Inaugural FDU Forward Celebration Nets Critical Support For Scholarships

Image of group of honorees

Pictured from L to R: James D. Brown, ’79, Lori Lee Dickson, ’82, FDU President Michael Avaltroni, Richard J. Codey, ’81, and Robert “Bobby” Stern, ’08.

June 10, 2024 – Within the dazzling surroundings of the Bell Works facility, the inaugural FDU Forward: Honor Our Past. Transform Our Future celebration hosted more than 300 attendees and netted critical support for student scholarships on the evening of June 6.

As President Michael J. Avaltroni has noted repeatedly since being named to his post last spring, FDU must continue to seek new opportunities among the ever-shifting tides of higher education and the FDU Forward event — with a new name, a new site and decidedly less formal than previous incarnations, was a perfect example of that vision.

In the ceremonies, FDU alumni James D. Brown, ’79, and Lori Lee Dickson, ’82, were inducted into the prestigious PINNACLE Society, Robert “Bobby” Stern, ’08, was honored as the first-ever “Transformational” honoree and the 53rd governor of New Jersey, Richard J. Codey, ’81, earned a Lifetime Achievement Award for his over 50 years of public service.

But the biggest winners of the evening were current and future FDU students, as between corporate sponsorship and private support the event raised nearly $400,000 to augment scholarship support.

Recent graduate and two-time Student Government Association president at the Metropolitan Campus Suleima Mestanza spoke on behalf of FDU students who have been impacted by scholarship support. “Like many students I was the first in my family to attend college. FDU was gracious with my scholarships, offered a wonderful student life and gave me a sense of community,” said Mestanza, who earned her Bachelor of Science in biology. “FDU truly is an institution that cares about its students. I have learned many things at this University that I plan to take with me into my personal and professional career. Without FDU’s kindness, I would not be here today, and I am forever grateful to be an alumna of this wonderful university. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for us!”

In his opening remarks, Avaltroni noted, “this event, and where we are holding it, are symbolic of the way I believe we must function — and adapt — in the higher education space. We must be bold, nimble, thoughtful, unbeholden to the past and focused daily on the needs of our students, whose challenges are more dissimilar than ever to students of yesteryear. We must continue to find linkages to real world and career opportunities so students can gain a competitive advantage.

“Bell Works is among the exciting sites in which we have created educational programs that capture learners, quite literally, where they are as we deliver graduate programs on site not far from where we are gathered. Our partnership with Bell Works promises to be a model for these types of educational offerings and we are proud to launch our MBA program here and hope to expand to other degree and certificate programs. It is another step we have taken as we continue to adapt to changing student needs, by becoming more flexible, more affordable and creating more immersive learning experiences that will give our graduates a competitive edge with career opportunities so that they might follow in the impressive path of tonight’s alumni honorees: Gov. Richard Codey, James Brown, Lori Lee Dickson and Bobby Stern.”

President Avaltroni with Richard J. Codey, ’81, who earned a Lifetime Achievement Award for his over 50 years of public service.

Codey received the night’s first honor for his noteworthy, and record-breaking, 50 years of service in the New Jersey legislature as well as his tenure as the Garden State’s 53rd governor. Codey’s contributions to his state and community are remarkable as is his love for FDU. Prior to his Lifetime Achievement Award being presented, Avaltroni noted that the Governor Richard J. Codey Scholarship has been launched, and despite not being made public until the event, already has raised over $50,000 of scholarship support to future FDU students.

“I was certainly not what you would call a good student in high school,” said Codey. “After I was elected to the legislature [in 1974] several people said to me, ‘You should really get your degree it could help you get places.’ FDU worked around my schedule to make sure that I could attend classes and earn that degree, which I’m very proud of. Today I am glad to see the same staff support of its students. God bless each of you for supporting this event and Go FDU!”

Codey, and all of the honorees, were saluted in a special video recognition from current New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who noted, “Gov. Codey has dedicated his life to authoring legislation that has made the Garden State stronger, fairer and safer for everyone. As governor he was a champion for scientific research, clean air and destigmatizing mental health. Gov. Codey has more than earned his Lifetime Achievement Award because he spent a lifetime embodying the strength of character that has made FDU one of New Jersey’s finest institutions.”

Alumni honorees pictured with President Avaltroni at the inaugural FDU Forward: Honor Our Past. Transform Our Future celebration.

James Brown, who has been CEO, Managing Partner and owner of his own accounting firm just outside of FDU’s Metropolitan Campus where he studied, was the first PINNACLE honoree. Brown, a nationally respected accountant who has earned many association honors, including serving as president of the Eastern Region Chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants, has been a member of FDU’s Board of Governors and the Black Alumni Chapter. He can be seen cheering on the Knights with great fervor at Bogota Savings Bank Center.

“Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to receive multiple awards and honors, and I can honestly say that I deserved most of them,” said Brown with tongue in cheek. “But this — all I can say is ‘WOW!’ When I first received notification of my selection, I clearly thought that there must have been some kind of mistake made. I immediately checked the list of previous recipients, and at that point I was convinced that there was an error — governors, astronauts, professional sports teams owners, ESPN analysts, philanthropists, real-estate developers, judges, titans of industry. And now a kid from the NYC project. Thank you PINNACLE Society for this most amazing honor”

Next up was Dickson, an attorney specializing in public works with McCarthy Fingar whose dedication to FDU is legendary. A former trustee, and current Board of Governors and Pre-Law Advisory Board member, Dickson has supported FDU philanthropically for more than 30 years and rare is the FDU event that she is not a part of.

“I visited the campus solo and when I did, I knew I was home, and it’s been that way ever since,” said Dickson. “[FDU] provided this incubator and they took this little farm girl and created in me the ability to get out in the world and to do good and to be in public service. And there’s nothing better than to help local governments do the right thing, and to just do the right thing in general.”

Bobby Stern, who has previously been inducted into the Silberman College of Business Hall of Fame and into the PINNACLE Society last year, was fittingly chosen as the inaugural “Transformational” honoree. Stern’s contributions to FDU, despite graduating just over 15 years ago, have been impressive and numerous, establishing and supporting endowing scholarships as well as creating deep ties to Silberman College with a passion for supporting current students.

A former student-athlete at FDU, Stern is the president of Riviera Hospitality Group which started in business by catering corporate giants like Forbes, Nike, Google and others. However, after the pandemic a series of events led Stern to be approached to cater meals for home bound seniors and others in great need and served as a tipping point in the business model.

Riviera is now serving over 250,000 meals per week to City of New York migrants, homeless and seniors, homebound seniors of Nassau County and most recently working with the U.S. Customs Border Patrol feeding migrants, often times their first meal in America.

“Growing up my passion was baseball,” said Stern, a three-year member of the Devils program. “It led to me to FDU. It led me to meeting [business partner] Andrew [Cavitolo]. Then my passion pivoted to events. And I THOUGHT my passion was curating amazing experiences but when we pivoted, I realized my passion was about service. About providing a meal to someone who will never know my name, but I know that meal made a difference in their life.

“I will conclude on this,” said Stern. “Serve what you want to receive in life. This recognition is not possible without two people. They were the first ones by my side as I took my first steps in life. They guided me as I started my journey. While they are not here with us anymore, they will forever be my guide. Mom and Dad thank you for everything. This one’s for you!”

Due to the accomplishments of four very special FDU Alumni, and the generosity of FDU’s alumni, friends and corporate sponsors, the biggest group that was served on Thursday were FDU’s students who will walk in the paths of the many incredible alumni produced across its campuses.

As President Avaltroni noted in wrapping up the evening, “It is thanks to the support of people in this room and many other friends and partners that we can serve our students and help them reach the great heights that our honored alumni tonight have. We thank you for your partnership, your support and your inspiration that have helped us make a difference for our students and helped move FDU Forward.”

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