By David Perry
The largest-ever group of incoming UMass Lowell students settled in to the annual convocation ceremony to learn their first lesson.
It was simple: They are one.
Wherever they came from, however they worship or don’t, whether they’re rich or poor, whatever their color or sexuality, they are now, as River Hawks, united in blue.
“You are,” stressed the day’s keynote speaker, wunderkind activist Benjamin O’Keefe, “your brother’s keeper.”
With a sea of blue filling half the Tsongas Center’s bowl, thanks to #unitedinblue T-shirts handed out at the entrance, the new students heard their welcome from deans, vice chancellors, student leaders and the person Associate Vice Chancellor Larry Siegel introduced as “the truest River Hawk,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.
Moloney welcomed the group of more than 3,200 freshmen and transfer students, telling them they have arrived “at an incredible time in the university’s history.” She noted the vast transformation that has swept across campus over the past decade, from this year’s enrollment crossing the 18,000 threshold to the university being named the fastest-growing public doctoral institution in the nation. Later the same morning, she would help celebrate the River Hawk Village residential complex, the 14th new property to open on campus in the past eight years.
The students were also introduced to the DifferenceMaker program. They watched three-minute pitches from DifferenceMaker teams, then voted via text message to select the $1,500 first-prize winner, a project that would recast the university’s roofs as urban greenscapes.
Keynote Strikes a Chord
Keynote speaker O’Keefe, 23, is known for his work on a MoveOn.org web series and contributions to MTV, as well as the viral international protest he organized against discriminatory comments by Abercrombie & Fitch’s former CEO. O’Keefe was 18 at the time.
“We all have a story to tell,” he told the students.
O’Keefe’s is riveting. He grew up in Orlando, Fla., “Poor, really poor. When the fridge broke, we used a cooler for months.”
To watch TV, the kids would find one discarded on the roadside and fidget with an antenna to make it work. “We were the MacGyvers of poor kids,” he chuckled. When the fuzz cleared, the picture would often show the cathode goddess Oprah. “She’s on TV, she’s a billionaire, what else could you want in life?”
“I was a fat, gay, poor kid,” O’Keefe said. “A trifecta.”
He was bullied “relentlessly.” In eighth grade, at age 12, he decided to kill himself.
“To feel nothing had to feel better than feeling bad,” he figured.
He survived his suicide attempt but noted that 1,000 college students a year do not.
“We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers,” he said.
Trying to become thin, he developed the eating disorder anorexia.
At 18, O’Keefe heard the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch say that some people “don’t belong in our clothes.” It was a moment that “changed my life,” he said.
He started an online petition and emailed 200 TV producers in the dead of night. The next morning, he had “tens of thousands of signatures” and email replies from nearly all the producers.
The clothing retailer apologized. O’Keefe became a consumer relations consultant to other retailers.
He asked students to raise their hands if they’d ever been through a struggle. If they’d ever felt like no one understood them. If they’d ever felt put down. Each time, everyone raised their hands.
“Now, stand up if you’ve ever felt alone,” O’Keefe instructed. They all stood.
“Look at the faces of the people around you. You might be surprised to see yourself.”
He urged the students to nurture and engage in the community they are part of and to understand those with whom they differ.
“You are all in this together,” he said.
“I thought he was great,” said freshman Missy Cerasoli, a psychology major. “I love how he discussed his personal experiences and then showed us how we had so much in common to begin with.”
“He is just a fantastic speaker,” said biology major Teya Nigro. “I think a lot of people our age can relate to him. When he had us stand up and everybody did, it was powerful.”
She seemed happy to be at a place where O’Keefe’s ideas synced up so well with the university’s.
It was all in words cascading down the back of the #unitedinblue T-shirt she wore.
“Help Others. Celebrate Differences. Take Responsibility. Work Hard. Give Back. Create Change.”