John Arceri graduated high school in 1960 while Mellina Fortunato was born in 1992. The 71-year-old and 21-year-old, respectively, celebrated an accomplishment together on Saturday: being the youngest and oldest graduates of the Ave Maria School of Law.
The two special graduates walked across the stage of Artis—Naples (formerly the Philharmonic Center for the Arts) on Saturday along with 162 other exuberant law students, completing a rigorous 3-year juris doctor degree from the school, located in the Vineyards community of Naples, not the eastern Collier County town of Ave Maria from which it is named and associated.
Several prominent members of the Catholic community attended the graduation, including Carl A. Anderson, who received an honorary degree from Ave Maria. Anderson is supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic family fraternal service organization with more than 1.8 million members. He also was a special assistant to the president during Ronald Reagan’s tenure in office.
Fortunato completely bypassed high school to attend Mary Baldwin College in Virginia at 14 years old. She faced a number of challenges early on, but she said the dust settled and she became just another college student trying to get by.
“It was difficult in the beginning. There was a really big learning curve and an adjustment, but my last two years were absolutely great,” she said. “The age difference went away once I was assimilated. People didn’t know, it wasn’t an issue.”
Arceri enjoyed a long career in electrical engineering until his most recent academic move. He completed his bachelor’s of science in 1964 from Manhattan College and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering shortly thereafter. Apparently, a master’s just wouldn’t cut it for Arceri, who also served one term as a Marco Island City Council member.
He said that despite his prior accomplishments, including being in charge of the electrical system of New York City, his heart always brought him back to law.
“I always wanted to go to law school, since I was a kid,” he said. “I was always intrigued by the law films and interesting cases. When I moved down here 16 years ago, there were no law schools. So when Ave Maria came down here my wife put a sign on the wall that said ‘last call. I don’t want hear about it anymore!’”
Arceri noted that, while most students called him “Mr. Arceri” during his time at Ave Maria, they were very helpful and supportive throughout his experience, despite the small age disparity.
“I went into it a little bit concerned,” Arceri said. “What I found is that it’s much more difficult than the other academia. It’s so grueling I wasn’t sure I could handle it. The younger students have a lot of advantages over me.”
He said he had an uphill battle from the start keeping up with his younger classmates.
“The computer skills was a big thing. A lot of students could type so fast, I’m over here hunting and pecking. Energy was the biggest problem, maintaining stamina.”
In the end, Arceri said older students are more than capable of succeeding in higher learning if they aspire to.
“You may not have the memory, the typing skills, the energy, but you have a work ethic that’s unbelievable. Our generation, the work ethic is you’re going to put in 15 hours a day,” he said.
Fortunato, who grew up in the Southwest Florida area, chose Ave Maria to stay close to home.
“My family wanted me to come back home after living away for four years at 14,” she said. “It was a good choice. It was tough, but it went by really fast.”
Despite her fresh-minted law degree, Fortunato has no plans of becoming a lawyer anytime soon.
“I don’t think for now that I’m going to practice law. For a year or two I’m doing AmeriCorps,” she said. “I’ll be volunteering for awhile because I have time and it’s something I always wanted to do. It’s also a great gateway to federal employment and a good way to travel the world.”
AmeriCorps is a program of the U.S. government engaging adults in intensive community service work. Fortunato compared the program as the domestic version of the Peace Corps.
She plans on taking the bar exam in the foreseeable future, but first she’s going to give herself something she hasn’t had in a long time: a well-deserved break.
“Possibly down the line I’d work in nonprofit law, immigration law, something like that, but for now I really want to volunteer, travel the world, and take a break from school.”
While Fortunato’s ambitions reach beyond law, Arceri’s focus will coincide with many of Saturday’s graduates, passing the state’s bar exam.
“The focus is studying, I’ll take Florida exam at the end of July. I really believe I’ll pass because this school truly did an amazing job,” he said.
He’ll be sticking to what he knows if he gets through the test.
“I’ll have a very narrow specialty, personal injury associated with electric shock and burns. Handle cases for plaintiffs and defendants,” he said.
Anderson gave the commencement address for the 2013 graduates. He stressed the importance of holding true to one’s morals and that, throughout history, the choices of many lawyers has impacted millions of lives.
“The arguments you make, and the cases you take, will help write our nation’s future,” he said. “Work hard in your careers for what is right. Your courage, your integrity, is more important than ever.”