I did it.” Her family held balloons and a poster decorated with a photo of Dixon in high school.
Dixon said her mother, who died when she was 13, would have been proud.