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UMass 150

Jack Welch: How UMass launched my business career

Jack Welch.

Jack Welch.

I didn’t exactly come from the “lofty halls of academia,” as the saying goes — my father was a conductor on the Boston-Salem line and my mother ran the household — but my parents made sure I grew up knowing one thing for sure: I was attending college. Back in the 1950s, that was the golden dream of every immigrant family I knew on the North Shore, be the family Irish, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, you name it. It was the American dream in those days — that ordinary people, hard-working people with very little but grit and optimism to their names, could make better lives for themselves, and especially their children, by getting an education and putting that education to work in the real world.

Lucky for me and my parents, UMass-Amherst welcomed me to the Class of ’57.

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I still believe education is the American dream, and UMass is still a great place to go grab that dream by the tail.

Look, UMass is a terrific institution. Founded 150 years ago with a land grant from the US government, it’s now New England’s largest public research university, with 28,000 students and an in-state alumni base of 259,000 strong. Like other land-grant institutions, UMass was originally charged with educating students who could rise to meet the challenges of the industrial revolution. And has it ever! UMass is now a national leader in food science, sustainability, and climate research. In fact, UMass is ranked in the top 10 research universities nationwide for its commitment to innovation and leadership in sustainability. Its business and engineering schools are especially well-respected in their fields, and the university can boast of Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, not to mention our country’s current poet laureate. Its alumni roster includes renowned leaders from industry, technology, entertainment, law, and sports. And if all that wasn’t impressive enough, consider that UMass’s five campuses contribute more than $1.4 billion to the state’s economy every year.

But here’s the thing. You just don’t hear people hyperventilate over UMass all that often. It’s a very good school, you hear, or, “It’s gotten so much better over the years,” people say, “you can get an excellent education there.”

But superlatives? Not so much — and to my mind, the reason is simple. It’s because UMass is, well, it’s because UMass is in Massachusetts.

In other states — lots of them — the state university is the best game going. If you’re smart and you don’t have a particular urge to leave your familiar surroundings, you’re thrilled to go to, say, the University of Texas, or Virginia, or Michigan, or Oklahoma, and many more. The education is top-flight and the price can’t be beat.

General Electric CEO Jack Welch addresses students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File

General Electric CEO Jack Welch addresses students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

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But Massachusetts is in a league of its own when it comes to private institutions of higher learning. There’s Harvard and MIT, of course, but then there are Amherst, Williams, Smith, Wellesley, Boston College, Boston University, Emerson, Tufts, Brandeis . . . the list goes on and on.

With that kind of wattage around, it’s no wonder UMass’s light has always been under something of a bushel.

It shouldn’t be.

UMass can hold its own next to any state university in America in terms of quality education. But there’s another reason too, and it’s important. UMass does something very special for this state. It takes kids like me — kids for whom Harvard and MIT may not be an option for any number of reasons — and it gives them an outstanding education at an affordable price.

When I arrived in Amherst back in the fall of 1953, I was in many ways your typical teenager, a work in progress, you might say. I loved to play hockey and golf, and when it came to school, I figured I was pretty good at math and science. Then two UMass teachers changed the trajectory of my life. Professor George Richardson turned me onto chemistry, with his remarkable ability to bring the subject to life. Suddenly, I could really focus on academics! And E. Ernest “Ernie” Lindsey, the first head of the university’s chemical engineering department in the ’50s, gave me the confidence not only to graduate, but to embrace my studies with previously untapped gusto. Later, his guidance and recommendations helped me earn the graduate fellowships that led to my PhD in chemical engineering and ultimately the launch of my career at General Electric.

Every April now, as part of a program we’re involved with, my wife, Suzy, meets with seniors from Salem High, my alma mater, who will be attending UMass in the fall. Many of these kids hail from places like Cambodia, Iraq, Haiti, Guatemala. But their stories have a familiar ring to me.

Their parents work day and night, and as a family, oh, how they scrap, and oh, how they save, and oh, how they hope. They hope that they can live the American dream. They hope that UMass will appreciate how hard their kids have worked at school and at after-school jobs, how much they’ve contributed in sports and clubs, how they’ve volunteered at church or at the local nursing home, and they hope that one day UMass will say, “Yes, you are welcome here.”

Jack Welch, UMass Class of 1957, joined General Electric in 1960 and worked his way up to becoming the youngest chairman and CEO in 1981.

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