The 144th Commencement exercises of Worcester State University was like no other before, as graduates of the Class of 2020 received congratulations and recognition in a virtual format on Saturday, July 25. A common theme among the many well-wishers featured in the presentation was an acknowledgement of the difficult circumstances the graduates have endured—and triumphed over—in the past few months.
“While an in-person ceremony is always preferred, this online format shouldn’t take away from your pride in what this day represents: the joyful culmination of years of hard work and perseverance,” said President Barry M. Maloney.
“It may be easy to focus on what you have lost because of global forces beyond your control. Instead, I would like to remind you of what these strange days have highlighted: Your ability to transform, adapt, and create something new,” Maloney said. “These are essential, foundational skills that you will use throughout your life, making you stronger and better prepared for the inevitable curveballs that will be thrown your way in the future.”
Commencement Speaker Lisa Colombo ’87, D.N.P., M.H.A., R.N., executive vice chancellor of Commonwealth Medicine, offered “Lessons from a Global Pandemic” based on her experience as the incident commander at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, where COVID-19 killed 76 veterans at the state-run facility.
The first lesson came when she was approached to lead a team of medical professionals to contain the severe outbreak.
“I knew I had the experience to help. Yet, in that split second, I was paralyzed with fear. I knew the seriousness of what I had to do and the threat it could pose to my health and to others. But without hesitation, I said, ‘Yes, I can help.’ Lesson number one: never let fear stand in the way of doing what you know you are capable of.”
She spent six weeks in Holyoke, working in partnership with the National Guard, led by Brigadier General John J. Driscoll. After her assignment, Colombo was relieved to test negative for the virus. Sadly, on her way home to her family, she learned her 90-year-old father, a Korean War veteran, was not as fortunate. He died of COVID-19 at home several weeks later. She was told there would be no military honors at his funeral because of the pandemic.
“A few days later when my family members and I pulled into the cemetery behind my father’s hearse, there were four guardsmen in their dress blues standing at attention…one trumpet player, two for the flag service and General Driscoll, who handed me that flag and thanked me for my father’s service. I realized how lucky we were,” said Colombo. “Had I never gone to Holyoke and developed a relationship with the general, those military honors would not have been possible.”
In closing, Colombo urged graduates to live their best lives.
“WSU Class of 2020, this is your time. You are ready to start your new journey. Go forward and live it intentionally. You are the future of this country. Take these and all the lessons you have learned and use them to make this world a better place,” she said.
Class of 2020 Committee co-chairs Maribel Eva Mateo and Camille G. Bourbeau also offered upbeat words for their fellow graduates.
“As the Class of 2020, we must acknowledge the fact that the end of our race came quicker than expected. But we must also acknowledge that we are the class that triumphed through these hard times. We may not be walking the stage that we all desired but that does not take away from the hard work and dedication that we put in to receive these degrees,” said Mateo. “We must never forget the marathon continues.”
“Today is a new beginning for all of us. Some will start their planned careers while others are continuing their education. No matter the direction you take, there will always be lessons along the way,” said Bourbeau. “Life truly is a journey. All accomplishments are starting points for more achievements. The graduating Class of 2020 is unstoppable and has the ability to influence others in a positive light.”
Throughout the ceremony, other members of the campus community and beyond offered congratulations, including alumni, faculty, trustees, staff, politicians, and local Boston professional athletes: David Ortiz of the Red Sox, James White of the New England Patriots, Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, and Enes Cantor of the Boston Celtics.
To see the entire presentation, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg5WPysU_qE
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