U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley Urges UMass Boston Class of 2019 to “Do Good, Do Work, Do Justice”

Crystal Valencia | Fri May 31, 2019

UMass Boston Awards Degrees to 2,783 Undergrads at its 51st Commencement on Campus

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley encouraged a sea of UMass Boston graduates to “upend the status quo” as the university celebrated its 51st Commencement back on its waterfront campus Friday morning.

“Today graduates, you are coming of age with a hopeful eye and a critical heart, questioning institutions that have come up short and working hard to build the infrastructure to do things differently for those who come up behind us,” she said. “I encourage you to be skeptical. Ask the question that changes the conversation. Shake the table. … Just do not become cynical.”

Pressley made history in November when she became Massachusetts’ first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In her four months in Congress, she said she’s been asked the same question every day —in these uncertain, unprecedented times, is she becoming cynical?

“My reply is always the same: I don’t have the luxury, and neither do any of us, do any of you,” Pressley said. “Remind yourself in moments when you want to throw your hands up, that your hands are put to better use reaching for Work with a capital W that is real…. You hold in your hands the future of the nation, the future of this beautiful city. I believe in the very fiber of my being, that we are in good hands.”

As she began her speech, Pressley looked out on the 2,783 UMass Boston undergraduates and their families and friends in awe.

Cheering graduates

“What a glorious sight you all are to behold,” she said. “This crowd looks like the City of Boston. It looks like our country.”

This year’s graduates hail from more than 140 countries around the world, and speak 100 different languages. More than 50 percent of UMass Boston students are first-generation college students. There are 96 veterans and service members graduating this year.

Pressley, who received a chancellor’s medal, was joined by honorary degree recipients Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, and UMass Boston alum Paul English ‘87 ‘89, founder of KAYAK and CTO of Lola.com, a company that helps businesses manage their employee travel.

Paul English is given his honorary degree by Chancellor Newman, Provost McDermott, and President Meehan

Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman spoke of how every student and every family standing by them has a story to tell.

She highlighted several members of the Class of 2019 during her address, including Kamila Machado, a DACA student who was born in Brazil and immigrated to the United States when she was four years old; Tony Martin, a student veteran and mentor to men of color who will stay on at UMass Boston to earn his master’s; and Lasaunna Powell, who immigrated to Boston from St. Kitts when she was 15, and just accepted a position as the senior recovery technician at Liberty Mutual, where she will investigate internal and external fraud.

“Nothing has been given to you; you have had to earn everything you have.  You have had to open doors for yourself.  You are resilient, inventive, devoted, and creative,” Newman told graduates. “And above all, you have given generously to others in your family, to your peers, to organizations you care about and causes that propel you.  You are going to put this hard won education to good use.”

Newman said that she has traveled all over the country to meet UMass Boston alumni — from the chief mapping scientist for NASA’s Mars mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to chief technical officer of Survey Monkey to the Governor of Maine.

“So, the sky is the limit for all of you and we look forward to learning more about where you take all that ambition,” Newman said.

UMass President Martin Meehan encouraged graduates to commit themselves to hard work and lifelong learning. 

“I am in awe to be in front of you. I can’t believe the stories, what you have done to get here, how hard you have worked —two, three jobs — in getting to this point,” Meehan said. “Congratulations to each and every one of you for your success today.”

Kristen Laird

Kristen Laird, the 43rd recipient of the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence, addressed her classmates as the undergraduate student speaker. 

Laird, a computer science major who transferred to UMass Boston two years ago, has held three internships at Microsoft, and after graduation, she will join Microsoft’s AI Development Acceleration Program, helping to lead the development and launch of artificial intelligence tools that will be used by hundreds of thousands to millions of people around the world.

Laird spoke of the lessons she had learned on her winding path to graduation. Read Laird’s full speech.

“I went from being a first responder to working in software, from studying English to studying biology to computer science, from dropping out of college—twice—to finally graduating today and preparing to join an artificial intelligence team at Microsoft,” she said.

She encouraged graduates to stop internalizing ignorant and biased messages, and mistaking how they feel about themselves as proof of their competence or worthiness.

“As we challenge ourselves to grow by trying the things that scare us, we won’t always feel comfortable or courageous. As we explore and define who we are instead of who we think we’re supposed to be, we won’t always feel sure of ourselves,” Laird said. “And as we embark on new adventures, we won’t always feel ready or capable, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t or that we shouldn’t try. … Class of 2019, choose to try.”

Three faculty members received Chancellor’s Awards: Professor of Psychology Karen Suyemoto, Professor of Economics Randy Albelda, and School for the Environment Professor Crystal Schaaf for their distinguished teaching, service, and scholarship, respectively. 

UMass Boston conferred degrees to 3,934 students in total — including 83 doctoral candidates — over its two days of commencement ceremonies.

Graduates take a selfie

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city’s history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 10 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 16,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.