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Record River Hawk Class Soars Out Into the World

More Than 4,500 Graduates Honored in Two Days of Commencement Celebrations

A group of student award winners gathers before processing into the Saturday morning ceremony. Photo by Tory Wesnofske

A group of student award winners gathers before processing into the Saturday morning ceremony.

By Ed Brennen

When you’re one of the fastest-growing public doctoral universities in the country with a record number of graduates, Commencement can’t be confined to just one day.

For the first time in university history, UMass Lowell held three Commencement ceremonies – one on Friday morning for Ph.D. and master’s students and two on Saturday for undergraduate students.

The expanded ceremonies helped accommodate UML’s largest graduating class ever – more than 4,500 students – and the thousands of guests who celebrated their achievements at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell.

Presiding over all three ceremonies, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney ’75, ’92 noted that this was also the university’s most diverse graduating class ever, with students hailing from 43 states and 113 countries. Nearly 1,600 students graduated with honors and more than 100 earned a perfect 4.0 GPA.

“You distinguished yourselves as a community,” Moloney said. “And in the face of divisiveness, you exemplified graciousness and respect throughout your time here. In doing so, you contributed to the magic that makes this one of the greatest communities in the world.”

UMass President Marty Meehan ’78 asked the Class of 2019 to be committed to lifelong learning and to remember those who helped them succeed.

“You are graduating from a world-class, innovative university that has given you the education and the tools that you need to achieve whatever you set out in your life to achieve,” Meehan said. “As long as you work hard, there’s nothing that you can’t do.”

‘The young are at the gates’

Keynote speaker and Congressman Lori Trahan, right, with Kim Rist, Brian Rist and Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney. Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Keynote speaker and Congressman Lori Trahan, right, with Kim Rist, Brian Rist and Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney.
At Saturday’s morning ceremony for undergraduates in the Francis College of Engineering, the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan opened her Commencement address by quoting the suffragette rallying cry from a century ago: “The young are at the gates.”

“The beauty of youth is that you’re fresh – you’re not wed to your ideas, you’re not cynical, fatigued, indifferent or fearful,” said Trahan, a first-generation college student from Lowell who was elected to represent Massachusetts’ Third District last November. “Do not make the mistake of waiting your proverbial turn or thinking that life has some grand sequence. Your reaction, your perspective is powerful. Your calling will come. Be ready.”

Student speaker Richard Macdonald, a biology major and Honors College student from Billerica, described juggling myriad responsibilities – co-op scholar, hospital volunteer, intramural volleyball captain – while pursuing medical school.

“Taking on all those challenges certainly paid off because, yes, I achieved my dream and was accepted to UMass Medical School,” said Macdonald, a first-generation college student. “I know many of you have your own success stories. For others, I am confident that the degree you are about to receive will help you achieve your dreams very soon.” 

The Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to Brian Rist ’77, executive chairman of Florida-based Storm Smart Industries, the largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane-protection products in the U.S. His wife, Kim Rist, was presented with the Chancellor’s Medal for Outstanding University Support. The Rists, who live in Fort Myers, Fla., made a $5 million commitment to the university this year, one of the largest gifts in school history.

‘You earned it yourself’

At Saturday afternoon’s ceremony for undergraduates in the Manning School of Business and the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system, referenced the recent college admissions scandal in his Commencement address.

Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, left, and Interim Provost Julie Chen present a Doctorate of Human Letters to Jack Wilson, looking on are Trustee Mary L. Burns '84 and Therese and Jack O'Connor, Chancellor's Medal for Public Service and Civic Engagement honorees. Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, left, and Interim Provost Julie Chen present a Doctorate of Human Letters to Jack Wilson, looking on are Trustee Mary L. Burns '84 and Therese and Jack O'Connor, Chancellor's Medal for Public Service and Civic Engagement honorees.
“Knowing how hard you all had to work to get to where you are, I was dismayed to read about all of those wealthy celebrities who bought their way into universities that they thought probably conveyed status upon them and their children,” said Wilson, founder of UMass Lowell’s Jack M. Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship and a distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation. “You, on the other hand, had to work hard because you wanted to have an education. I am guessing that none of your families here had to pay anyone a bribe to get you into the university.  You earned it yourself.”

Wilson received an honorary doctorate of humane letters, as did Gerald Colella ’78, CEO of MKS Instruments Inc., and Joyce Colella ’77, a former elementary school teacher. The couple met as education students at the university and now reside in Seabrook Beach, N.H., and Naples, Fla. Oprah Winfrey, who helped raise $3 million for student scholarships during her visit to campus in November, is also an honorary degree recipient.

The Chancellor’s Medal for Public Service and Civic Engagement was presented to Jack O’Connor, founder of O’Connor School Portraits and co-founder of Commencement Photos Inc., and Therese O’Connor, philanthropist, of Lowell.

Student speaker Denia Taylor of Andover, who double-majored in philosophy and political science, challenged her classmates to map their paths for personal growth.

“No matter how we define ourselves right now, all of us leave UMass Lowell today with an opportunity to expand that definition,” Taylor said. “And thanks to our time here, we are so ready to do that.”

‘Comfortable being uncomfortable’

On Friday morning, 156 doctoral students and 1,259 master’s students received their advanced degrees.

In her Commencement address, UMass Lowell Distinguished University Professor Meg Bond, director of the UMass Lowell Center for Women and Work, encouraged graduates to embrace complications, messiness and uncertainty.

“Your graduate studies offered you principles, theories and frameworks to serve as scaffolding for further professional success,” said Bond, professor of psychology and an internationally recognized scholar on issues of gender equality in the workplace. “To add to this, I am urging you to also get more comfortable being uncomfortable. Become more confident about being uncertain. Stretch and reach.”

Graduate Student Speaker Somto Nnyamah Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Graduate Student Speaker Somto Nnyamah
Student speaker Somto Nnyamah, a “Double River Hawk” who received a master’s in business analytics after earning a bachelor’s in economics in 2017, described coming to Lowell from her native Nigeria in 2014.

“I came here a shy, teenage international student. I was thousands of miles away from my home country and I thought I would be alone here,” Nnyamah said. “But my fears were quickly allayed. With help from professors, supervisors, deans and even vice chancellors who challenged me to get out of my comfort zone, I evolved into the confident woman standing before you today.

“We’ve passed through UMass Lowell, but now we must let UMass Lowell pass through us,” Nnyamah said. “We’ve experienced a great sense of community and support here, so it is only fair that as we go into the world, we provide the same for others.”

State Rep. Rady Mom, Lowell Mayor William Samaras, City Vice Chairman Vesna Nuon and UMass Trustee Mary Burns also participated in the Commencement exercises, which have grown in size for 12 consecutive years.

At the Commencement Eve Celebration at University Crossing on Friday night, Chancellor’s Medals were awarded to 30 top graduating students. 

Catherine Han, Edina Hirt, Akhil Meka, Emily Bellino, Matthew Lovely and Julie Ballo received the Chancellor’s Medal for Community Service.

Stephanie Carnazzo, Michael Doane, Brian Madigan, Andre DeFilippo, Marina Novaes and Vilma Okey-Ewurum received the Chancellor’s Medal for Student Service.

Kaitlyn Bartley, Linda Riley and Jenna Kapp received the Chancellor’s Medal for Diversity and Inclusion.

Tyler Davis, Olivia Desrochers, Patricia Ferreira, FitzAnthony Forsyth, Nicholas Sacco, Joseph Wakim, Grant Lardieri, Richard Macdonald, Joseph Wakim, Jack Carroll, Sean Flaherty, Katherine McGourty, Chiew Fong Chew, Alyson Desmarais and Jeffrey Wheelhouse received the Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Academic Achievement.

Watch videos of the ceremony and view photo galleries on Facebook.