Emma R. Murphy
LOWELL — An empty UMass Lowell picture frame sits in Edina Hirt's living room.
The frame has served as a source of motivation for Hirt, who is the first in her family to attend college. It is what Hirt's husband of 17 years, Carlos, would point to on the bad days when the pain of her cancer became too much.
"He would point at it and say 'I want to see a picture of you there, I want to have a picture of you in that frame' and I would smile and say 'yes, yes I can make this work,'" Hirt said. "So here I am."
On Saturday Hirt will be among UMass Lowell's 3,133 undergraduates receiving their bachelor's degrees.
After she leads her fellow graduates into the Tsongas Center carrying the flag for the Honors College, Hirt will be recognized with a Chancellor's Medal for Community Service. She will also be graduating summa cum laude.
The Class of 2019, totaling over 4,000 students including graduate students, is the largest class in the university's history. To accommodate the large class, the university will hold three ceremonies; one on Friday for graduate students and two on Saturday for undergraduates.
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, who represents Massachusetts' Third District, will give the commencement speech in the Saturday morning ceremony and Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the University of Massachusetts system, will be the Saturday afternoon commencement speaker.
UMass Lowell Distinguishes University Professor Meg Bond will deliver the Friday commencement address.
"Graduates at each of UMass Lowell's commencement ceremonies will hear from leaders in education, entrepreneurship, gender equity and government," UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said in a news release. "We are honored to have them address our Class of 2019."
Hirt's path to graduation, to putting a picture in that UMass Lowell frame, has not been an easy one.
In 2006, Hirt and her husband moved from her native Brazil to Everett, before later moving to Lowell. Hirt, who did not speak English, enrolled at Middlesex Community College in 2011 where she took night classes while working as a house cleaner during the day. Her dream was to attend college, she said, so she did everything she could to learn English from reading books and listening to the radio to watching television with subtitles.
Hirt did so well on her placement exam that she was placed in a writing class with American students, not international students as she expected. It was overwhelming.
On her first day of class Hirt called her husband sobbing, telling him she could not do it.
"He said 'you can, I know you're stubborn, you can, you're not giving up,'" Hirt said.
Hirt did not give up - even in April 2017 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
By that time Hirt was a psychology major at UMass Lowell. Professors asked her if she needed to take a break but Hirt declined, only asking for extensions. She took her books to chemotherapy and poured herself into her work.
"I think it's a dream, when you have something you really want to do, you focus on that and you keep going," Hirt said.
There were times when Hirt felt like giving up, times when she broke down in tears in her professors' offices, but Hirt said the support from her husband, family and professors made the difference.
Hirt's work has included developing a website for the university that links people looking for volunteer opportunities with Lowell organizations in need of volunteers. The site, which launched in January, currently lists 90 organizations.
"It was a process of connecting with everybody, it's not only my project it's UMass Lowell's project," Hirt said.
Though she is graduating, Hirt plans to continue working on the website and raising awareness about it. Her vision is for every student on campus to use the site.
"When you do volunteer work you open your horizons," she said.
Hirt's cancer has been in remission for a year and seven months.
Cancer changed her perspective and has given Hirt a new drive.
"It's to give everything I can possibly give, it's to do my best," Hirt said. "It's for me like the clock is running fast and I gotta get things done. It's passion."
The chancellor's medal is one of several that Hirt has received for her work. In recent weeks she was recognized by the Psychology Department for excellence in community service, the university awarded her the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Distinguished Service and the Department of Higher Education recognized her in its "29 Who Shine" program as one of the state's exceptional public college students.
"I'm like overwhelmed with all this love," Hirt said.
Recently, "29 Who Shine" brought Hirt to the state house where she met Governor Charlie Baker.
"My mom is amazed she's like 'oh my god my little one who came from the poor country side in Brazil now she's in the United States taking photos with the governor, this is too much,'" Hirt said with a laugh.
When fall semester starts, Hirt will return to campus to start pursuing her masters degree.