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Bittersweet: Cardinal Stritch University’s last commencement

Around 240 students recieved bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees at Wisconsin Center Sunday

Students from Cardinal Stritch University line up ahead of the graduation processional, Sunday, at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. Rich Kremer/WPR

In a bittersweet ceremony, hundreds of Cardinal Stritch University graduates walked across the stage Sunday during the school’s last ever commencement. The pomp and circumstance comes just more than a month after the private, Catholic university in Milwaukee announced it will close after 85 years.

Behind a black curtain in the Wisconsin Center lobby, around 240 graduates made final adjustments to their black gowns, honors sashes and mortar board caps before the ceremony. Some of them were adorned with personalized messages thanking inspiring teachers they had along the way.

When the students began their processional into the ballroom, hundreds of family members and friends were waiting. Pockets of people screamed from different corners of the room when they saw their beaming grads walk toward the stage.

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Like all graduation ceremonies, the atmosphere was peppered with pride, excitement and hope. But there were moments of sadness, too, as the graduation marked the unofficial closing of the university.

Cardinal Stritch University graduate Gal Dahan addresses her fellow classmates during the private, catholic schools last ever graduation. Dahan said things will never be the same without the school, but it lives on in the deeds and accomplishments of alumni. Rich Kremer/WPR

“The sun is going to set tonight and rise tomorrow, and things will simply never be the same,” said Gal Dahan as she gave the undergraduate student address. “Cardinal Sritch University is going to close its gates forever. As you’re ascending here today, brave and strong, we should remember that even if Stritch would no longer physically exist, it will always exist in our hearts, minds and souls.”

The graduating class was diverse, with a mix of Black, Hispanic, Asian and white students. In 2021, a quarter of the Stritch student body identified as Black and Hispanic.

A long line of flags from countries around the world were lined up near the stage, representing the home countries of the school’s international students. Collins Maseti came to Stritch from Kenya in 2019. He said the school’s small size helped him create a family of fellow students and faculty during his four years pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“I feel sad because it’s closing,” Maseti said. “This is kind of my first home in America. I wanted, in the future, to bring my family and to show them, you know, like this where it started. But I don’t know. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen.”

International business major Brisa Resendiz of Milwaukee wasn’t sure if she was going to make it to graduation. But on Sunday, she became the first in her family to earn a college degree, with plenty of help from her professors along the way.

“They’re always willing to help you out,” said Resendiz. “And any time that you’re in trouble, whether it be financially or personal issues, they’re there to help you. And that was something that I really enjoyed about the school.”

On the morning of April 11, students and employees were shocked by a video announcement from Cardinal Stritch President Dan Sholz announcing the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi approved a recommendation from the school’s board of trustees to close the campus this year. In the video, Scholz wished for a different path, but said “the fiscal realities, downward enrollment trends, the pandemic, the need for more resources and the mounting operational and facility challenges presented a no-win situation.”

Enrollment at the school had plummeted from more than 5,800 students in fall 2010 to 1,365 in Fall 2021, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Annual IRS filings show expenses exceeded revenues at the university in all but one year between 2011 and 2021.

The students graduating Sunday were the lucky ones. Many more freshmen, sophomores and seniors have had to scramble to transfer to other colleges and universities.

“What happened to Cardinal Stritch University — that has been happening across the country already,” Scholz told Wisconsn Public Radio before Sunday’s commencement. “And so, we all worry about that. When are we going to be sort of right sized in higher ed? I don’t know that anybody knows.”

Around 50 other schools in Wisconsin and beyond have made commitments to support Cardinal Stritch students looking to transfer. Formal “teach-out” agreements, which offer direct admission and similar tuition costs, have been signed by leaders of 15 colleges and universities in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia.

According to a statement from the university, an official closing date has not been announced, but Cardinal Stritch will be winding down operations beginning this week. Limited summer classes will run through Aug. 20. Staff will also be working to process transcript requests and other office tasks, but access to campus buildings will be restricted.