Class of ’22 Valedictorian and Salutatorian Salute Goodbye

If Benesh could give advice to his freshman year self he would quote John Cage and say “find a place you trust and try trusting it for a while.” Photo courtesy of SUNY New Paltz.

College graduation is a bittersweet experience — a mix of feeling pride and saying goodbyes, contemplation and congratulations. Before the end of the month when a sea of blue caps and gowns and the well-known notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” fill Old Main Quad, the Valedictorian and Salutatorian for the Class of 2022 have shared their reflections of their time at New Paltz, and a look at what’s next for them following graduation.

Valedictorian, Martin Benesh

Benesh, who is a theatre arts major with a concentration in design and technology and a minor in digital design and fabrication, is originally from Iowa, but he always knew that with the career he wanted, a college in New York State is where he wanted to be.

Benesh described part of what made him choose New Paltz originally, “I was looking at a lot of different schools but what quickly became clear to me was that it was really important for the school to be near a cultural hub, if you will.” 

But it was ultimately theater professor Ken Goldstein that made him decide this school was right for him.

“This mentor introduced me to [him],” Benesh described. “He was a really, really, incredible teacher. I was like. ‘Dang, this is the guy I want to learn from.’”

Since attending New Paltz, Goldstein has become one of three great mentors to Benesh. Two additional mentors Benesh would like to thank include sound design professor Sun Hee Kil and lighting design professor Travis McHale.

“[Kil] has always been an incredible resource and incredible supporter throughout my journey here,” Benesh stated. “[McHale] has really been an incredible teacher. Everything I’ve learned I have to thank him for. I work every day to do the quality of work that he’s modeled for me so maybe one day I’ll get there.”

Being a part of the Class of ‘22 means that Benesh is one of the last students attending New Paltz who received one normal year of school before the shift of the pandemic. During this shift, Benesh learned a lot about his major from a different perspective.

“When you’re setting for live performance and getting ready for that and then you suddenly pivot to this new thing, it’s so crazy,” he said. “[But] it allowed for a lot of opportunities to focus on different things. Like the more technical stuff, the computer programs that you really have to be good at and know how to use for this kind of work.”

Benesh’s ultimate goal is to become a lighting designer. After graduation, he plans to move to New Mexico for a seasonal job before moving to New York City after the summer to do freelance work.

Though he studied theatre arts and lighting design, one important thing Benesh learned outside of the classroom was the importance of community.

“At SUNY New Paltz I really learned how important community is, community is really a sort of unit to enact change,” he said. “In our society, starting small is where you really see the change and make the impact.”

His final words of advice for undergraduate students is this: “Really take the time to appreciate the people around you, if you can build a network of support for people, I think that’s really great.”

Salutatorian, Stephanie Trejo

Trejo has been working toward a degree in early childhood/childhood education with a concentration in Spanish. Her ultimate goal is to become an elementary school teacher, and after college she intends to get a master’s in bilingual education. Trejo has always known that she’d like to work with children, but the ultimate way in which this career goal would take shape has changed for her over the years. 

Originally, Trejo was interested in becoming a school psychologist.

“I started working at my local Boys and Girls Club when I was 16,” Trejo said. “I realized what I really liked doing was teaching and getting to see the progress students made academically throughout the year. So that’s why I chose to do education instead.”

Trejo highlighted that a big turning point for her was visiting home for Thanksgiving during her first semester, visiting the Boys and Girls Club and seeing how much the children had changed  in just the few short months while she was away.

Trejo would like to thank the Boys and Girls Club in Westchester for the impact it’s had on her life both as a college student and while she was growing up.

“[It’s] been my foundation since I was in third grade, the whole team there supports me so much, more than I could ever imagine,” Trejo said.

She would also like to thank her mom, sister, grandparents, uncles and the rest of her family for all their support.

While at New Paltz, one of the things that made the biggest impact for Trejo was the Scholar’s Mentorship Program (SMP). In fact, learning about SMP while touring the campus in high school helped her in making the decision to attend New Paltz. 

“The high school program I was with was very similar to SMP, I liked that they had something similar at New Paltz, so that really drew me in,” Trejo explained.

Trejo got involved with SMP during her freshman year during which she had a mentor and the following year she became a mentor to two other freshmen.

“Being in those classes really made me feel like I have a voice and made me feel represented,” Trejo stated. “It’s where I made my first friends at New Paltz and Mark Rumnit, the SMP director, was always checking in on me and making sure I had all the support I needed.”

Trejo’s words of advice for undergraduate students is this: “Get involved as much as you can in student organizations and clubs. Because, yes, you are there to get a degree but you’re also there to build connections for life.” 

If she could say one thing to her freshman year self it would be, “I did it and I’m really proud of where I am now.”