By Katie Lannan
LOWELL -- In a convocation ceremony focused on community service, keynote speaker Robert Egger told the UMass Lowell class of 2016 that his original plan to make the world a better place was to open a nightclub.
Egger, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit meal-distribution program DC Central Kitchen, said he grew up listening to songs about equality during the 1960s and was attracted to the way song lyrics could convey controversial ideas in a nonconfrontational manner.
"It could be a powerful way to get people to open up to ideas they might be afraid of," he said.
While learning about the hospitality industry to prepare for his club, though, Egger came up with the idea of feeding the homeless with donated leftovers from restaurants, and his charity was born instead. He called on the approximately 1,500 new students to uncover their own innovative ways to do good.
"Anybody who reminds your generation to give back doesn't have a clue about your generation," he said. "Your generation has been raised to give back."
Opening the ceremonies, Dean of Students Larry Siegel encouraged the freshman class to seek solutions for environmental and economic problems he said were left to them by previous generations.
"They're not your fault," Siegel said. "They're not your doing, but they are your problem. You will have to find a way to make that difference in the economic and social lives of not only yourselves and your families, but for future generations."
Chancellor Marty Meehan said a desire to make a change in the world parallels many recent changes on campus, including a new health and social-sciences building and renovations to the Fox Hall dining commons.
This is the fourth consecutive year UMass Lowell has seen a 10 percent increase in enrollment, and these students will enter an expanding university with 20 new majors and ongoing construction of campus facilities.
"You're going to see a dramatic transformation in this campus," Meehan said. "Next month, for example, the new Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center will open up. It's a fabulous, cutting-edge, $80 million research facility that I hope many of you will get an opportunity to be in, perhaps to do some research to make a difference in the lives of people not only all over the state, but all over the world."
After the convocation, some students said they look forward to the new facilities.
"I'm excited for change," said freshman Mike Bloniarz of Connecticut. "It's fun to watch the construction."
Freshman Tyler Borton, from Harvard, said he doesn't think the campus upgrades will affect him and his classmates immediately, but he appreciates the work being done.
"It wasn't my first choice to come to a state school," said he said. "So it's been cool to see how much work has gone into improving the programs and how much better things have already become."
One new campus institution is the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, which helps students develop new products and businesses to solve community problems.
The center hosted a contest during the convocation in which three student inventor groups vied for a $1,500 grant from The Merrimack Valley Sandbox. The winning team, Supporting Devices, will use the money to redesign crutch grips for greater comfort and practicality.
Second-place team Green Bikes of Lowell received $1,000 for their plans for a bicycle-share program in the city, while third-place team Proto2Go won $500 to offer product prototyping solutions for would-be entrepreneurs without engineering backgrounds.