LOWELL -- U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar understands the power of education.
Growing up in rural Colorado on a ranch with no electricity or telephone, he and his seven brothers and sisters had little in material possessions. What they did have was something of greater value.
"Though we were poor, we were rich in spirit and rich in promise," Salazar told the 2,069 undergraduates of the UMass Lowell class of 2012 Saturday morning at the Tsongas Center, adding his parents would say their greatest legacy was providing their children with a solid education. "Nobody can ever take your education away from you."
Salazar urged graduates to work to transform the world in the spirit of Lowell's favorite son, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, who Salazar said embodied Robert F. Kennedy's favorite quote: "Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not."
Salazar said touring the city on Friday left a lasting impact, promising he would tell people wherever he is in the world they should visit Lowell and see what is happening in the revitalized Mill City.
"Lowell is a center for educational excellence, historic preservation and economic development creating jobs in America," said Salazar, who received a honorary doctorate at commencement. "I am now forever a Riverhawk, just like all of you."
Chancellor Marty Meehan, completing his fifth year on the job, urged graduates to become active citizens.
"This commonwealth, this country, this world needs you," he said, adding "better communities, better schools, better neighborhoods and better countries result from citizens being involved where they live."
Meehan pointed out this year's class, the largest in the university's history, includes members from 40 states and 70 countries, with 26 percent of the class hailing from an ethnic minority. Many of the graduates, like Meehan himself, are the first in their families to graduate from college.
Student speaker Bonie Rosario Jr., a computer engineering major from Brockton, echoed Meehan's sentiments, telling fellow graduates the diplomas they earned are only a beginning.
"We have the responsibility to do more. We must use the skills we learn to better serve the needs of humanity to help solve society's big problems by using our determination and creativity," Rosario said, adding members of the class are already well on their way, having made solar-powered cars, volunteered in middle-school literacy programs, delivered medical supplies to foreign lands and raised money to fight cancer. "We are Riverhawks -- work ready, life ready, world ready."
In addition to Salazar, honorary degrees were bestowed upon:
Ret. Rear Admiral Dr. Susan Blumenthal: the first deputy assistant secretary for women's health, she served as the assistant surgeon general of the United States and in a variety of federal health-advisory roles. Her work has focused on bringing attention to understudied health issues, advancing women's health, AIDS and disease prevention around the world.
A visionary in women's health issues, she founded the National Centers of Excellence in Women's Health programs and the National Women's Health Information Center and was instrumental in using imaging technology to improve the early detection of breast cancer.
Blumenthal is married to U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Robert S. Ward: Ward, who earned a degree in chemical engineering from Lowell Tech in 1971, has built a career in the development and manufacturing of medical devices and biomaterials, including components used in artificial hearts, vascular grafts, stents, pacemakers, orthopedic implants and contact lenses.
He and his wife, Gail, recently donated nearly $1 million to support UMass Lowell initiatives.
John Pulichino: A 1967 graduate of Lowell Technological Institute, he worked for Raytheon, Polaroid and American Tourister Inc. prior to serving as CEO of Group III International Ltd., a manufacturer of travel bags including those sold under the brands Swiss Army, BMW and Gottex, a company formed by him and his wife Joy Tong in 1984.
Pulichino and Tong recently donated $4 million to UMass Lowell for scholarships for students at the Manning School of Business. The university's new business school building will be named in their honor.
In addition to the 2,069 undergraduates who received degrees Saturday morning, another 833 earned graduate degrees in a separate ceremony Saturday afternoon.