Two of the nation’s top public health leaders praised university graduates during commencement addresses Saturday in Worcester and Lowell for overcoming obstacles imposed by the pandemic and urged them to continue striving for success.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, applauded graduating seniors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute for their resiliency as they experienced “unprecedented times” during the pandemic.
“Even in the face of uncertainty, your commitment to your education, to each other, and to your school was evident,” she said in her speech. “You took care of each other, even when apart.”
About an hour earlier, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, encouraged graduates to not let the prospect of failure deter them.
“Here’s the truth no one tells you: The most successful people in the world have suffered more losses, more failures, and more heartaches than anyone,” Jha said. “What makes people successful isn’t an easy glide path. What makes them successful is their refusal to give up.”
Walensky, who formerly served as chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Jha, who is on temporary leave as dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, were both chosen by President Biden to help lead the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The timing of this year’s commencement season coincides with the nation marking nearly 1 million deaths due to COVID-19, despite widespread availability of vaccines and booster shots.
In Massachusetts, new cases and hospitalizations have increased, though nearly 78 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated and just 10 percent of cases reported are among those fully vaccinated. State officials have reported 19,252 deaths as of Friday. Much of the state has high levels of coronavirus, according to the CDC, and the agency is urging people to wear masks in indoor public spaces in those areas.
Worcester County has high community levels of COVID-19, according to the CDC. The WPI graduation was held at the university’s quadrangle — a large open green space — and masks were strongly encouraged, according to the university’s website.
Middlesex County, which also has high COVID-19 levels, includes the campus of UMass-Lowell and the Tsongas Center, where thousands attend the morning commencement that featured Jha inside the stadium.
UMass Lowell spokeswoman Nancy Cicco said the university is following state guidelines for indoor public gatherings and the university released a statement encouraging masks in the Tsongas Center, providing them at the door for people without one.
She said all university graduates and employees are vaccinated, and the vast majority are boosted.
Cicco said Jha’s communications team told the school he would not be available for interviews Saturday. The White House did not respond to a request to interview Jha.
Neither Jha nor Walensky wore masks when they appeared in livestreams of Saturday’s commencements.
During Jha’s speech in Lowell, he called the commencement a great moment for graduates “after two long years” of the pandemic.
Jha said graduates “embody possibility, and in that way, you embody America.”
He said graduates should set their sights high, whether they wanted to be an astronaut, a teacher, a doctor, or a nurse. Each is possible, he said.
He told graduates they should “create new possibilities, not just for yourselves, but those who come after you.”
In Worcester, Walensky sounded a somber note during part of her speech as she looked back over the pandemic years.
She said that “so many of us have been fighting for so long together,” including on efforts like vaccine and testing clinics, performing home visits, and serving as community support.
“So many of us have done the work of public health every single day throughout this pandemic,” she said.
Turning to graduates, who went through changes during their university careers, Walensky urged them to draw upon those experiences.
She encouraged graduates to connect with their work and learn what inspires them, even if it takes them on an unexpected path.
“This is a pivotal moment for each of you, strengthened by your failures, defined by your successes, and enriched by everything you have learned,” she said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.