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Members of the Class of 2018 celebrate at UMass Boston's undergraduate commencement. (Harry Brett/Boston)
May 28, 2018

Geoffrey Canada urges UMass Boston Class of 2018 to be 'greatest generation yet'


  • Boston
Urban education leader speaks at university's 50th commencement, when 2,733 undergrads received degrees

Urban education leader Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, urged the Class of 2018 to be the "greastest generation yet" as UMass Boston celebrated its 50th Commencement at the TD Garden today.

Canada spoke of growing up in South Bronx — the poorest Congressional district in the United States — and making a promise that if he survived, he would work to bring an end to children growing up in poverty. A leading figure in the field of urban education for more than 30 years, Canada's block-by-block approach to combating poverty via intensive educational and social intervention is now seen as a national model.

"I wish I could stand before you today and say that my generation is leaving you a country that is better than the one we inherited from our parents. It's not like we haven’t done any good.  …  But we haven't kept my promise to eliminate those places where our children don't have a chance. America's children are more imperiled than ever," he said.

"But I am not worried about my promise, because let me tell you what else my role models taught me. The best of America is yet to come. The work we don't complete that attempts to makes this a better country, the next generation will finish it." 

Canada delivered his address to a crowd of 10,000 family members and friends and 2,733 UMass Boston undergraduates who received their bachelor's degrees in the city’s iconic arena, where the Boston Celtics were staging a dramatic march through the NBA playoffs. Canada was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters during the ceremony. 

UMass Boston conferred degrees to 3,986 students in total — including 88 doctoral candidates — over its two days of commencement ceremonies. The Class of 2018 hails from 106 countries, and attended more than 500 high schools around the world. There are also 147 veterans and service members graduating this year.

Interim Chancellor Barry Mills spoke of being a first-generation college student like many of the graduates in the audience.

"Remembering how hard my parents worked – how hard we all worked – and how higher education transformed my life, is why UMass Boston felt right to me from the moment I set foot on the campus," he said. "Working on behalf of the students, the faculty, and staff, and the mission of UMass Boston – I couldn't have imagined a better cause."

Mills, who will step down at the end of June, told the Class of 2018 that it was an honor to serve as their chancellor and encouraged them to carry on the university's legacy of social justice at a moment when the nation needs their leadership, commitment, and energy in these areas. Also in attendance was interim chancellor-designate Katherine Newman, who Mills said would take UMass Boston to new heights.

"Education truly is a transformative force," Mills said. "Your college years and college education have already changed you and will continue to throughout the rest of your life. And the degree you earn today will not only transform you, but it will transform the lives of your children and their children as well."

Chris Walkes, the 42nd recipient of the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence, addressed his classmates as the undergraduate student speaker. 

While a student at UMass Boston, he taught English and computer science and ran a boys group at Another Course to College, a college preparatory high school in Hyde Park. In the fall, Walkes will pursue a master’s degree in educational studies at Tufts University, which will allow him to interrogate the ways education has served as a site of anti-blackness and theorize ways education can be a site of liberation and dignity for Black students. 

He spoke of being a Black man in America, of "feeling affirmed in your skin, and tied to the fight for your liberation."

"As you prepare to enter graduate programs, the workforce, or whatever your heart contends, do not forget about the humanities and more importantly your humanity," Walkes said. "Do not sacrifice your humanity, and continue to fight for it in whatever you do."

Four faculty members received Chancellor's Awards: Professor of Economics Julie Nelson, Professor of Women's and Gender Studies Shoshanna Ehrlich, and School for the Environment Professors Ellen Douglas and Paul Kirshen for their distinguished scholarship, teaching, and service, respectively.