By Katharine Webster
Oprah Winfrey’s visit to campus Thursday began with laughter, when she walked into a master class for 200 students, all wearing blue T-shirts in honor of the occasion.
They jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering, then laughing when she pointed at one after another and said, “You get a shirt! You get a shirt! Everybody gets a shirt!” in a nod to her famous giveaways on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Her visit ended with tears of joy and gratitude when, after a conversation with Chancellor Jacquie Moloney at the Tsongas Center, Winfrey made a surprise announcement that she would donate $1.5 million toward student scholarships to match the more than $1.5 million already raised through ticket sales and sponsorships for the event.
“I’m speechless,” Moloney said, her eyes sparkling with tears that matched her sparkly, River-Hawk-blue jacket and her sparkly silver shoes, the subject of Winfrey’s admiration earlier in the evening.
Winfrey said her gift was inspired by the first six Oprah Winfrey Scholars, who came out on stage to meet her. All six students are paying their own way through school, and three are first-generation college students, as were Winfrey and Moloney. All had written her thank-you letters.
“It is an honor to meet each of you,” Winfrey told the students, after posing for photos with them. “I have read each of your letters. I was so moved by each of your stories that coming here and speaking and sharing this beautiful evening with you all, I want to do even more. I would like to match the $1.5 million dollars so students like yourselves can continue in the path of the greatest, purest, truest expression of themselves, because of you and your letters. Thank you so much!”
The rest of her words were drowned out by a thunderous ovation from the audience, which was filled with grateful members of the UMass Lowell community and fans from around the region who embraced Winfrey’s message of living a life of intention and service.
“We’re absolutely amazed and stunned that Oprah Winfrey just offered a match to the $1.5 million that we’ve raised. Everyone is so stunned: The students are so excited, I’m so excited,” Moloney said after she had recovered. “We’re really amazed. We’re really surprised. And we’re really, really grateful.”
Gratitude, compassion, intention and education were Winfrey’s themes throughout her visit, first talking to students from across the campus who attended the master class moderated by English Prof. Andre Dubus III, and then in conversation with Moloney at the Tsongas Center before a crowd estimated at more than 6,000 people.
The renowned talk show host, actress, author, publisher, entrepreneur and philanthropist, widely considered to be one of the world’s most influential people, said she came to UMass Lowell after receiving eloquent letters of invitation from Dubus, whose debut novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000.
But Winfrey said Dubus’s letters alone were not enough: She came because he and Moloney assured her that all the money her visit raised would provide direct support to the students who need it most.
“When I heard you all were going to use it as a tool for service, to raise money for scholarships … I thought, ‘That’s worth [it]!’” she said.
Winfrey said Dubus was one of the few authors she had on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” who wrote her a thank-you note afterward, telling her what it meant to him to sell more than 2 million books and rocket to the top of The New York Times best-seller list. In fact, she said, Dubus’ letter was so beautifully written that it’s now on display as part of the “Watching Oprah” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.
“I did not know that!” Dubus said.
In the master class, Winfrey took the first student question from Socheatha Som, a Lowell native and first-generation college student majoring in business administration.
Som asked Winfrey for advice on how not to become discouraged when seeing other people succeed. Winfrey told her not to compare herself to anyone else – because that just takes energy away from her own, unique journey.
“You run your own race,” Winfrey said. “Never worry about what other people are doing, because no one else is like you.”
Winfrey talked throughout the evening about her own struggles. But everything in her history is a part of who she is today, she said.
“There’s nothing you cannot use in the future. I’ve had all kinds of horrible things happen to me,” she said, “and everything was super-useful when I was talking to people.”
Much of her message was the inspirational, soulful advice for which she’s known, especially on her podcast, “Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations.” She talked about keeping a daily gratitude journal as a spiritual practice, filling up her own cup by taking care of herself and always asking herself, “What do I want?”
Winfrey also urged everyone to use their unique talents and gifts to serve something bigger than themselves and to touch other people’s lives by showing up, being present in the moment and performing small acts of kindness every day.
“We are all the same. I don’t care if you’re red state or blue state, if you’re a Ph.D. or have no D,” she said to laughter. “You are all working toward the highest, purest, truest expression of yourselves.”
Winfrey and Moloney also talked about the power of education to change lives. Moloney asked Winfrey to read a passage from her book of columns, “What I Know for Sure.”
“I have a deep understanding of what it’s like to be a girl who has suffered abuse or lived in poverty, and I believe that education is the door to freedom, the rainbow that leads to the pot of gold,” Winfrey read, before talking about her relationship with anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and her decision to found a school for girls in South Africa.
When Winfrey first started making money and mentoring girls living in poverty in Chicago, she thought about taking them out of their environment and giving them money. Instead, she took them to the library to get library cards and encouraged them to read books and focus on their education “so they could feel and breathe in the possibility of breaking out of poverty and creating a new trajectory for themselves.”
She credited her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, with helping her to understand her own gifts and to realize she didn’t need to apologize for being smart.
“She saw me. She got me. She opened up something inside of myself,” she said.
Moloney then asked all the teachers and former teachers in the audience to stand and be recognized, to more cheers and applause.
After her conversation with Moloney, Winfrey received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from UMass President Marty Meehan and Rob Manning '84, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees.
Meehan, a grandson of immigrants and, along with his sisters, a first-generation college graduate who earned his degree at UMass Lowell, said Winfrey had inspired his sister Maureen to return to college after dropping out. She now has a master’s degree and is a teacher in Lowell, he said.
“In 120 years, UML has never had a better evening than tonight,” Meehan said. An honorary degree “is earned through a lifetime of making a difference in this world. And I can’t think of anyone this university has ever given an honorary degree who is more worthy than Oprah. She has changed the lives of millions of people here and around the world, and I know that personally.”
Co-sponsored by the university’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the event was presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance, Suffolk Construction and the Marty Meehan Educational Foundation and supported by dozens of other sponsors.