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UMass Dartmouth graduates passed a resilience test

Tragic connection didn’t break school’s spirit

Bob Gillan, a Quincy officer, swept the campus Sunday with Ronan, an explosives detection canine.

Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe

Bob Gillan, a Quincy officer, swept the campus Sunday with Ronan, an explosives detection canine.

DARTMOUTH — With a moment of silence honoring the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombings broken by chants of “USA, USA, USA,” the graduating class of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth kicked off its commencement without shying away from the campus’s connection to one of the alleged bombers.

Reminders of the bombings were inescapable: blue and gold buttons that proclaimed “UMASS DARTMOUTH STRONG,” a beefed-up security presence that included police from half a dozen outside communities on foot and bicycles, law enforcement officials with explosive-sniffing dogs patrolling campus, and a long security line to get into the tent where the ceremony was held.

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Students announced they were organizing a torch relay for July to raise money for the One Fund, in which they will carry a flame over 55 miles, from the UMass Dartmouth campus to the memorial in Boston.

But in other ways, the commencement where 1,369 students graduated was utterly normal: Parents clutched bouquets of flowers, students straightened black gowns as they lined up to march into the tent, and graduation speeches urged students to take chances, spread peace and love in the world, and never stop learning.

“This has been a year for UMass Dartmouth like no other,” said chancellor Divina Grossman to the estimated 11,000 people who attended the ceremony. “And due to the tragic and heartbreaking events of the last few weeks, this is a commencement like no other.”

The graduation ceremony, which was delayed an hour and moved inside a giant white tent because of threatening weather, was the conclusion to a spring in which the campus was thrust into the national spotlight, after students and faculty were shocked to learn that one of the alleged Marathon bombers was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a student.

Lindsay Days, an art education major from Mattapoisett, said that although most graduates were focused on Sunday’s events and on their futures, the connection to the bombings hung over conversations. When she was at a friend’s dormitory, getting dressed for the ceremony, they both couldn’t help but observe that the new security measures — which requested that people not bring bags or backpacks to the ceremony — were an eerie reminder of how the bombings were carried out.

‘Due to the tragic and heartbreaking events of the last few weeks, this is a commencement like no other.’

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The difficult events of the last month had not changed Days’s feelings about the university.

“It made me appreciate ­UMass Dartmouth. I grew up around here,” Days said.

Parents waiting patiently in the long line to enter the tent said they were, for the most part, pleased with the increased security.

“I’m feeling comfortable today. A couple weeks back” was another story, said Lynda Racine of Fairhaven, who was there to see her daughter Andrea, a biology major, graduate.

She said that Andrea had been distraught in the aftermath of the bombings, but said that things were returning to normal, and she did not think that the negative events of the last few weeks would taint the university’s reputation or the graduates.

Most students felt that life had begun to go back to normal, with some saying that the most tedious and annoying reminder of the campus connection to the bombings had simply become the omnipresence of media asking them how they felt, even when they were just having dinner at a restaurant in town.

“I’m excited after five years,” said Curt Santos, a history major who said he was the first person in his family to graduate from college. “It’s been a long time coming, a lot of hard work. It was kind of really annoying, the bad rap we got at the university.”

Despite the increased security, most families and students were relaxed, although they acknowledged they are more aware now that it is impossible to predict when a terrible event will happen.

“It’s just kind of in the back of my mind,” said Jessica Ellis, an English major from Westport. She wonders whether future potential employers will see the name of the university on her resume and associate it with the bombings.

Although speakers referenced the connection to the tragedy in Boston, they also spoke about the many other things that made UMass Dartmouth strong: prizes, academic achievements, and a particular class assignment that reminded students and faculty of their fragility and their power.

A graduating member of the class of 2013, Erik Nelson, had learned during a routine laboratory experiment in which students analyzed each others’ blood, that he had a form of leukemia.

“He is excelling,” Grossman said. “Erik is a reminder to all of us that we have what it takes to confront every challenge. His experience reminds us that at any moment, our lives as individuals and as communities can be interrupted by a trauma. The test is how we respond.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson
can be reached
at cjohnson@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter
@carolynyjohnson.
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