by Michael J. Freedman
Associate Director of Public Relations and Manager of Online Content
When Aaron Sydor receives his undergraduate diploma this Saturday afternoon, his mother, Kathy, won't be waiting at the other side of the stage to congratulate him. Instead, she'll be right behind him, joining her son as a member of the Niagara University Class of 2013.
It'll be a banner day for the Sydors - Kathy, a sociology major, and Aaron, who will receive degrees in international studies and political science.
Fortunately for them, their areas of study both fall under the umbrella of Niagara's College of Arts and Sciences, where Kathy has served as assistant to the dean since 2008. Otherwise, the two may have graduated during separate commencement ceremonies this weekend.
The timing had to be right, too. It wasn't a given that mother and son would fulfill their graduation requirements during the same semester. Kathy, despite the insider access that comes with her position, says that she didn't realize she would be graduating with Aaron until about a year ago.
"I knew it would be very close, but I couldn't say for sure if we'd both be graduating this May," she said. "It was somewhat difficult to estimate, because I only take two courses each semester, whereas Aaron's a full-time student."
It helped that Kathy had a head-start on her son, receiving an associate's degree from Niagara's College of Business Administration in 2001.
Aaron, who also minored in history and Spanish, originally planned to move on to law school after completing his undergraduate studies. However, a few factors, including a positive experience he had studying abroad in Spain has altered his outlook, at least temporarily. His cultural experience in Spain helped improve his speaking skills and advance his interest in Latin America.
The 2009 Lewiston-Porter graduate is now considering relocating overseas - Chile is his first choice - to teach English as a second language, the topic on which is honors thesis was based.
"Spanish was really the only class that I truly struggled in at NU; I think it was the only class that I got lower than a B in," he said. "I took that as a challenge, and I really started to enjoy it. When I want to do something and it's something I'm passionate about, I'll definitely do it."
Aaron is also passionate about international relations, commenting that when he does decide to apply to law school, international law will be his field of choice.
Kathy, meanwhile, has no interest in finding a new career path. An NU employee since 2001, she says that it was Dr. Nancy McGlen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Kathy's boss, who talked her into going back to school.
"Dr. McGlen was instrumental in getting me to commit to earning my bachelor's degree," said Kathy, whose younger son, Stephen, is a junior at Syracuse University. "My family's been so supportive, but I owe a lot to Nancy."
Saturday's commencement will take on greater significance since it will be the last for McGlen, who is retiring after 33 years at Niagara University. (On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Tim Downs, vice president for academic affairs, announced that McGlen would be bestowed the title of dean and professor emeritus, as approved by the board of trustees.)
"It's especially exciting because it's her last graduation," Kathy admitted.
The Sydor family affiliation extends beyond the Dean's Office as well.
The Rev. John Maher, C.M., a former NU employee whose brother will be installed as the university's 26th president this summer, confirmed Aaron when he was in 11th grade. The two stayed in touch, occasionally meeting for lunch before Maher assumed a new assignment in Rome in June 2011.
When Aaron was studying abroad in Europe, he connected with Maher in Rome on the afternoon of his 22nd birthday, and then stayed for a couple days in the Vatican City compound.
"I got to stay for free and they even gave me a birthday cake!" Aaron remarked.
Aaron has also formed a close relationship with Dr. John Stranges, who Aaron ranks among his favorite professors and considers a great mentor. In fact, Aaron laments that they only see each other sporadically now, due to the fact that Aaron took all of Stranges's classes during his freshman and sophomore years at Niagara.
Hours before that birthday lunch he shared with Maher, Aaron met Stranges for breakfast in Barcelona.
Kathy and Aaron attest that attending the same college at the same time has brought them closer. Kathy says that it was nice having her son drop by her office just to chat or to go to lunch with.
"Or when I'm a little poor and come in to ask for money," Aaron joked.
Having your mother work in the Dean's Office is also (usually) advantageous in that it offers another set of eyes and ears on campus.
"It definitely helped that my mom was able to fill me in on different opportunities or events that I might not have seen, being a commuter student," Aaron said. "I will admit that my attendance is probably a little better than it would've been, too."
Kathy and Aaron never took a class together at NU, although they nearly registered for the same 300-level course this past semester. They talked about it. Aaron wanted to, Kathy didn't.
"I think she was embarrassed because I was going to do better than her," Aaron cracked.
It will be Kathy, however, getting the last laugh: She'll be graduating with magna cum laude status, signifying a cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.5. Aaron, who fell just short of that distinction, will have to "settle" for cum laude (cumulative GPA more than 3.25).
"Right after Dr. McGlen says, 'Aaron Matthew Sydor, cum laude,' I'm going to hear, 'Kathleen Ann Wagner Sydor, magna cum laude,' " Aaron explained. "Mom's going to make me look bad."