Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By ANDREW RAVENS
LOWELL- Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich told nearly 1,800 UMass Lowell graduates yesterday morning to "go out and change the world." And she says the world needs it.
Ehrenreich received a warm, partial standing ovation in the nearly packed Tsongas Arena after a blistering commentary about social inequalities, same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq and rising college tuition.
"A college education can no longer be called the great leveler in our society," said Ehrenreich, one of the country's foremost liberal writers and commentators. "Access to college is diminishing before our eyes."
Ehrenreich noted that "dumb rich kids" have a college acceptance rate that equals that of "smart kids who aren't rich" leaving some of the latter to choose between the military and low-paying, blue-collar jobs.
Her message hit home for some graduates.
"I liked it (commencement address) a lot," said Amy Price, 25, of Lowell. "I'm a psychology student, and her thoughts are in line with my interests."
Ehrenreich, who briefly attended Lowell High School, said it was nice to be back in a state "that values family enough to grant same-sex marriages."
She joked that she had never been attracted to or flirted with another woman, but "it's nice to be here and know the option is open."
The university honored a slew of academically gifted students, most notably class valedictorians Nihal Patel and Megan Williams, who became the 12th and 13th students in school history to maintain a perfect straight-A average.
"This is a day filled with great joy but sadness," Williams told the crowd.
Many of the recipients of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees and their families agreed.
"I'm so excited and thrilled I want to cry," said Julia Szczerbinski, whose daughter, BethAnn, 22, earned an undergraduate dean's award in exercise physiology.
The graduate field was wildly diverse in nationality, race and age.
Lining up for the march, 58-year-old Rita Hopkins took her place next to dozens of students in their 20s who were chatting on cell phones and taking pictures with digital cameras.
Hopkins, who earned a liberal-arts degree in developmental disabilities, just stood and smiled.
"I'm both happy and sad," said Hopkins, who graduated from Lowell High School in 1965. "Oh, I did it!"
Nearby was her husband, Donald Vandette, 61, searching for his wife in the sea of black robes.
"I am very proud of her," Vandette said. "She got sick and tired and wanted to move up in position and get a better job. She put in a lot of hours, trying to keep up with those kids."
Some of those kids, such as Frank Buono, 27, of Somerville and Andrew Golay, 23, of Westford, were happy just to have jobs come September.
"It's a relief to have a job," said Buono, who will teach at Reading High School. "The biggest relief is making money, rather than spending it."
Tales of personal triumph were common among graduates, who huddled in 50-degree weather under a giant white tent a few feet away from the arena's entrance.
"I've been through so much," said UMass Lowell basketball player Dana Jones, who comes from the Bronx. "I am the first member of my family to graduate college. I'm so excited. My whole family came down for this."
The ceremony had a distinct international feel. Undergraduate Sone Eipeson, 24, of India, anxiously looked for her roommate and countrywoman Dhaneshri Mahisekar, who graduated with a degree in computer science.
"It's a wonderful day," said Eipeson, who plans to return to India with Mahisekar to enter the work force. "We'll be celebrating tonight with some friends, probably have a party."
For some, it appeared the party had already begun.
"I feel so alive!" screamed one graduate.