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Baker at UMass commencement: ‘Do not fear challenges and disappointment’

Governor Charlie Baker delivered the commencement speech Friday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s graduation ceremony.
Governor Charlie Baker delivered the commencement speech Friday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s graduation ceremony.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

AMHERST — Governor Charlie Baker shared advice he gave his daughter with graduates during commencement ceremonies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Friday, calling on them to make good choices and build strong relationships throughout their lives.

During his remarks, Baker told graduates that the choices they make will play a role in the challenges they will face, and how they will handle them.

“Do not fear challenges and disappointments,” said Baker, whose daughter graduates college next week. “Growth is often about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and learning from difficult moments.”

Friday’s ceremony was the university’s 149th undergraduate commencement, where about 5,500 undergraduates received their bachelor’s degrees at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, according to the university.

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A crowd of about 20,000 family, friends, and guests were expected to attend the undergraduate commencement, according to a university statement.

In his remarks, Baker reflected on the choices made by his grandparents, who met at a French airfield during World War I.

No one, Baker said, could have expected the two of them would choose each other. They were different, he said: She was from Massachusetts and a Smith College graduate; he was from New York City and hadn’t gone to college.

“They were an odd couple for their time, and they never had much money,” Baker said. “But they built a purposeful, beautiful life,”

He also pointed to the lessons that can be taught by failure — recalling his 2010 loss in the state’s gubernatorial race to former Governor Deval Patrick.

Bobby Morse was excited after graduating from UMass.
Bobby Morse was excited after graduating from UMass.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Baker said he was “still pretty sore” about the loss when he was called by an organizer of a robotics competition at Boston University, asking Baker to speak to participants at the event.

When Baker asked why him, the organizer responded, “ ‘I think you’re perfect. I want you to talk about why it’s OK to fail,’ ” Baker said.

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After some consideration, “I thought that the story he was asking me to share was worth telling, so I went, and I told it, and I was glad that I did,” Baker said.

He said he has experienced good and bad times in his life, but that is not what he remembers most.

“What I remember, and what I cherish most of all, are the people I have had a chance to share my time with, the relationships that I’ve been able to develop, and how those people make me feel,” Baker said. “I’ve tried desperately hard not to let them down.”

Daniella Iannuzzi, a finance major and education minor, was the student speaker at the undergraduate commencement. In remarks to her classmates, the Wakefield resident reflected back on their years together at the university — and looked ahead to the future.

“As we celebrate the end of our undergraduate experience, remember that our time is not up — we still have so many more moments throughout our lives, both big and small, to experience,” Iannuzzi said.

As they left the stadium Friday, the new graduates already had their eyes on the future.

Margaret Chouinard, 22, an accounting major from Natick who will start a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers in July, said the time in school flew by.

“It’s been the fastest four years of my life. But it’s the best school ever, I loved it here,” Chouinard said.

Bobby Morse, 22, of Shirley, said he was overwhelmed by finishing his bachelor’s degree in political science.

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“I feel like a new person,” Morse said. “I’m just glad that I made it.”

Earlier in the day, commencement was held for more than 1,900 master’s and doctoral students at the university’s Mullins Center, the school said in a statement.

Maureen Gichura, who received a degree in public health, raised her fist in celebration.
Maureen Gichura, who received a degree in public health, raised her fist in celebration.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Among them was Nellipher Lewis Mchenga, 31, originally from Blantyre, Malawi, who completed her doctorate in nursing at the university.

When she was 4 years old, Lewis Mchenga was hospitalized for measles and severe malnutrition. And two of her 10 siblings died of malaria in early childhood.

Those experiences inspired her to enter nursing, and “to reach out to many people and help them have healthy lives,” Lewis Mchenga said in a phone interview Thursday.

Lewis Mchenga graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Malawi Kamuzu College of Nursing, and went to work as a midwife and nurse.

In 2013, Lewis Mchenga helped establish YouthLine, a non-profit that provides food, clothing, and education assistance to high school and college students in Malawi. Since it began, she said, the organization has helped more than 100 students.

She came to UMass Amherst to begin her doctorate studies in 2014 and lives in Amherst with her husband, Promise Mchenga, and their 11-year-old daughter.

Lewis Mchenga said she wants to become a university professor in the US to help train the next generation of medical professionals, and work to improve health care in Malawi. She also wants to build a program that allows students from Malawi to train in the US, she said.

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“I believe I am going to achieve my goal, because I have already seen the difference that I am making,” she said.

Now-former nursing students were in a celebratory mood.
Now-former nursing students were in a celebratory mood.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.