Adrianne Haslet inspires graduates with her story of resilience at Class of 2024 Commencement

May 18, 2024
By: Nancy Sheehan

In a powerful and inspiring commencement keynote address, Adrianne Haslet, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor and former ballroom dancer, urged Worcester State University’s Class of 2024 to embrace their resilience and believe in their ability to overcome any challenge.

The graduates now stand simultaneously at the finish line and a new starting line, Haslet told the 940 graduating seniors at Worcester State’s 148th Commencement May 18 at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester.

“What will get you to the finish line is nothing compared to what got you to the start,” she said. “So often we stand at the beginning of something and think of the monumental task ahead, forgetting all the steps we’ve already taken to get there in the first place.”

Haslet was at the peak of her career as a professional dancer when she survived the Boston Marathon terrorist attack in 2013 where she lost her left leg. She learned an entirely new way to navigate her daily life in the face of this challenge and inspired others around the globe, appearing in her own CNN documentary “The Survivor Diaries” with Anderson Cooper, which detailed her first year as an amputee. Her debut TED talk has over 18 million views.

She went on to become a distance runner and has completed multiple Boston Marathons and Boston Athletic Association 10Ks, including a first-place finish in 2022.

But as someone who, as she says, ‘didn’t like to sweat in public,’ running was not something Haslet ever thought she would pursue. Instead, she had always wanted to be a dancer and idolized the legendary Ginger Rogers after seeing her smooth dance moves with Fred Astaire in an old film on TV. She longed to one day dance like the elegant and graceful Rogers, but that dream died – and she almost did, too – one sunny Monday afternoon in Boston.

Haslet said she had been strolling around Boston and just happened upon the Boston Marathon. She didn’t even know what it was back then, but she lingered and watched for a while. She was standing near the finish line when she heard a loud blast, felt the ground shake, and then experienced a sense of being trapped or crushed, as if a building had fallen on her, although one hadn’t.  Terrorists had planted two bombs near the finish line and Haslet was only two feet away from the second bomb when it went off.

“I lifted my right leg to see a gash, then my left, but there was nothing there. My leg was gone,” she said. “I thought two things. One, ‘There goes Ginger,’ and two, ‘There is no way my family and friends can get here fast enough to say goodbye.’ ”

She credits an off-duty doctor, EMTs at the scene and a “superstar surgeon” at the hospital with saving her life. She said she managed to get through her long recovery by relying on grit, determination, and the support of her family, friends, and medical professionals. She made promises to herself and to her surgeon that she would someday dance again and even run in the Boston Marathon, which gave her a sense of purpose and motivation.

Haslet shared her journey of defying odds and fulfilling those promises, inspiring the graduates to never doubt their own potential. As she was recovering, she mentioned her desire to dance again and said so during an interview on national TV.

“Later that evening, a doctor, not my own, came into my room and said, ‘Listen, I’ve been here for 20 years. I heard you want to dance again. I’ve never met an amputee dancer. I just want you to know you shouldn’t have hope,’” she said. Haslet then lifted her right index finger before continuing her story, “I raised my finger in the air – and it may not have been this one,” she said, a comment that drew laughter from the audience. “And I said, ‘If my chances are one in a million, I’ll be that one.’”

Haslet advised graduates to believe in the conviction of others who see talent and strength in them, even when they may not see it themselves. She encouraged them to surround themselves with people who believe in them and their abilities. “When someone tells you something can’t be done, it is more of a reflection of their limitations, not yours,” she said.

Haslet’s limits were again tested when she had to fight hard to establish a new division in the Boston Marathon for amputees and people with limb differences. She advocated for this division and worked to raise awareness about the lack of representation for individuals with disabilities in the marathon. Eventually, she succeeded.

“That evening after the press conference to announce the division, I had hundreds of videos sent to me showing people telling their friends with limb differences they could one day win the Boston Marathon!”

Haslet noted that when people are outspoken, strong, resilient, and determined, as she had to be to create a new marathon division, they are often called “a bit much.” She acknowledged that society may not know how to handle individuals who possess such resilience and feistiness. However, she said that being “a bit much” in terms of being determined, and enjoying life to the fullest is something to be celebrated and embraced.

As members of the Class of 2024 embark on their new chapter, Haslet urged them to always remember their inner strength and resilience, and to be unapologetically “a bit much” in their pursuit of changing the world.

As she stood on the stage with her adorable Australian Labradoodle service dog named Fred (in honor of Astaire), President Barry M. Maloney conferred upon her the Worcester State University degree of doctor of humane letters, honoris causa

The student speaker this year was Alexander Martell who, speaking in Spanish and English, encouraged the graduates to celebrate their achievements, express gratitude to their supporters, embrace change, continue learning, and pursue their aspirations.

Martell is a Worcester native and grew up in a traditional Puerto Rican household. He enlisted in the military in 2020 and serves as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. At Worcester State, Alexander partnered with the Health Sciences Department to organize educational field trips for high schoolers, exposing them to various careers in the healthcare profession, among many other activities.

Martell emphasized the importance of community and collaboration, saying both are important because they possess the power to affect profound change in our surroundings. 

He said his military service has instilled in him a deep sense of duty and service to others. “It has shown me the importance of standing up for what is right, even in the face of adversity, and the power of teamwork and collaboration in achieving our goals,” he said. “Together, we are stronger.”

In his remarks, President Maloney highlighted the resilience and ability to handle difficult situations that the class of 2024 has demonstrated, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. He referenced a quote from Coach Kara Lawson’s viral motivational speech to her Duke University women’s basketball team: “We all wait in life for things to get easier. It will never get easier. What happens is you handle hard better.”

The challenges members of the Class of 2024 faced as seemingly the whole world began to close down in March of 2020 evinces a determination and strength that will serve them well going forward, according to Maloney.

“In the midst of the pandemic, did you wait for things to get easier? No, you did not. With a ‘safe return’ plan in place Worcester State reopened as the lockdown eased. It was a brave decision for us as well as for those of you who joined us that fall.”

President Maloney told the graduates that they have shown resilience not only during the pandemic, but throughout their time at Worcester State University.

“Resilience. It’s a quality not often associated with this generation yet each and every student earning a degree today has shown it,” he said. “Things may never get easy, as Kara Lawson said, yet you already know how to handle hard.”

Maloney also spoke about notable alumni who have made courageous choices and given back to the university. One of them, Sarah Ella Wilson, attended the institution just 20 years after it opened. She was one of the first Black women to attend the Normal School and became a leader in the community. She taught at the Belmont Street School for almost 50 years and played a significant role in the women’s and civil rights movements in Worcester.

“Sarah Wilson established the essential traits of what it means to be a Lancer: courage, leadership, and public-spiritedness, which I will define as appreciation for what has been given and a desire to give back,” he said.

President Maloney concluded by expressing confidence in the graduates’ ability to handle future challenges and contribute to Worcester State’s legacy.

“I have no doubt yours will be the stories we tell on our 200th anniversary as you join the brave, yet humble and giving, Lancers who came before you,” he said.

Just before the graduates prepared to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, Provost Lois Wims announced two faculty members who are being recognized with the George I. Alden Excellence in Teaching Award, the highest honor Worcester State bestows upon faculty. It recognizes faculty members who exemplify excellence in teaching, advising, and mentoring. The recipients of this award are recognized for their outstanding contributions to their respective fields and their dedication to their students’ education and growth.

This year’s awardees are Anthony Dell’ Aera, associate professor of political science, who has been recognized for his work in American politics and public policy, as well as his involvement in various civic engagement activities, and Laura Reynolds, assistant professor of earth, environment, and physics, who has been acknowledged for her commitment to active learning and her emphasis on the importance of learning from failures in scientific endeavors. Both recipients have received several grants and maintain active involvement in their respective fields.

Photos by Matt Wright ’10

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