LOWELL -- America needs you, so never lose faith in your country or your ability to make it a better place.
That was commencement speaker Judy Woodruff's advice to the UMass Lowell class of 2016 as they prepared to accept their degrees on Saturday morning. At 3,700 graduates, it was the largest class to ever graduate the university. Woodruff, an award-winning journalist and anchor of the PBS Newshour, told them not to be fooled by the pessimism and cynicism evident in today's politics.
"The world needs you, your country needs you, we welcome you with open arms," she said. "Whatever your talent, the work ethic you have learned here, the education you have received here will be your foundation.
"Would America trade places with any other place in the world today?" she added. "I argue no, which is why you have such exciting opportunities awaiting you."
Many of those opportunities will take you by surprise and don't fit into a five-year plan, said Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who spoke at the afternoon commencement for post-graduates.
He encouraged the crowd to embrace the unexpected in life and be open to what comes their way.
"My number-one piece of advice to you is don't panic," Lockhart said. "College is not a bow and you are not an arrow and the point of education is not to let you fly straight across your life without hitting anything except the imaginary target waiting at the end of it."
As the thousands of graduates -- their black and blue robes ornamented with a rainbow of sashes and bedazzled caps upon their heads -- waited for the symbolic end of their journey, university officials praised their achievements and contributions to the university.
"You have been part of one of the most remarkable transformations of any public university in the country," Jacqueline Moloney, the university's first female chancellor, told the graduates.
UMass Lowell is one of the fastest-growing universities in the country, she said, and the 2016 class includes more than 1,100 students graduating with honors and more than 90 with perfect 4.0 GPAs.
"As a student body you have distinguished yourself in every academic and athletic competition," Moloney said, adding "You have embraced one of the hallmarks of a UMass Lowell education: You found a way to make a difference."
Moloney's predecessor, UMass system President Marty Meehan, who knows a thing or two about switching careers and switching directions, reminded the graduates to keep educating themselves.
"I urge you to commit yourself to lifelong learning," said Meehan. "This world is changing quickly.
You can look at the job market today and look at the skills companies are looking for, and in five years they will all have changed."
As the students filed up the stage in two lines to receive their diplomas, the diversity and elation of the graduating class was on display.
Twenty-somethings grinned next to baby boomers. Lifelong Lowellians and immigrants from 97 countries broke into small, joyful dances as their images were splashed across the Tsongas Center's scoreboard.
In celebration of the graduates' breadth of experience, the student speakers for the morning and afternoon ceremonies were a mother-daughter duo.
Jocelyne Durrenberger received her doctorate in nursing practice in the morning.
Daughter Marcelle Durrenberger received her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in the afternoon.
Looking back on the morning's ceremony, Class of 2016 President Christopher Nunez of Lowell said the feelings hadn't quite sunk in yet; maybe it would after he took physical hold of his degree in the afternoon.
Nunez moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was 15. Initially knowing no English, he graduated from high school and then, while working three jobs, studied for several years at a community college before transferring to UMass Lowell.
"It's good to have moments like today to remember all the things that you've done," he said. "When I first came to UMass Lowell, I came with the intention to transfer out. ... I never imagined being able to accomplish as much as I have now."