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Of Perseverance and Promise

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

We made it.

Those were the words UMass Lowell senior class president Rob Velella used to sum up the feelings of graduates at yesterday's commencement ceremony.

In a year beset by war, fiscal crisis, and the everyday tragedies (and successes) of college life, they had struggled, suffered and sacrificed. And yesterday, they made it.

As commencement speaker James Carroll reminded them, it was a moment of possibility in a world of reality.

"What we are celebrating here this morning is your openness to the future, and your willingness to be of service, and your ambition to move the world, however slightly and to whatever place," said the Boston Globe columnist. "And we feel that from you. And we honor that in you."

The day was marked by rain outside but jubilance inside as students from the five colleges at UMass Lowell were awarded their bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

Honorary doctorates were awarded to Carroll, a novelist and writer; Margaret Becklake, a scientist specializing in lung research; and William O'Shea, executive vice president of Lucent Technologies and president of Bell Labs.

The university also bestowed a posthumous doctorate on John Ogonowski of Dracut, pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 and graduate of Lowell Technological Institute.

His wife, Peggy Ogonowski, accepted the degree on his behalf, earning the sole complete standing ovation of the morning.

"The life work of this humble humanitarian will forever remain larger than the tragedy of his untimely death," said U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan.

The graduates celebrated their victory, cheering at the close of the ceremony and throwing an occasional hat a few feet into the air, quickly catching it again.

While the rain pounded down around them, they filed out of the Tsongas Arena into the waiting arms of umbrella-toting family members.

Some had worked for years to get their degree. Others, like Lowell's Greg Steinberg, plowed through an accelerated master's program in one year but the end result was no less satisfying.

"It was one of the best experiences I had in one year one of the most stressful but one of the best," said Steinberg, who earned a master's in biological sciences with a biotechnology focus. "I hope it will foster into something."

The economic climate could make finding jobs difficult for the class of 2003, but few were focusing on the challenges ahead. Instead, it was a time to celebrate and take pride in a job well done.

For graduate Danielle Spezzafero, earning her bachelor's degree after five years, the moment was sweet.

"I never thought I'd get to this point," she said. "There were a lot of times I thought I couldn't do it anymore. But I did it. That's all that matters."