LOWELL -- The 2,000-plus students graduating from UMass Lowell Saturday morning processed to the traditional strains of Pomp and Circumstance as they entered the Tsongas Center. But the advice they heard during the commencement address may have come as unexpected and unusual.
The morning's graduates, from the colleges of engineering and science, represented half of the record-breaking, graduating class. According to Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, 4,358 scholars received degrees this weekend. The size of the class required two ceremonies at the Tsongas Center, with the second in the afternoon.
Moloney celebrated "the remarkable transformation of a public university." It is the fastest-growing university in New England and the sixth-fastest in the country, she said.
In addition, University Trustee Mary Burns told the graduates, "You leave here today with a degree from a world-class university."
The world the graduates are entering is marked by partisanship, tribalism and what appears to be existential warfare, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham warned in his commencement address.
Meacham, who recently delivered an emotional remembrance at the funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush, received an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
The best-selling author is also a contributing writer to the New York Times Book Review and a contributing editor at Time. His latest book, "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels," was published this month.
He told the graduates to consider that "if the men and women of the past with all their flaws, appetites and ambitions could press on through ignorance, superstition, racism, sexism, selfishness and greed to form a more perfect union, then, perhaps, we can too."
The undergraduates receiving degrees were born between 1995 and 1996, he noted. "The world has turned over many times since you've been in it. So, lets begin at the beginning."
"Bill Clinton was still in his first term of office, and Donald Trump was doing a Pizza Hut commercial. It was the biggest and the best," he joked. The arena erupted in laughter and applause.
"This is Massachusetts. so I knew I could say that," added Meacham, who lives in Tennessee.
Turning to contemporary ideological divisions and social media, he advised, "Just because you have the means to express an opinion quickly does not mean you have an opinion that is worth expressing quickly."
To counter the sense of tribalism in American culture, he advised the Class of 2018 to "let no single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.
"Read Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. Go to movies. Vote in every single election.
Never be embarrassed to put your hand over your heart at the national anthem.
"And, write thank you notes on real paper," Meacham concluded.
Yehya Merhi, who received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, gave the student address. The native of Lebanon spoke of the welcome he received when he came to the university and how quickly he felt part of the family.
"We all came here looking for something. Some came here looking for resources to give back to the community, to save lives. I came here looking for love to give back to the community," he said. "I fell in love with the mission of saving lives."
Merhi is already at work using his degree in the medical device industry.