By Ed Brennen
The sense of normalcy that existed when they began their college journeys — before a global pandemic turned the world upside down — made a welcome return for UMass Lowell’s 2022 Commencement.
From the proud procession of 4,690 graduates, UML’s largest class ever, to the cheering family and friends in the Tsongas Center stands, to the inspiring words of distinguished guests, the university’s first fully in-person Commencement in three years marked a return to tradition — and a hopeful look to the future.
“More than any graduating class before you, you have had your character and resolve tested by the pandemic in a way you never could have imagined,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told graduates, who represented 46 states and 113 countries. “Despite all that was going on around you, you showed your fortitude, your resilience and your determination to work even harder to make sure that you got everything you could out of the education afforded you here.”
It was the seventh and final Commencement as chancellor for Moloney, who is stepping down next month.
“It has been my honor and privilege to lead our beloved university that serves as such a beacon of light for so many,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “It’s my greatest wish that you find a career as fulfilling as I have found here at UMass Lowell.”
The three ceremonies over two days featured Commencement speakers who are confronting some of the most pressing challenges facing the Class of 2022 — and society: Dr. Ashish Jha, coordinator of President Biden’s COVID-19 response; astronaut Sian Proctor, a champion for diversity and inclusivity in the space industry; and Distinguished University Professor Christopher Niezrecki, an expert in renewable energy.
While the world has changed a great deal in the last four years — many graduates will be entering jobs that they can now do remotely, for instance — members of the Class of 2022 couldn’t help but feel hopeful as they posed for sun-splashed photos and hugged classmates and faculty outside the Tsongas Center.
Ambioris Lora, who completed his computer science degree last December, has already been working as an engineer at TJX for the past four months — a hybrid position that he can do from home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
“After COVID, I didn’t know how everything was going to work out — if there would even be a graduation — but everything’s going well,” he said. “I feel optimistic.”
UMass Lowell is the top public research university in Massachusetts for lifetime return on investment, according to Payscale.com, and 96% of 2021 graduates were either employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of receiving their degrees.
Sarah Dean, an environmental engineering major from Sandwich, Massachusetts, starts work as an environmental consultant for Wood PLC in June.
“I’m nervous, like most of us are, but I’m excited,” said Dean, a first-generation college student whose family was “very happy to be here today to see me walk.”
“Just being here after three years of COVID, it’s normalcy,” added Ama Rodriguez, a Lowell native who earned a master’s degree in criminal justice and plans to continue for a Ph.D.
The ‘Possibility School’
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, Jha recounted his improbable journey from “poor immigrant kid from India who showed up (in the U.S.) not speaking a word of English” to the White House. A globally recognized expert on pandemic preparedness and response, he implored graduates to embrace the “renewable resource” of possibility.
“For years, I’ve described the UMass system as the most amazing public education system in the world,” said Jha, former dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “And I’ve often referred to the Lowell campus, in particular, as the ‘opportunity school’ — a place that opens up doors of opportunity in society where too often opportunity depends on connections or wealth, rather than ability and determination.
“But I’ve decided sitting here this morning that I’m going to start calling it the ‘possibility school’ — a place that ensures that the possibilities of our great country remain open to everyone,” he said.
Student speaker Annie La Fortune Soup Koagne, a public health major, asked her classmates to repeat an affirmation: “I am where I need to be. There is no challenge I cannot overcome. I create the life that I want.”
“Transitioning into adulthood has been a challenging yet rewarding experience,” Soup Koagne said. “Even though the process of learning who we are takes a lifetime, we will use our college experience to guide us.”
At Saturday afternoon’s ceremony for undergraduates in the Manning School of Business and the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Proctor, the first Black female to pilot a spacecraft and the first Black commercial astronaut, shared her “Space-2-Inspire” motto, which focuses on encouraging people to use their unique strengths.
“I challenge you to use your space to inspire, and to make that space just, equitable, diverse and inclusive for not only yourself, but for those within your reach and beyond,” she said. “Because you never know — it might just take you to a whole new orbit.”
Student speaker Adam Basma, a business administration major from Shirley, Massachusetts, told classmates they will proudly go down in history as one of the only generations of college students to endure a pandemic.
“With our heads held high and pride in our hearts, let’s never forget those who are sitting right beside us, in front of us and behind us – and what it means to be a River Hawk,” he said.
In addition to a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Jamie Fay of Methuen, Massachusetts, received a surprise visit during the ceremony from his brother, Airman First Class David Fay from the United States Air Force.
On Friday morning, 173 doctoral and 1,468 master’s students received degrees.
Student speaker Masachs Boungou, who received a Ph.D. in global studies, recounted escaping civil war as a child in his native Republic of Congo and going on to become the first in his family to attend college.
“Our time at UMass Lowell has prepared us to face the real world with creativity and drive. It invokes inspirations that shape our present and future conditions,” he said.
In his address, Niezrecki, a professor of mechanical engineering, encouraged graduates to take on the climate crisis. “We have a choice to choose a different path,” he said. “It’s not inevitable.”
The university awarded honorary degrees to Jha and Proctor, along with Brian ’77 and Kim Rist, whose Rist Family Foundation established UML’s first-ever endowed deanship with a $3 million donation; and Lawrence Lin ’90, president of Grand Dynasty Industrial Co. Ltd. and a generous supporter of the Plastics Engineering Department and many other UML initiatives.
Chancellor’s Medals for Public Service and Civic Engagement were awarded to Lowell General Hospital; John and Linda Chemaly, longtime supporters of Merrimack Valley nonprofits; and former Lowell city manager Eileen Donoghue and her husband, John J. O’Connor.
Best-selling author Andre Dubus III, professor of English at UML, received a Chancellor’s Medal for the Arts. Joanne Yestramski ’76, former senior vice chancellor for finance, operations and strategic planning at UML, and the Independent University Alumni Association at UML were Chancellor’s Medals for Outstanding University Support.
Distinguished Alumni Awards were presented to Stephen Driscoll ’66, ’72, who taught plastics engineering at UML for more than 50 years, and William O’Shea ’69, ’03 (H), former executive vice president of corporate strategy and marketing for Lucent Technologies and president of Bell Laboratories.
Distinguished Commencement guests included State Senator Diana DiZoglio, Lowell Mayor Sokhary Chau and UMass Board of Trustees members Paris Jeffries, Kerri Osterhaus-Houle and Mary Burns ’84, as well as Student Trustee Derek Houle.
At the Commencement Awards Celebration at University Crossing on Friday night, Chancellor’s Medals were awarded to 38 top graduating students.