For Gregory Mantsios, who 35 years ago founded the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, celebrating the program’s inaugural graduating class from its first year as a stand-alone college, the School of Labor and Urban Studies, was a dream come true.

“This was just a figment of our imagination just a few years ago,” he said ahead of the June 14 commencement. Friends, families and city and state officials who spoke at the ceremony gathered at the Graduate Center’s Midtown campus.

‘Spike in Enrollment’

Union leaders and other advocates pushed officials at the City University of New York to make the Murphy Institute an independent school for years. CUNY’s Board of Trustees approved expanding the college in June 2017, and classes kicked off last fall.

“We had a real spike in enrollment this past fall and it kind of astounded us because we didn’t do any recruiting. People somehow found us,” said Mr. Mantsios, who is Dean of the school.

About 80 percent of the students at the school are full-time professionals, who predominantly work in civil service. A growing number were young activists drawn to the school’s social-justice agenda.

“The mix between the older and younger generations is really interesting. This program attracts some of the brightest young people you’ll ever know,” Mr. Mantsios said.

That mission, noted CUNY Trustee Michael Arvanites, carried a significant weight.

“You’ve received a priceless degree at a pretty good price,” he joked. “With the degree comes a responsibility to make this city and this state a better place for your fellow citizens.”

The 158 graduates heard from State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon and Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson.

Nicolas Pineda, who works for the Department of Transportation and began taking Urban Studies courses at the Murphy Institute in 2015, noted the significance of the timing of the school’s opening, which occurred three months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the right of public-sector unions to collect agency-fee payments.

‘We Beat the Odds’

“What are the odds that a school would emerge called the School of Labor and Urban Studies in this anti-union climate? Whatever those odds are, we beat them,” he said.

Mr. Pineda, a single father to a 17-year-old daughter, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Urban and Community Studies and will pursue an advanced certificate in Labor Studies in the fall. As he saw the Bronx slowly beginning to gentrify, he became interested in learning about housing policy and urban development. “As a fellow student once told me, you have to learn about the issue before you can begin to address it,” he said.

He praised the faculty for their commitment to students, particularly a class he took taught by renowned labor historian Ed Ott.

Likes Personal Touch

“No other school has advisers and staff picking up the phone, responding to emails and seeing you in person because you matter,” he said.

Alecia James, who spoke on behalf of graduate students and was formerly a Science Teacher, spoke of the less-than-positive reaction she received when she told relatives of her plans to return to school to study urban communities and public health.

“I remember excitedly sharing with a family member that I was in graduate school. Her response to me was ‘You should have finished long time,’ ” she said. “Essentially, that is a Jamaican way of saying ‘you should have completed your studies a long time ago.’ But is there a use-by date on education?”

Several labor groups serve on the School of Labor and Urban Studies’ advisory board, including the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council and District Council 37.

Learning ‘Affects My Job’

Esther Murray, who works for the Department of Finance, said that her union, Communications Workers of America Local 1180, encouraged her to take classes at the school. She was skeptical at first, but at orientation, “they sold me,” she said.

“What I’ve learned here affects me, and it affects my job,” she said.

Ms. Murray, who helped organize the school’s student association, earned her third degree, a Master’s in Labor Studies. Arriving from Tobago 28 years ago, “I came from a country that didn’t have higher education. My mom and dad worked in a field,” she explained. Although she’s unsure what her next move will be, “I want to do some sort of career-coaching or mentoring. I really want to pay back.”

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