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UMass Amherst chancellor praises graduates for persevering through year’s struggles

University of Massachusetts Amherst students danced to the university's anthem during the commencement ceremony.
University of Massachusetts Amherst students danced to the university's anthem during the commencement ceremony.Leon Nguyen/Associated Press

AMHERST — With nearly empty stands and participants seated in folding chairs 6 feet apart, the University of Massachusetts Amherst feted 6,500 graduate and undergraduate students in five different ceremonies Thursday and Friday.

The ceremonies at McGuirk Stadium provided a glimpse of normalcy, a year after UMass and other universities were forced to postpone live commencements because of COVID-19 precautions.

On Friday, speaking to students from the colleges of education, humanities and fine arts, and social and behavioral sciences, UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy praised their strength while coping with the hardships of the past year.

“Through all of these interruptions, inconveniences, and absolute unfairness, our collective empathy still reigns,” Subbaswamy said.

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Initially, parents of UMass grads were told they could only watch the ceremony remotely, but with recent changes in the pandemic guidance, that restriction was changed to permit two guests for each graduate.

Rather than stands overflowing with humanity, they were as sparsely filled as they might be for a losing sports team.

Subbaswamy told graduates that he intends to focus on how the past year has shown “the absolute best” within the UMass community.

“You will forever wear resiliency as a badge,” he said. “But what makes you truly special is that you will not let this past year define you. … Each and every one of you is an unstoppable force and a relentless fighter.”

Graduate Alex Ganote, 22, who majored in anthropology with a minor in political science, said he understands he is heading into a world forever changed, partly by the pandemic and partly by the racial reckoning underway.

“The traditions and customs of what comes after an undergraduate degree have been erased,” said Ganote, from Washington, D.C. “I feel free now.”

He said the past year was difficult and he considered taking a leave but ultimately stuck with it. After graduation, he plans to move to Boston, where he intends to do social justice work and possibly seek out a graduate degree.

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Sophia Rugo, who graduated from the Commonwealth Honors College with a degree in legal studies and Spanish and a minor in biology, acknowledged her final year was stressful — particularly as she worked to finish her thesis about democracy in Ghana.

“This past year definitely had its challenges, but everything worked out,” said Rugo, who is from Ipswich. She has lined up a job as a paralegal in California and intends to apply to law school in a year. She’s waiting because she wanted to be sure she could attend law school in person.

In emotional remarks, student speaker Sarah Rose Stack recounted her difficult path to complete her degree, including a chaotic childhood and later a pregnancy that forced her to take time off from UMass before returning last year to complete her degree.

“Going to college was my way to access a life of opportunity,” said Stack, of Agawam. “I was determined to do what others said I would not be able to do, which is graduate. Everything is impossible until it isn’t.”

The event included a video, shown on two giant screens, of students recalling dashed plans and other changes after the coronavirus shut down the campus over a year ago. A high point of the video, one that prompted loud applause, were scenes from the UMass men’s hockey team, which won the NCAA championship last month.

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The team played a central role in the ceremony. The school’s hockey coach, Greg Carvel, delivered the commencement speech — one filled with pride in UMass.

Carvel, himself a UMass alumnus whose father-in-law, the late Edmund Gettier, was a beloved 34-year UMass philosophy professor, knows the university’s strengths and its “true magnificence.”

“We are a community of common people striving to do exceptional things,” he said. “This is our identity and it is the heartbeat that we all feel pumping throughout this remarkable institution.”

Carvel, who became the coach five years ago, said in his first season, the team won five games, lost 29, including 17 consecutive games.

“But, during the course of that abysmal season, we had the gall to create a vision statement. You could easily have called it a wild dream statement,” he said. Among the goals: achieve national success.

“This was a massive dream for a last place team, but it turned out to be a dream that moved the hearts of our young men,” Carvel said. “I implore you to dream big, just as the UMass hockey team dared to dream big.”

He added: “Do not sell yourself short. You don’t want to look back at the end of your life and regret that you didn’t make a bold decision. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”