When the pandemic arrived, Jamie Smorczewski was already well-schooled in adversity.
The 42-year-old Army veteran and 1996 Ipswich High School graduate calls the time of COVID-19, public masking and social isolation — and the emergence of heroes despite it all — “a real-life version of a bad science fiction movie.
“Everybody had to persevere over this past year,” he says.
Smorczewski, a Double River Hawk who earned his master’s degree in security studies, shared what he learned about persevering as the university’s 2021 Student Commencement speaker.
Good things “finally” began happening for Smorczewski. He got married two days before Commencement. He was enjoying coaching his 12-year-old son Alexander in Danvers Youth Soccer. He closed on a new house. And he was in “much better health” than he had been in a long time.
But none of it came easy.
Smorczewski, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UML in 2009, is the first college graduate in his family.
“I’m from a blue-collar family and there wasn’t a ton of money for me to attend college, so I found my own way,” he says.
In August 2001, he signed up for the Army’s College First program, which allows students to concentrate on school without financial concern while serving part-time.
Unless the country was attacked. “It sounded ideal,” he says.
Then, a month later came 9/11, sending Smorczewski to active duty.
In 2002, when he was an Airborne paratrooper and psychological operations specialist based at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was seriously injured in a jump. He left active duty in 2003, and has been on 100% disability since 2009.
He struggled to find the right college setting until he discovered UMass Lowell, where he excelled in history, concentrating in U.S. and European history.
Health issues continued to dog him though, and his plan to pursue a master’s in history was derailed for a while. There would be more surgeries — he has had 11 in all — and recovery time.
He enrolled in the master’s degree program in history in the fall of 2016 and took security studies classes as electives.
“I love history and what the program offered but … security studies were exactly what I did in the Army. I just couldn’t turn away from it. I felt so at home,” he says.
He switched to the security studies graduate program in 2018. He loved the give-and-take discussions in his classes. No matter how divisive the political or cultural discourse was outside the classroom, there was always a level of respect among his classmates, he says.
“No one told anyone to shut up for what they said. As long as you came at it with facts and not emotional reasoning, what you said was respected,” he says.
Smorczewski flourished. But there were more health issues, including the Nov. 7, 2019, quadruple bypass heart surgery, which resulted in complications, including two liters of fluid in his lungs.
He told his professors about the surgery in advance. He didn’t ask for an extension, but wanted additional work so he could complete it before his surgery.
“This is a remarkable display of grit by a student who, confronted with one of the most serious medical interventions one can be subject to, decides to add to his burden in order to fulfill his commitments,” wrote Asst. Prof. Nicholas Evans in a letter recommending Smorczewski as Commencement speaker.
He returned to school in January 2020, but a month later came further complications – pericarditis (swelling and irritation of the tissue surrounding the heart) and pneumonia. Working with his professors, he made it through the semester.
During the pandemic, he hunkered down and tried to avoid the virus. Late in the 2020 fall semester, Smorczewski again contracted pneumonia. His doctor advised him to stick to bed rest.
He continued his studies on a limited schedule, after working again with his professors.
Evans says Smorczewski embodies the characteristics that make UML students excellent: “hardworking, conscientious and communicative.”
“This is a much more positive and happy time than I’m used to,” he said. “There is a lot of good stuff going on. All I need is my dream job.”