Saint Vincent grads hear from decorated veteran, Pro Bowl Steeler Alejandro Villanueva
They came from far and near.
Parents, grandparents, friends and siblings in a variety of family sedans, hybrids, mini-vans and luxury vehicles began to arrive at Saint Vincent College just outside of Latrobe on Saturday morning in a line of traffic that snaked slowly through the leafy college campus with one goal: to make it to the college’s Carey Center gym in time to watch that special student dressed in academic regalia step forward to claim a college degree.
The Coccias — Apsie and Chris, and their daughters, Callie and Phoebe — who hail from a small town near Birmingham, Ala., had traveled to the college at the foot of the Chestnut Ridge to see son, Daniel, pick up a degree in psychology.
Closer to home, Gary and Raeka Nichols, of Pittsburgh beamed as they spoke of their son, Floyd, an honor student in biology and the winner of the Class of 2019 President’s Award at the small Catholic college.
“He’s going to Northwestern for graduate school,” Gary Nichols said softly when asked about his son’s plans.
The students were among 340 graduate and undergraduate students who earned degrees at Saint Vincent’s 173rd spring commencement.
Attired in gowns and mortarboards — some decorated with everything from ribbons to glitter and pithy sayings, including the ever popular “Thanks, Mom” — they marched slowly into the gym to the music of a brass quintet. Meanwhile, family members and friends armed with iPhones and cameras grabbed images of the day to savor.
The gym echoed with cheers and applause as Saint Vincent President Brother Norman W. Hipps introduced keynote speaker Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time Pro-Bowl offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At 6 feet 9 inches, the former Army Ranger, who served three tours in Afghanistan and was decorated for bravery for rescuing wounded soldiers under enemy fire, towered over the podium.
Villanueva, a West Point graduate, who also holds an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, smiled as he looked around the gym.
“This gym is a very special place for me. Every single time they canceled practice (at Steelers training camp) because of weather, I am in here,” he said, warning the graduates that English was not his first language and that this was his first keynote speech.
The popular football player, known as a committed Catholic, donates proceeds from his jersey sales to charity as well as various police departments and first responders.
He urged the students to engage in the world and try to give back to others.
The father of three toddlers said when life gets tough he tries to keep in mind a series of mental notes he has made to himself over the years.
Harking back to five days of Army Ranger training in a snowy mountain range in mid-winter, Villanueva said the cold, hunger and exhaustion of that experience reminded him to be grateful for the life he has.
“I made a mental note to myself: As long as I’m warm, fed and have slept a couple of hours, there is nothing in the world I can complain about,” he said.
Later, as Villanueva moved on in a world where competition and ego were rampant, he said, “I made a note to myself: You only compete against yourself. … Always compete to be your best.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .