Freshmen Given  Pep Talk

09/03/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By David Perry

You're all moved in, the meal plan is in order, and later tonight, there's a big welcoming bash atop the East Campus parking garage with dinner and a live band. You'll eat and mingle as you overlook the Lowell Spinners' game.

But first, the day before classes begin, the class of 2012 needs inspiration. A pep talk.

Yesterday, for its third annual convocation for incoming freshmen, UMass Lowell brought in a speaker known for turning wide-eyed and passive-aggressive corporate leaders alike into motivated team players.

Loaded with degrees and awards, the Rev. Jamie Washington is also a minister in the Unity Fellowship Church Movement.

Following 45 minutes of welcomes from deans, administrators and Student Government Association President Colleen Phalen, greetings from Lowell Mayor Edward "Bud" Caulfield and a warm-up from the university's marching band (looking sharp in crisp new uniforms), Washington dug into the day's theme: "Creating the Future: Yours, Ours and Theirs."

He looked out upon the university's biggest incoming class ever, 1,547 freshmen, 788 transfer students, an overall increase of 20 percent more than last year, according to Chancellor Marty Meehan.

Meehan said he was especially proud the class of 2012 "has 40 percent more students of color than last year," and said the university is determined to "embrace our diversity."

"Good morning!" the red robe-clad Washington barked, as the energy level in the room soared.

"You know, the worst thing you can do is put the preacher up at the end. I am the only thing standing between you and the food," said Washington.

Washington spent 18 years in higher education, as an educator and administrator, before forming the Washington Consulting Group in Baltimore, where he speaks and serves as a consultant on issues of diversity, spirituality and leadership about 300 days each year.

Every one of the 30-plus folks sitting on the platform behind him "started right there," he said, pointing to the vast audience in the East Campus Recreation Center.

Some classmates will be enthusiastic about meeting and mixing, he said. Others will be tepid.

"But no one, anymore, is going to force you to do anything." The school's staff has "invited" the freshmen to partake of the university's intellectual and extracurricular bounty.

Washington invited the students to "know yourself" using seven criteria -- conscience, compassion, community, competence, courage ("any of you folks ever been afraid? If you did not put your hand up, you lied. Courage is not a lack of fear, it is operating in the presence of it"), character ("it's what you do when no one is watching") and commitment -- defining each in the context of their new educational experience.

He asked students to know who they were and profess it in front of the others, if they were "comfortable" doing so.

"It's a snapshot of who we are ... if you don't want people to know something, stay in your seat."

Washington asked everyone to "take a deep breath and go inside." He asked them to "focus on silence."

And the lectern turned into a pulpit.

"If you were born and raised in Massachusetts, stand."

Hundreds did.

New England, but not Massachusetts? The U.S. but not Massachusetts? Born and raised outside the country? The numbers dwindled.

He asked about familial educational backgrounds, racial backgrounds, religious beliefs, about those who didn't believe at all. About emotional and physical disabilities, sexual identity, domestic violence and its survivors, about those who knew someone who has attempted suicide and those who tried it themselves.

"Notice who is with you," he said softly to each group.

Not your average ice-breaker, but it all circled back to at least two of Washington's seven words, courage and community.

Only handfuls stood for the most personal questions, but the minority got applause. Students applauded the courage of their peers.

"If I said something you could have stood for, but were not quite ready, please stand," said Washington.

Dozens stood.

"The reality is," said Washington, "whether you stood or didn't, it's what you stand for more than what you sit for, that matters in this community."

In the end, everybody stood, and clapped.