All seemed normal at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s class of 2023 commencement Thursday morning as graduates settled into their seats for what they thought would be a straightforward and traditional procession. After sitting through an hour and a half of various speeches and performances, soon-to-be-graduates began to line up to receive their diplomas.
“Now, we come to the moment our graduates and their families have been waiting for,” Chancellor Marcelo Suarez-Orozco proclaimed. But before he could finish, a hand pushed Suarez-Orozco out of reach of the microphone.
What came next was a scene straight out of an Oprah episode.
Dumbfounded students erupted into cheers and chants as the commencement speaker, Quincy-based billionaire Rob Hale, interrupted to announce he would give each of the 2,500 soon-to-be graduates $1,000 just moments before they crossed the stage.
Each graduate at the university’s 55th commencement ceremony received the cash split into two envelopes, so they could donate half.
“These are turbulent times. You guys have survived. You have prospered. You are to be celebrated,” Hale, cofounder, president, and CEO of Granite Telecommunications, said. “We want to give you two gifts. The first is a gift to you. The second is the gift of giving.”
Hale had earlier delivered his commencement address on the theme of rising up from failure, and paying it forward through philanthropy. Hale said his first business, Network Plus, lost massive sums of money after the company filed for bankruptcy two decades ago.
“Have you ever met someone who lost a billion dollars before?” Hale asked the crowd. “There’s a very good chance I’m the biggest loser you’ve ever met. And now you guys are getting career advice from me.”
The cash gift was a gesture Hale, who joined Senator Elizabeth Warren as the commencement speakers for UMass Boston this year, has made before. While delivering the 2021 commencement address at Quincy College, he also gave graduates there $1,000 in cash, split in two envelopes.
“It’s honestly great for them to give back like that,” said William Dos Santos, an electrical engineering graduate. “A lot of us are needing this money for starting off work.”
About 59 percent of UMass Boston undergraduates are first-generation college students, many of immigrant parents, according to the school’s website.
“People are not ever going to forget how you make them feel,” Suarez-Orozco said, acknowledging both commencement speakers after Hale announced the gift. “You’ve got the heart of all our Beacons.”
Hale, who made the Forbes list of billionaires for the second time this year with a listed net worth of $5 billion, is known for his philanthropy. In 2021, he and his wife gave $30 million to Connecticut College, his alma mater, to support financial aid, athletics, and improvements to campus infrastructure. It was the largest gift in the school’s history. Last year, the couple donated $52 million total to charities, coming out to about $1 million a week.
Before announcing the $1,000 gift Thursday, Hale implored UMass Boston students in his commencement address to give back to their communities with the resources, skills, and knowledge they acquire during their forthcoming careers.
“If you give a little more than you get, your life will be better because of it. I promise you,” Hale said.
The ceremony also included a speech from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who praised the Class of 2023 for their perseverance though a global pandemic and other national challenges.
“You have hope, and you have harnessed that hope to shape your own lives,” Warren said. “No one fights their way through challenging classes and crazy schedules if they don’t have hope.”
Lee-Daniel Tran, recipient of the annual John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence, issued remarks on behalf of the Class of 2023, speaking about the connection his graduating class forged through hardship and national strife.
“To succeed, you have to fail — you have to be challenged to overcome,” Tran said, recalling how he failed an introductory statistics class his freshman year at UMass Boston. “We are tied by thousands of threads and we are affected by both the positive and negative impacts that happen to us individually and as a community.”
Sonel Cutler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cutler_sonel.