Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was among “my people.”
Speaking at Bunker Hill Community College’s commencement Saturday, Walsh told graduates he was one of them: a dreamer who forged an unconventional path to earn a college degree and later become mayor of Boston.
“I am so comfortable when I get a chance to speak at a commencement with people who work hard, who have families, who understand what struggles are,” said Walsh, who also received the President’s Distinguished Service Award from Bunker Hill. “Many of you have been up and down. Like me, your path is different.”
The school said it granted a record-breaking 1,696 associate’s degrees and certificates at its 42nd commencement, which was held at the college’s Charlestown campus.
The class of 2016 included immigrants, parents with children at home, workers who juggled school and jobs, and some who had previously attempted to earn a degree and failed.
“I see before me people who have been working part time or full time with two or three jobs. You know what it’s like to come off a long shift of work, when every cell in your body wants to sleep. Instead you went home and you opened the book,” Walsh said. “You earned this degree. No one can take that away from you.”
The mayor shared his life story, describing how he was raised by immigrant parents with middle-school educations who wanted more for him and his brother.
He discussed his struggle with alcohol, his decision to give up drinking, and being elected to the state Legislature to represent the Dorchester neighborhood where he was raised.
Even after becoming a state representative, Walsh said, he did not have a bachelor’s degree. He said he enrolled in night school at Boston College and graduated in 2009.
“I was a state representative in the daytime. I was college student in the nighttime,” Walsh said. “I quit college 100 times in my head because I’m like, I can’t do both. I’m tired. I don’t want to write a paper because I hadn’t written a paper in 20 years. I don’t want to take a test. I’m sick of taking tests.”
Walsh said the promise of a degree sustained him. When he was sworn in as mayor in 2014, Walsh said, he held his inauguration at Boston College to honor the education he received there.
“I am so proud of your accomplishments,” Walsh said. “When you walk out of this tent today, hold your head high.”
Walsh’s speech resonated with many graduates, some of whom described having similar experiences.
Hanane Ihizan and her husband, Noureddine Faouzi, received their associate’s degrees and plan to continue their studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
The couple, who live in East Boston, brought their sons, ages 4 and 8, to the ceremony.
“We want to be a role model to them,” Ihizan said. “We’re honored to be here.”
Ihizan and Faouzi said they related to Walsh’s struggles. Both are natives of Morocco who met after they moved to the United States in the early 2000s. Faouzi said he earned his GED and his wife earned a high school diploma after leaving Morocco.
“When we came here, we struggled,” Faouzi said. “We decided, we say we have to go to college . . . We’re here, so we succeeded.”
Robert Encarnacion, 35, of Dorchester, earned an associate’s degree in business administration. He said he decided to go to Bunker Hill, because he could not get the job he desired.
“I wanted to have a job in banking with a good salary,” Encarnacion said. “It was not being offered to me because I didn’t have the college degree.”
Encarnacion, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he identified with Walsh’s decision to change his life through education. He said he plans to enroll at Northeastern University.
Yemil Serret, 23, said he dropped out of UMass Lowell before getting a degree in history and political science Saturday from Bunker Hill. The Roxbury resident said he plans to attend the University of Massachusetts Boston in the fall.
Serret said one day he would like to follow Walsh’s path and become Boston’s mayor.
“Dream big,” he said. “You never know.”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.