UMass Boston graduate commencement speakers emphasize importance of lifelong learning

It was clear early on into UMass Boston's graduate commencement ceremony that those earning master's and doctoral degrees were ready for this day. Shortly into Interim Chancellor Katherine S. Newman's welcoming remarks, the students let out a loud cheer when she started listing their disciplines, beginning with chemistry.

"Yours is a very special accomplishment," Newman told the 1,082 students in the Class of 2019 earning graduate degrees from UMass Boston. "Every milestone you met in the past pales by comparison to this one. This time, you mastered a body of knowledge. That is no small accomplishment."

UMass Boston's main commencement ceremonies returned to the Columbia Point campus after four years away due to construction projects, including the reconfiguration of the lawn to once again hold outdoor commencement. In 2014, the last time commencement was held outside—in one main ceremony—the audience was situated adjacent to the Campus Center instead of in front of it facing the water.

Newman highlighted half-a-dozen members of the Class of 2019 during her address, including nursing master's graduate Lyns Hercule, whose capstone project focused on fostering adherence to treatment for hypertension in the Haitian American community at the Mattapan Community Health Center; newly-minted PhD Jasintha Mtengezo, the dean of faculty at Daeyang College of Nursing and Midwifery in Malawi who has been awarded several research grants to study HIV and cervical cancer among HIV infected women in Malawi; and Latasha Anderson-Smith, who received her Master of Public Administration from the McCormack Graduate School while working full-time for the Dorchester division of the Boston Municipal Court and raising a young daughter. Anderson-Smith and her sister were the first in their family to go to college. More than 50 percent of all UMass Boston students are first-generation college students, and, in what has become a UMass Boston commencement tradition, Newman asked these students to stand and be recognized.

"Your stories are amazing," UMass President Marty Meehan said. "You have demonstrated a passion in your chosen field, a commitment to lifelong learning, both of which will be crucial in capitalizing on the opportunities and confronting the challenges ahead."

The graduate student speaker, Elisa Ogawa, spoke about overcoming challenges. She came to the U.S. to play basketball at the age of 15 without being able to read, write, or speak English.

"When I was on the court, I felt free: it didn't matter who I was going against or what I looked like, it was a place where I excelled," Ogawa said.

Ogawa transferred to UMass Boston and played on the women's basketball team as both an undergraduate and master's student. Her PhD is her third degree in exercise and health sciences from UMass Boston.

"As many of you know, thesis, dissertation—no part of it was easy,” Ogawa said. “I’ve learned to stay open to new possibilities and never be crushed by one rejection—or, many rejections. If we follow our passion, things will work out in the end, even though the outcome might be not something we planned. For all of us, today is a victory, but it is just the beginning.”

Ogawa, whose dissertation involved an exergaming program and Tai Chi movements, asked all of the graduating members of the Class of 2019 to stand and stretch and look at the loved ones, faculty, and staff who helped them along the way.

The principal speaker, former Interim Chancellor Barry Mills, told graduates that their learning does not end with graduation.

"If you make a life habit of reading, you will continue to expand your mind and your connection to the important issues of the day in an informed and thoughtful perspective. We all have a voice, but that voice is most valuable if it is exercised and challenged to learn and mature," Mills said.

Mills said the 1,082 graduates in the crowd serve an important role in the future of UMass Boston.

"Each of you will find yourself in workplaces with your graduate degrees. ...Make it your mission to double over the next five years the number of UMass Boston graduates who work at your place of employment. Pay it forward," Mills said. "There are no better advocates for the graduates of this university than each of you."

Mills was one of three honorary degree recipients honored during the graduate commencement ceremony. As president of Bowdoin College from 2001 to 2015, Mills helped increase the college's endowment by nearly $1 billion, and thanks to his efforts, the college strengthened its commitment to financial aid and abolished student loans in favor of grants to all those who qualified for financial aid. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda worked for the United Nations for a decade, and while she was general secretary/CEO of the World YMCA, the organization developed and delivered programs on women's and children's rights, violence against women, sexual and reproductive health, and HIV. Claudia Rankine has authored five collections of poetry, including the bestselling, multiple-award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, which uses poetry, essays, cultural criticism, and visual images to explore what it means to be an American citizen in a "post-racial" society. She has also written plays and coproduces a video series.

Earlier on Thursday, UMass Boston held a separate hooding ceremony for its 83 graduating doctoral students. UMass Boston will hold its undergraduate commencement on Friday.