44th Annual Commencement


Spotlight on Our

Cagatay Oncu

Associate in Arts in Liberal Arts /English

Awards and Honors

  • Valedictorian, Class of 2016
  • Graduates with Highest Honors 4.0 GPA
  • Honors Program
  • PCCC Gateway Center Tutor
Watch Tay’s valedictory
speech here.

Valedictorian Draws Standing Ovation for a Humanitarian Call to Action

When Cagatay Oncu delivered the valedictory address May 19 at the evening ceremony of PCCC’s 44th Commencement “the podium covered my shaking legs,” he confessed a few days later. No one would have guessed. Tay, as he is known,  spoke with passion and authority as he hailed the diversity of PCCC, denounced economic, racial, and educational injustice, gave recognition to parents for their sacrifices, and won a standing ovation from the audience,

“I beg and plead with you all,” the valedictorian exhorted the Class of 2016, “use your power to continue and accelerate the important work needed in our communities…There are many people who make money; not so many who make change.”

It was a call to action from someone who knows about making change. Receiving his associate’s degree with highest honors and a perfect 4.0 grade point average was, for Tay, a turnaround from his 2.5 average in high school. 

“I did well on tests, but didn’t like turning in assignments,” he admits. “I preferred going on the internet and learning on my own.”  Immensely curious, Tay describes himself as “mostly self-taught.”  Yet, he is a staunch advocate of public education and of “organic” teaching methods that rely on relationships and communal experiences. 
The Paterson resident was born in Turkey where his father was a teacher. Tay recalls going to the local village school with him as a toddler. “The school was one room with students of different class levels,”
he said.  In this arrangement, older students helped teach youngers ones the material they had already learned. 
“This develops the importance of relationship and mentoring,” Tay said. “Also, by teaching, students were reinforcing their own knowledge.”  He admired this model of education. “That’s what motivated me to become a tutor at PCCC,” he said.
An only child, Tay came to the U.S. at age 4, when his parents won a green card lottery.  Like many educated immigrants who are not fluent in English, Tay’s father found a blue collar job, working as a machinist to support his family. 
Tay attended a variety of schools over the years and became sensitive to how different educational styles function. He also noticed the effects that poverty, prejudice, and other social issues have on educational success or failure. “How can children succeed in school, if they don’t know when their next meal will be,” he asks.
Tay’s early school experiences were difficult. He had conflicts with classmates in his public elementary school. 
“I was picked on,” he said. 
“The discrimination I experienced was definitely a formative experience.”

He later attended a private Turkish school, the Pioneer Academy of Science (then in Passaic) and spent his high school freshman year at the Putnam Academy of Science, a Connecticut boarding school affiliated with Pioneer.
But It was Fair Lawn High School that impressed him most.  “That was an absolutely amazing school with an amazing faculty,” said Tay. “It’s an example of how well public education can work when the staff has an organic relationship to the community.”
Due to personal circumstances, Tay dropped out of high school for a while. 
In time, he returned to school, but chose to complete high school at Pioneer Academy, graduating in 2010.
Despite mediocre grades, Tay scored well on the SAT. He was accepted at Rutgers and Stevens Institute, but wait-listed by his first-choice, Boston University. He decided to attend Stevens, but not for long.  “I left on the third day of new student orientation,” he said, “I felt unprepared for a college experience.”
Eventually he came to PCCC where the diversity impressed him so much, he praised it in his valedictory saying, “In these halls are being planted the seeds of a new America.”

Guided by high school teachers toward the sciences because of their financial and career potential, Ty chose a direction more compatible for him at PCCC, majoring in liberal arts with a concentration in English.  “The liberal arts give a broad education offering students different perspectives and a sense of what life actually is, “he said. “It’s how you form your own perspective and what you need to be an effective citizen.” 

Two qualities in teachers impress him most. “Enthusiasm and giving students something they can take with them,” said Tay who found both in his Western Civilization class with Professor Elliot Collins.
“I appreciated his style and the in-depth way he approached the subject matter,” said Tay.  Science professor Erica Foote was another favorite. “She was so enthusiastic, fun, and funny. She was awesome,” he noted. 
A poet himself and writer of “impressionistic prose,” Tay is fascinated by literature and its ability to affect and shape attitudes indirectly.   “Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man made a strong impact on me and my understanding of racial discrimination,” he explained.  Russian literature, though, he considers the “the gold standard,” praising its psychological depth, especially in the writing of Dostoevsky.
Tay plans to continue his education toward a bachelor’s degree at Rutgers in New Brunswick where he will major in English with a focus on film. A cinema buff who prefers auteur films, particularly those of the controversial American director Larry Clark and certain Turkish directors, Tay did not name specific career goals. “Film is beautiful,” he said simply about his chosen art form.
Whatever direction he takes, Tay will no doubt be a change maker.