Skip to Main Content

Convocation Crowd Gets the Hug We all Need

The Free Hugs Guy Dazzles New Students

Ken Nwadike Jr., known across the globe as The Free Hugs Guy, tells his remarkable story to new students at UML's 13th annual Convocation.
Ken Nwadike Jr., known by millions as The Free Hugs Guy, tells his remarkable story to the university's new students at Convocation.

By David Perry

It’s tough to corral the attention of more than 3,200 college students in an arena. Tougher still to bring them to stony silence. 

But it happened, and the man who did it has made his life’s work doling out free hugs and positive messages to strangers.

As the class of 2022 filtered into the Tsongas Center on Sept. 5, UMass Lowell incoming freshmen were given “United in Blue” T-shirts. They slipped them over whatever they were wearing. The bowl of the arena became a sea of blue.

Rowdy the River Hawk mugged and posed for selfies with students on the arena’s concourse, as the 100-strong River Hawk marching band marched onto the arena floor, delivering percussion-heavy autumnal thunder.

It was the university’s 13th Convocation – a gathering of campus leaders, faculty and fellow students to welcome and encourage incoming freshmen and transfers.

A record number of first-year students – more than 3,200 – packed the arena seats. A third of them are from underrepresented populations. They have the highest average SAT score (1232) and high school GPA (3.596) in the university’s history.

Student Government Association President Andre DiFillipo encouraged students to watch out for their own physical and mental well-being when things get tough, and to look out for others.  All 6 feet and 10 inches of River Hawk basketball player Connor Bennett, president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, urged students to get involved in campus life and share school spirit. He led the crowd in the River Hawk Fight Song. 

There was a DifferenceMaker pitch contest in which those in the crowd could vote by text to award money to their favorite student project.

Chancellor Jacquie Moloney welcomed the newcomers, congratulating them on their record test scores and grades.

 “So you have already made history,” Moloney told the crowd, “but we expect a lot more of you.” She encouraged them to find and add to the university’s sense of community and to know the administration and faculty are there to help them succeed.

“You have the world in your hands,” she said. “Imagine that, the power of that. What role will you have in making the world a better place?”

That’s a question Convocation keynote speaker Ken Nwadike Jr. can answer easily.

Also known as the Free Hugs Guy, Nwadike is a peace activist and YouTube star, having launched the Free Hugs Project in response to the Boston Marathon bombing.


As he told the gathered students, Nwadike faced his share of challenges growing up, including a father in prison, stays in homeless shelters and bullying in school. Thanks to a high school track coach, he found his “brotherhood,” he says. He became a highly ranked miler and earned a four-year college scholarship and a contract with Nike.


But Nwadike never forgot his beginnings. He went back to visit kids in the homeless shelter, and six years ago, he organized the Hollywood Half-Marathon to raise money for the shelter. The race is now an annual event.


Nwadike, who had never run a marathon, tried to qualify for Boston, but missed by a few seconds. He was watching on April 15, 2013, when the bombs went off near Boston’s finish line, killing three and injuring hundreds. The following year, he stood on the side of the road holding up a “Free Hugs” sign as runners passed. Some runners were tentative; others dove joyously into his arms.

Later, when the streets exploded in protest in Charlotte, N.C., Nwadike traveled there and talked to protesters. Some had seen his marathon clips online. As Nwadike and the protesters approached the front lines, a burly police officer yelled out, “Hey, man, can I get one of those hugs?”

Even knowing the protesters might see him as a traitor, he obliged the cop. The protesters picked up bottles and rocks. They confronted Nwadike, who tried to reason with them. He stood between police and protestors. Nwadike showed a clip of the scene, which he cooled considerably by pointing out what both sides had in common. “We are all humans.

“Through that event, I learned what I want to do with my life,” he told students at the Tsongas Center.

Nwadike received a standing ovation.“He was amazingly inspirational,” said business administration major Andrew Williams. “He does a lot of things people either don’t think to do or are afraid to do.”

“I like the whole idea of making a change in the world,” said Grace Remillard, an electrical engineering major. “It’s actually one of the reasons I came here. They talked a lot about changing things and that it’s OK for people not to conform. They encourage independence. That speech was a great start.”