Olympic soccer gold medalist and alumna Briana Scurry urged graduates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Commencement today to draw strength and motivation from life’s hardships to chart their unique path and achieve their aspirations.
“Success is not a straight line,” said Scurry, as she recalled starting her journey as a fifth-string player and finishing it with a place in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. After suffering a debilitating concussion and falling into despair, even pawning her Olympic gold medals, she emerged from personal crisis to become an inspirational advocate for concussion awareness, encouraging others to break barriers.
The critical choice, she said, is what to do with your adversity. “Every single one of you is capable of changing your world,” she said. “If a young, skinny Black girl from a 2,000-person community in Minnesota can go on to win two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup championship, what can you all do? Imagine that.”
Scurry delivered the keynote 153rd Commencement address under sunny skies on Friday morning at McGuirk Alumni Stadium to an audience of approximately 20,000, celebrating the achievements of 7,500 undergraduates and 2,000 master’s and doctoral students.
Scurry, a legendary hall of fame goalkeeper and alumna, is a trailblazer for African American women in sports. As one of the first African American and openly gay professional women’s soccer players, her 173 international appearances for Team USA championed equality and diversified the sport. After four stellar years playing for the Minutewomen from 1990-93, Scurry went on to become one of the world’s best professional goalkeepers, winning a gold medal in the first Olympic women’s soccer competition in 1996.
UMass President Marty Meehan conferred degrees to the graduates as UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy presided over his 11th, and final, UMass Amherst Commencement.
Subbaswamy told the graduates that young adults have always had the vision and the will to drive revolutionary change to improve the world.
“When something worthy needs to happen, when change is required, even the most progressive and open-minded adult always thinks of limitations first: their mind goes to why something cannot be done,” he said. “But young adults are not so bound by prior experience of failure. They do not accept the simple, unsupported answer that something cannot be done. Young adults do not lead by limitation: this is their power.” That special power, he said, convinced the chancellor to set a goal to achieve UMass Carbon Zero before 2040.
This year’s Undergraduate Student Speaker was Vikram Singh of Antioch, Calif., a computer science major who will pursue a career in iOS software engineering.
“We have been the catalyst for change while our leaders have turned a blind eye,” Singh said. He then listed some of the traumatic social and political issues that his generation has had to witness and experience while pursuing their education.
“Yesterday, we huddled together silently, in the dark and dusty corners of our classrooms during school shooting drills. Today, we demand safety for the next generation. Yesterday our lives were dominated by the artificiality and toxicity of social media. Today, we show each other what it means to be honest and supportive,” he said. “Yesterday we witnessed the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and countless others. Today we march peacefully to demand reform. We have become a force to be reckoned with.”
This year’s Graduate Student Speaker was Patricia “Tita” Feraud-King of Worcester, who earned her doctorate in higher education and a certificate in social justice education. She plans to continue to work for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
She reflected on how she and a group of her peers embodied the UMass slogan to “be revolutionary.”
She said, “As a Black woman who is a caretaker for my elderly grandmother, temporarily my niece and nephew, and now my own baby, my success in having six publications, presenting at 19 conferences, teaching several courses, and receiving several awards, all while living and working on campus, is revolutionary in itself.” She added that “I realized that being revolutionary doesn’t always mean participating in protests; it means pushing for social change, even on a small interpersonal scale.” She urged her classmates to also “take this revolutionary spirit with you. No matter where life takes you, remember that you can make a difference, even if it’s just for one person.”
The leader of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band, an alumna and social justice advocate, husband and wife entrepreneurs and philanthropists and keynote speaker Scurry were conferred honorary degrees during the ceremony.
Cheryll Toney Holley, a respected, dedicated and visionary leader of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band of Massachusetts, was presented with the Doctor of Public Service, Honoris Causa. Co-founder and a board member of the Nipmuc Indian Development Corp., she served for 10 years on the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, is a former nurse manager at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester and is a Worcester Black History Project member. Holley is also a professional researcher, writer and speaker specializing in African American and Indigenous Peoples of New England. A mother of four and grandmother of eight, she currently lives in Worcester, where generations of her family have lived.
Esther Terry ’74 was presented with the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa. She took part in the 1960 Woolworth sit-in, an historic non-violent protest at the store’s “whites only” lunch counter that helped start the Civil Rights movement. Terry earned her Ph.D. in English at UMass in 1974 and served as a faculty member and administrator until 2009. She was a founding faculty member of the university’s pioneering W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and was also a leader in creating a Ph.D. program in Afro-American Studies, the second in the country. Terry’s work was also integral to developing UMass Amherst into a premier research university.
William and Joyce Cummings, entrepreneurs and philanthropists, were presented with the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa. William established the Cummings Foundation in 1986. Since its formation, the foundation has awarded nearly $450 million to more than 800 nonprofits in greater Boston. The Cummings have long been committed to thoughtfully sharing their resources to support a broad range of causes in areas including human services, education, healthcare and social justice. In 2011, they joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give away most of their net worth in their lifetime. They have extended their giving to global health in Rwanda and to academic institutions in Massachusetts, including funding a needs-based scholarship program for first-generation students at UMass Amherst.
Distinguished Achievement Award
Charles E. Hallberg ’74 founded MemberHealth, LLC, a highly successful pharmacy benefits management company based in Cleveland, on a philosophy of keeping Medicare beneficiaries healthy. Under his leadership, the company quickly grew into an industry leader as well as the administrator of the nation’s fourth-largest Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. Hallberg received a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in philosophy from UMass Amherst in 1974 and earned a juris doctor degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 1977. He and his wife, Sharon, and daughter, Jennifer, are actively involved in children’s philanthropy, focusing on healthcare and education.
21st Century Leaders
Ten of the university’s most talented and accomplished undergraduates were honored for their exemplary achievements, initiative and leadership with awards naming them as 21st Century Leaders. Receiving $1,000 honorariums from the UMass Amherst Alumni Association were:
Ashley Yen Eng of Brookline, Mass., a Commonwealth Honors College (CHC) student and microbiology major; Joash Elijah Audrey Gabriel, a Philippines native who resides in Peabody, who earned dual degrees in microbiology and public health and completed a certificate in the iCons (Integrated Concentration in STEM) program; Jakob Gokey of Boxford, who earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary students with a concentration in international relations, in part while on active duty for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait; Darya Iranmanesh of Lexington, who completed her bachelor of science degree in public health in just two years and with a near-perfect GPA; Tasneem Kelly of West Springfield, who earned degrees in operations and information management and political science, as well as a certificate in business analytics; Kathryne “Kitty” Olivia Lovell of Westford, a CHC student who graduated with a degree in civil and environmental engineering and who served as president of UMass Engineers Without Borders; Shayan Raza, a CHC student who double majored in legal studies and economics and served as student body president; Clare Sheedy of Pittsfield, who earned double majors in public health and in women, gender, sexuality studies and a Five College certificate in reproductive health, rights and justice; Sao Myat Thazin “Yuki” Thane, of Yangon, Myanmar, a double major in informatics and communications who completed her studies and maintained dean’s list-level grades while studying remotely from Myanmar for much of the pandemic; and John “JJ” Wilson of Monson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing while also serving as an EMS captain in the Amherst Fire Department Student Force and as a firefighter and EMT for the Monson Fire Department.
Commitment to Diversity Award
Nicholas Perello ’18, a Ph.D. candidate in the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences from Miami, Fla., received the Commitment to Diversity Award for his work to create an inclusive environment for computer science education, both as a student advocate and as a mentor and instructor of underrepresented undergraduates. After earning dual bachelor’s degrees in computer science and mathematics, Perello received a prestigious national GEM Fellowship and remained at UMass Amherst for his Ph.D., focusing on ethical artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Distinguished Teaching Awards
Two graduate students were recipients of Distinguished Teaching Awards.
Ajit Kumar Sorout excelled as a teaching assistant for multiple courses before becoming the lead instructor for both introductory and advanced physics courses, tailoring his style of instruction to each student’s background and educational stage. He encouraged students to learn systematic and analytical ways to tackle problems and used technological tools such as online forums to encourage full participation in his classes. His students praise him for helping them to gain confidence in their abilities, for his knack for explaining complex concepts in multiple ways and for his willingness to spend extra time to ensure that they fully understand the course material.
The interactive teaching practice of Porntip Israsena Twishime ’18G, a Toledo, Ohio, native who is completing her Ph.D. in communication, emerged from her commitment to social justice and consciousness raising. She taught four communication courses at UMass Amherst, including an upper-level undergraduate course she designed. Approaching students as fellow intellectuals, Twishime fostered a student-centered class environment that kept students critically engaged and invested in the course materials. Those who were previously reluctant to speak in class felt free to participate in the judgment-free environment of her classroom.