Addressing 2,500 graduating students Friday at Rowan University, Gov. Christie told the story of his Sicilian grandmother to extol the virtues of hard work.
"Today, what you are receiving . . . is something that sets the stage," Christie said at the ceremony.
"I believe in the end, what will determine your success or your failure will be how hard you're willing to work," he said. "In the end, I think that's the determining factor in most success or failure in life, is how you get yourself out of bed every morning, what you see when you look in the mirror, and then what you're willing to do once you walk out the door."
On stage with other prominent politicians, including State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who is running for Congress, Christie kept away from politics in his remarks. All three received honorary degrees from the university, and Christie was invited to speak, Rowan officials said, because of their roles in enacting legislation from which Rowan has benefitted.
When Sweeney spoke at last year's commencement, he talked about his role in the legislation that enabled the higher education restructuring involving Rowan, pressing a point about challenging the status quo.
But Christie, who has spoken often about his mother, stuck to an apolitical message of hard work and possibility, telling the story of his maternal grandmother. He said he visited her two weekends a month as a child and "became closer to her than I was to any person in the world."
She was born in 1909 on a ship as her mother emigrated from Sicily, Christie said. Living in Newark, his grandmother was in an arranged marriage - until she learned that her husband was unfaithful. In a move that was unusual then, his grandmother divorced him.
At age 33, Christie said, his grandmother was divorced, with no education, raising three children.
"She taught me that your life is not determined by what you don't have, but what you are willing to do. She never remarried, yet she had a full life. She worked all these years at a government job, yet found ways to save money where she traveled the world," Christie said.
Christie's grandmother died a few weeks after he was appointed U.S. attorney for the state in 2001. He recalled her words to him as he sat by her side:
"Can you imagine how I feel that my grandson - I was born on a boat coming over here, no education, nothing but my own hard work and what I was able to create for myself through the grace of this country, and now you're being appointed to something by the president of the United States."
"She looked at me and said, 'My life is full.' Her life was full because her hard work was an example, both to me and to everyone she came in contact with," Christie said. "She never complained about the challenges, and she always talked about the opportunities. It's a great lesson for all of us who have been given so much more than that."
For the Rowan students, he said, the lesson was clear:
"There is joy in hard work. You have a leg up that you've earned today. And that leg up is the education that you've gotten here at Rowan. And now it truly is up to you, and because of the education you have, no one will presume that there are any limits to your life."
Some of the students were less than willing to listen to his message, and attendees at the College of Communication and Creative Arts ceremony reported a scattering of boos during Christie's speech amid wider applause.
Megan Richards, a 21-year-old from Medford who received her degree in art education, said people around her would occasionally boo the governor. One woman in the row behind Richards "kept making kind of nasty comments," she said.
Richards herself is no fan of the governor because "he does not respect the teaching position at all," she said, and was uninspired by his speech.
But Richards said she was also put off by some of her fellow graduates.
"To boo him and make nasty comments, it's just immature to me. Just get over it that he's here. You don't have to like it, and you don't have to support him," Richards said. "Don't let him ruin it."
Christie, Sweeney, and Norcross were honored because of their work on the wide-ranging 2012 higher-education restructuring act and a $750 million bond act that is funding several construction and renovation projects at the university, the university's president, Ali A. Houshmand, told reporters before the ceremonies began.
Rowan officials have pointed to the restructuring and the bond act as catalysts for a dramatic expansion the university is undergoing. The university absorbed the school of osteopathic medicine from the now-dismantled University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, making Rowan the home of two medical schools.
The university became a state-designated research institution as part of the restructuring, which has allowed Houshmand to set ambitious goals for the next decade: doubling student enrollment, quadrupling research grant funding, increasing the operating budget by 2.5 times, and more than tripling the school's endowment.
Because of rain, students were separated by academic division, with Christie addressing College of Engineering students live in the Pfleeger Concert Hall.
That main commencement ceremony was then broadcast simultaneously to the other two venues: the student recreation center, where the College of Communication and Creative Arts ceremony was held, and the Esbjornson Gymnasium, where the College of Education ceremony was held.
Along with the speakers and honorary degree recipients, other people in attendance during the main commencement included Henry Rowan, the industrialist whose $100 million gift in 1992 led to the school's renaming from Glassboro State College.