Inspiring Life Journey of Educator and Service Dog
Justin and Grace enjoy time together.
Grace Mariani educates those around her, engaging a new generation of students, faculty and the University community and beyond.
Resiliency in the time of COVID describes the determination and achievements of the Class of 2023 and truly defines the inspiring life journey of Grace E. Mariani. Grace received a Bachelor of Science in Education, Magna Cum Laude, as she crossed the stage of the Prudential Center in a wheelchair accompanied by her service dog, Justin, a six-year-old Yellow Lab/Golden Retriever Mix. He was presented his own diploma by President Nyre for attending all Grace’s classes to the exhilarating cheers and delight of the University community.
As a preemie birth at 24 ½ weeks, Grace received a diagnosis of serious lung and other health issues.
"I'm an only child. My family always has been very supportive. Anything that I wanted to do, it was never, oh, we can’t do that. It was just let’s figure out how we can do that, which was really nice."
At Mahwah High School, she was already considering a career as an elementary general education and special education. That was a natural progression echoing her own childhood experiences both as a participant and then as a volunteer working children through the Mary Therese Rose Fund, with her physical therapist, a program co-founder.
The Mary Therese Rose Fund honors the memory of Mary Therese Rose Crilly and supports children to reclaim the joys of childhood for those at the Valley Hospital Center for Child Development in Ridgewood, NJ. It helps families pay for gaps in insurance, pay for needed medical equipment, and fund recreational activities such as therapeutic horseback riding.
"I feel young children are so open. You can help them grow and begin to navigate their lives as they start to view the world around them."
A family friend, whose son attended the Hall from his undergraduate through doctoral degree, praised his experiences. After attending an Open House, Grace realized that she found her calling here. She loved the feel of the campus, the size of the program, and the fact that the undergraduate program offered general elementary and special education together.
"From my first education class at Seton Hall, I felt close with the education students. They were accepting and didn’t treat me as 'special'. We all came together and helped each other. We became really close and if anyone was struggling with something, we helped each other out. There was a family aspect, nobody was left out or left behind," she said. "I felt very accepted and welcome from the very beginning."
Grace and Justin have played a major role in the life of her mentor Mary Mueller, Ed.D., Associate Professor, Mathematics, Department of Educational Studies, for the past four years. She met Grace and Justin during their freshman year in her introduction to teaching class.
"I remember how impressed I was with Grace and how she was able to navigate the campus, classes, and dorm life using a mobility device and a service dog," Mueller said. "Sophomore year I was lucky enough to have them in three of my classes! Math Methods and Math for Teachers 1 and 2. In both Math for Teachers classes, Grace and Justin sat at a small table, (meant for 4 people, with 6 other classmates. Again, Grace’s mobility device did not get in her way – she squished in with everyone and Justin made himself comfortable on the floor. She maneuvered her device through rain and snow. Justin did miss a few times if it was too wet out but I didn’t take points off Justin’s grade! This is just one example of Grace’s perseverance, determination, and motivation," said Mueller.
Grace especially praised Mueller’s mentorship, which helped her to blossom into an exception teacher.
"She's really passionate about math, making it fun and engaging for all of her students. You can see her love of teaching and just she really, really cares. She really helped me both inside and outside of the classroom from a career standpoint. She was always checking in, making sure everything was okay and if I needed anything. She would want me to do things on my own, but she was always there to offer her guidance."
Mueller shared that interestingly, no one was really surprised by Justin’s presence. "Of course, Grace's classmates were used to him and saw him as a classmate – but even my other students did not bat an eye when I had him with me. Grace’s classmates knew not to pet Justin while he was working. A few times Grace took his service dog jacket off so that we could pet him though. I think that I broke the rules the most – I would give him a little pat whenever Grace was not looking. And he gave great kisses!"
"Grace would come to campus early to meet with her other education professors and Justin would hang out with me in my office. He would lay on the floor while I met with students and walk back and forth with me between my office and classroom as I set up for my morning freshmen class. My office felt very lonely this past semester without him! I was honored that Grace trusted me with Justin and that he trusted me enough to leave Grace’s side."
During COVID, as educators were trying to figure out how to transition to virtual learning. Grace's first two internships were completely virtual, a first grade and a third-grade classroom. It was exceptionally challenging to figure out ways to engage with students and make it fun through a computer screen. She tried many techniques, which helped her be a more thoughtful educator and connect in many ways with her students. When she was able to return to the classroom for experiential learning, one of her favorite memories was her internship placement at the Newmark K-8 School in Scotch Plains.
"I really found it interesting how the curriculum was tailored to each individual student's needs and how they learned best. No one looked back at bad days. Every day was brand new, a new opportunity. Students were really encouraged. I enjoyed observing and I would be responsible for pulling out of the classroom a couple of students to reteach math lessons. It was really interesting to see how differently students worked and how they learned best," she said.
Grace said she felt very accepted and welcome from the very beginning.
"I just love the overall sense of community and the approach of working together and problem solving. And so many departments in addition to education throughout Seton Hall have been very helpful, making sure things are accessible and as easy as they could be." She added, "The housing department was phenomenal. If I had any issues they are very accommodating and quick to get it fixed or solved. And DSS was very helpful for anything that I might need."
"Justin came to my classes, and he was a fun aspect of it that everybody just loved. I primarily use Justin for picking up things that I dropped because obviously I can't reach in my wheelchair. And there is a more emotional support aspect of having like a friend in a new setting, a new school, new people. He really helped me to meet new people and make friends, too. If I was having a bad day or just a stressful day, he would come up to me and it would be like, what's going on?"
Touched enough by witnessing the positive impact of Grace and Justin on the program, her academic dean suggested the University grant them both diplomas at the baccalaureate commencement ceremonies.
"It was a privilege to watch Grace and Justin become integrated into the educational studies program at Seton Hall. Both became active members of our community, and it was wonderful to see our students welcome Justin as a member of classes and social functions as well," said Joseph J. Martinelli, Ed.D., Interim Dean, College of Human Development, Culture, and Media as of July 1, 2023. He added, "Grace and Justin showed how valuable service animals are to their owners, and I am confident that Grace and Justin will be a wonderful asset to the school district that is lucky enough to have them come onboard. It is always a bittersweet day when our students graduate, but this year is even tougher for me as I will truly miss seeing Grace, and my furry friend Justin on our campus."
Grace did not expect that the story would still be garnering worldwide attention.
"When people hear our story, I hope that they learn that if you really want to do something, if you have a good support system in place, you can figure out how to do it. When you feel you're ready to do something, don't rush anything and just take the time to kind of figure out how you would go about doing it. Reach out to different people that you could lean back on whether that be family or friends. Just take it one day at a time, as slow as you feel is necessary. And do the best that you think you could possibly do."
Says Mueller, "Every time I watch the video of Justin getting his diploma I cry. Grace had a tremendous impact on me – I have never had a student work so hard for their goals. Grace never complained about her workload or being stressed. She earned her degree by working hard and caring about her future as a teacher. And she is going to be an amazing teacher! Her future students are very fortunate to have such a strong individual and I am positive that she will put the same amount of dedication into her teaching as she did with her four years at SHU. And they will be lucky to have Justin as their teaching assistant – he is great at carrot math! He was learning fractions as we shared our carrots on those Tuesday mornings!," shared Mueller, adding, "I will miss both Grace and Justin tremendously. I hope that I will be invited to visit Grace in her future classroom and get a ride in her van."
To view select coverage, please visit:
- Happy Graduation, Encyclopædia Britannica | 6/16/23
- There's Good News Tonight, NBC Nightly News counter 18:28/21:33 | 6/3/23.
- Service Dog Receives His Own College Diploma at Owner's Graduation, People | 5/25/23.
- A service dog gets his own college diploma, winning huge cheers, NPR/WNYC | 5/27/23.
- Service dog receives diploma with owner at New Jersey college graduation, CBS News | 5/26/23.
- Service dog receives surprise college diploma, Scripps News | 6/5/23.
- Service dog gets honorary diploma at college graduation and crowd goes wild, video shows, McLatchy/Charlotte Observer | 5/30/23.
- Fetch! New Jersey student's service dog named Justin receives his very own college diploma for attending all his wheelchair-bound owner's classes, CNN/Daily Mail UK | 5/28/23.
- Good Boy! Mahwah Grad's Service Dog Gets Diploma From Seton Hall University, DailyVoice | 5/24/23.
Categories: College of Human Development Culture and Media