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St. John’s coach shares inspiring story with new grads

Claudia Sbrissa (l.), a professor of fine arts, hugs her student Tyler Guthrie, a Jamaica resident who graduated with a degree in photography. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Photo gallery

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Officials estimated that with students, staff, family and friends about 19,000 people were in attendance. Photo by Christina Santucci
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St. John's University students, including Marcial Zebaze (r.) and Tayrn Glynn (second from r.), celebrate graduation. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Forest Hills resident Jane O'Connor waves to the crowd after receiving her diploma for her master's degree in education. Photo by Christina Santucci
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One student sports sandals. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Flushing resident Jing Zhang (l.) and Jamaica Estates resident Yan Ling Zhu,who both graduated with degrees in finance; watch the proceedings from the side. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Marcial Zebaze walks across the stage. Photo by Christina Santucci
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(l.-r.) Imran Khan, Shaban Khan (c.) and Sherizan Khan cross the stage. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Dan Bart, who received a master's degree in accounting, genuflects like Tim Tebow. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Adrian Gonzalez decorated his cap. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Angela Eyer (l.) and Angela SIhn catch Sophia Petrillo after she went to greet her family members on the other side of the fence. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Chanel King shows off her diploma. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Shinel Hudson's glasses show a reflection of the ceremony. Photo by Christina Santucci
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(l.-r.) Chuck Anakwenze, Cameron Edison and Walter Galvis stand for a photo with Edison's daughter Imani, 2. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Austin Phillips (r.) greets classmates. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Colette Philips sits on the end of her row. Photo by Christina Santucci
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(l.-r.) Angela Eyer, Dana Rock and Sophia Petrillo pose for a photo. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Howard Beach resident Ann Jaworek walks across the stage. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Charles Omste of Nigeria accepts his diploma. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Maria Fiorelli, who teaches at St. John's Staten Island campus, hugs her granddaughter Alexandra. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Bradley Jacques (r.) of Richmond Hill reaches over to hug his grandmother Marie Fortunat Sr. after he received his diploma in legal studies. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Priscilla Pesek (c.), who received an advanced certificate, stands with her parents Ed and Maria Fiorellii. Photo by Christina Santucci

Jumping into the job pool is all about overcoming challenges, St. John’s University head basketball Coach Steve Lavin told graduates at the university’s commencement speech Sunday, and tackling adversity is something he knows a thing or two about.

Lavin was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year and went under the knife in October before battling his way back to the bench early this year.

As he stood before about 3,000 graduates Sunday, he imparted some life lessons he brought back from his fight with the deadly disease.

“Now I stand here, May 13, cancer-free and able to share some thoughts with you as you move forward on your journey and your path,” Lavin said to cheers from the audience. “But the takeaway is that life is precious. Life is fragile.”

Lavin initially returned to coaching a little more than a month after his surgery, bucking the advice of his doctors.

The stress proved too much, Lavin said in several reports, and he instead took a behind-the-scenes role for a few months. The season was his first year coaching at St. John’s, where the men’s team went to its first NCAA tournament since 2002. Lavin previously coached at UCLA before getting the ax and ending up at ESPN, where he was a broadcaster and commentator.

Lavin’s journey to St. John’s and his eventual acquiescence to his doctors exemplified a central piece of advice he imparted to the students gathered on the lawn: Always be willing to learn.

“Seek out mentors, surround yourself with what I call your own Mr. Miyagis — some wise old owls who blazed a trail with wisdom from a long life,” Lavin said, referring to the martial art master from the “Karate Kid” movies.

Lavin also told the students to develop a resiliency that allows for a quick rebound from unexpected setbacks.

But a group of 20 graduates would not have been sweating in the sun along with the sea of students clad in red and black polyester gowns without already possessing a little bit of resolve.

Members of The Advantage Academy were homeless when they started the St. John’s program, according to program director Kim Toro.

“The program allows individuals who are homeless or formerly homeless to attend St. John’s for free,” she said.

The goal is to keep the students out of shelters, and so far it has been successful, she said.

Last year the first group who graduated from the program all went on to either find jobs or take further schooling, but either way they got the jump-start needed to make a new life for themselves, according to Toro.

Sabrina Garcia plans to go back to school at CUNY now that she earned a business associate degree and was ready to walk across the stage.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be in college at 35 getting my degree.”

Garcia, like most students in the program, was homeless and had a family to take care of before joining the program.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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