MCLA graduates 409 students

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. - What began with a dream several years ago ended Saturday for hundreds of graduates with a selfie.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President Mary K. Grant capped off a lively Class of 2014 commencement ceremony by whipping out her phone from beneath her robes, turning around, and snapping a picture of herself and 409 graduates.

The unexpected move encapsulated the light-hearted and optimistic spirit of the event, which featured an empowering commencement address by Charles Desmond, a longtime educator and chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

Though there were times of levity, students and faculty also took a somber moment to remember the life of student Rebecca Haskell, who was days from graduating before she died unexpectedly on May 10. In her absence, Rebecca's two sons, Caiman Ketchum and Avry Haskell-Ellerbee, accepted her diploma from Grant.

Grant opened the ceremony by celebrating the accomplishments of MCLA students who came from a variety of backgrounds -- including traditional students and those who have returned to school to finish their degrees.

Those sentiments, and embrace of the diverse student body, were echoed by student president Jake Powers.

"Take a break if you need to, but never, ever quit," Powers said, sharing wisdom he learned from his father.

Desmond told the graduates though the job market might be tough, they should cherish their liberal arts education.

"You've received a precious gift, those of you who are graduating here today," Desmond said. "The gift of a liberal education from a public institution whose mission is to educate practical problem-solvers."

Desmond, who also received an honorary Doctor of Humanities, told graduates lessons he learned from his own difficult journey to where he is today, growing up with a single father who suffered from alcohol addiction.

"I didn't have people around me to guide me," Desmond said.

After getting into Boston University, Desmond said, he spent most of his time in local pool halls - "I was what you might call a pool shark," he said.

"I made a lot of money playing pool, essentially teaching rich kids how to part with their cash," Desmond joked.

But that lifestyle wasn't fit for college, and a dean at the university "invited" Desmond to drop out. Shortly after leaving school, Desmond was "invited" to go to Vietnam by the U.S. government, where he was "surrounded by death and destruction."

"I promised God that if I survived, I would try to do something better for the rest of my life," Desmond said. "There's something about being close to death that makes you think differently about life."

Desmond learned two lessons from this, he said, that he wanted graduates to take with them as well.

First, every student should know that he or she is special and important. "I hope that if you don't come from a background of privilege, that you realize that a background of modest means can actually be an asset and not a liability," Desmond said.

Secondly Desmond asked that student have confidence in the education they received, despite growing concerns about the value of colleges across the country.

In today's world, Desmond told students, "you're going to need a skill-set from a liberal arts education."

"You may not only need to find a job, you may need to invent one," Desmond said. Grant closed the ceremony by instilling her confidence in graduates that they will make a difference in the world - and asked them to "not sit back and wait."

"You are far from finished," Grant said.


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