Throngs of J/MS alumni flock to Rutgers’ Homecoming

By Emily D’Alessandro and Elizabeth Herlihy  —

Retired undergraduate adviser Marsha Bergman accepts the J/MS Lifetime Achievement Award at the tailgate party. Photo by Elizabeth Herlihy.

Retired undergraduate adviser Marsha Bergman accepts the J/MS Lifetime Achievement Award at the tailgate party. Photo by Elizabeth Herlihy.

The Rutgers football team may not have been impressive on Homecoming Day as it lost to Houston, but the Journalism and Media Studies Department certainly was thrilling.

Students, staff, faculty and alumni came out to enjoy the second annual Alumni Tailgate Mixer. Like any return home, the event, which took place in the infamous blue lot near the stadium, was filled with open arms, big hugs, long stories and tons of food. And while professors supplied the grills and refreshments, alumni brought along their smiling friends and families.

Marking the J/MS tailgating territory were customized scarlet and white balloons swaying high above the crowd — an indicator that visitors were in for a celebration. With the demanding schedules and distant jobs most alumni have, returning to Rutgers was a rare opportunity.

“I love coming back — it’s a lot of fun,” said Taso Stefanidis, J/MS 2000, a photographer at News 12 New Jersey. “I live so close to here, but I don’t come back a lot unless I’m doing something for work or a big event like this, so I’m excited.”

For alumnae Bonnie Cohen-Lafazan, J/MS 1993, and Gina Levine-Levy, J/MS 1994, returning to the tailgate meant Levine-Levy’s hiring a babysitter. Lafazan, an academic librarian at Berkeley College in Woodbridge, was joined by her husband Ryan, her son Aiden, and her closest college classmate, Levine-Levy.

A full-time mother of three young boys and feature writer for Patch.com in Springfield, Levine-Levy appeared to be enjoying the day with her old professors and laughing with her fellow Scarlet Knight, Cohen-Lafazan. The two women have been best friends since their college years, and several professors said the two are among the department’s “most memorable memorable students.”

The first J/MS tailgate, held a mere two weeks after Superstorm Sandy, left a strikingly positive impact on recent alums. Close friends and 2012 graduates Luke Kalamar of Farmingdale and Stella Morrison of South Amboy never once considered passing up the party this year.

Among the J/MS alums at the Tailgate Reunion was Kyle Beakley, left, class of 2009, who works for the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” With him is a friend, Ellen Teitel. Photo b y Liz Herlihy.

Among the J/MS alums at the Tailgate Reunion was Kyle Beakley, left, class of 2009, who works for the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” With him is a friend, Ellen Teitel. Photo b y Liz Herlihy.

“I came back last year primarily to reunite with a lot of friends who I did journalism with,” said Kalamar, promotions and research assistant for Katz Media Group in New York. “It was great last year, and I wanted to come back again this year. And there’s even more people now than were here last year. So it’s totally different, but I’m glad it’s real popular. I love being here.”

Morrison, a staff writer for Greater Media, enthusiastically agreed.

“I made it a point to come back,” she stated. “I’m not even going to the game. I’m here just for the tailgate because it’s not often that you get to see professors that you had and people you went to school with. It’s really good to come back and to reconnect with people. A lot of it is nostalgia, but the other half is just really productive.”

Not only did alums share their stories, but also they offered advice and words of encouragement to current journalism students and those heading into the working world.

The collective theme was to intern, network, and soak up as much experience as possible before graduation.

A smiling Stephanie Berryer Jean-Louis met up with friends and professors at the tailgate. Photo by Ron Miskoff.

A smiling Stephanie Berryer Jean-Louis met up with friends and professors at the tailgate. Photo by Ron Miskoff.

Kyle Beakley, J/MS 2009, who writes for “Who Wants to be A Millionaire” and a new NPR game show, “Ask Me Another,” advised undergraduates and graduating seniors to “just get involved as much as you can, do as many activities as you can.”

Looking for old professors and meeting new ones, returning Scarlet Knights smiled ear to ear at the mere memory of their favorite professors. And at the core of every trip down memory lane were stories about former department secretary and later SC&I undergraduate adviser Marsha Bergman, who retired in May after working 35 years for the university.

Alumni huddled in close to watch J/MS Department Chair Jack Bratich and Professor Steve Miller, coordinator of Undergraduate Studies and the chief organizer of the tailgate reunion, honor Bergman with the Journalism and Media Studies Lifetime Achievement Award.

This is only the second time it has been awarded. Last year’s award was won by J/MS Professor Emeritus Roger Cohen.

Bratich addressed the crowd before the presentation of Bergman’s award. “Home is not just a physical space but a space of relationships, and this is what we want to celebrate today— relationships that we’ve had over time,” he said. “When someone who has given so much to the department over decades retires, and we want to show her that she’s still part of the family, that we want her to always be part of the family, that’s coming home, too. So I want to thank Marsha.”

Added Miller, “For some of you, there are only two words that say J/MS: Marsha Bergman. She’s the one who ushered you through all the hard times, all the good times, and helped you graduate. And while she was there, she was a kind heart, a kind soul and the person you knew you could turn to when chips were down.

Recent grads, from left, who attended the tailgate included Samantha Coppolino ’12, Hillary Goldsmith ’13 and Carla Marie Monica ’10. Photo by Ron Miskoff.

Recent grads, from left, who attended the tailgate included Samantha Coppolino ’12, Hillary Goldsmith ’13 and Carla Marie Monica ’10. Photo by Ron Miskoff.

“We are all better people because of our honoree, the second annual winner of the Journalism Lifetime Achievement Award — Marsha Bergman.”

Even though she has been retired just a few months, Bergman confessed to missing the professors and students she worked with. Although she no longer sits in the advising office, Bergman assured students that there is always someone in the department to help them. “Continue growing — there’s never an end,” she said. “You can always find something new. Make the most of your years at Rutgers because they really can be great years. And if anyone has a problem with anything, if they’re not sure of something, there are always people around to help at the university.

“But unfortunately we can’t go to them. They have to come find us, but there are lots of people that are willing to help.”

Victoria McKinzey-Gonzalez, J/MS 1996, said when she was an undergraduate, Bergman’s positive attitude made a genuine impact on her. She traveled back to the tailgate to honor and support Bergman.

“Marsha, there was no way in the world I was going to miss today,” McKinzey-Gonzalez told Bergman. Then, describing her relationship with Bergman, she added, “I would always say, hands down, she was the one who always held the department together. She was your go-to person, anything you needed.”

School of Communication and Information Dean Claire McInerney welcomes J/MS alums at the Tailgate Reunion. Photo by Liz Fuerst.

School of Communication and Information Dean Claire McInerney welcomes J/MS alums at the Tailgate Reunion. Photo by Liz Fuerst.

After hours of eating, mingling and reconnecting, alumni went off to see football, and the Tailgate Mixer was deemed yet another success.

Many remarked that the food was excellent. Perhaps that’s because of the baking of Jerilyn Richardson, J/MS 2012, who provided dessert for the tailgate with tiny caramel apple tarts and carrot cupcakes from her new business, Sweet Spot Dessert Bar in North Brunswick. The shop specializes in small-sized desserts baked from scratch with the freshest ingredients.

J/MS Professor Liz Fuerst remarked, “Jerilyn first talked about having her own bakery when she was a student in my PR class and gave a persuasive speech accompanied by the most delicious brownies our class had ever tasted. I am thrilled she has pursued her dream.”