At UMass Boston’s graduation, a vision shared

Victoria Reggie Kennedy received an honorary doctor of laws degree yesterday from the UMass chancellor, J. Keith Motley. Victoria Reggie Kennedy received an honorary doctor of laws degree yesterday from the UMass chancellor, J. Keith Motley. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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Invoking the words and dreams of her late husband, Victoria Reggie Kennedy laid out for University of Massachusetts Boston graduates yesterday a vision for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate as a place where students from grade school to graduate school can become part of the nation’s ongoing political history.

The institute, to be built on the UMass campus, “will not be, as some have cynically suggested, a static library or a shrine, either to my husband or even to the US Senate,’’ Kennedy said in her keynote address to thousands of UMass graduates, addressing critics’ complaints that the center would be more of a tribute than a learning tool.

Instead, she said, the center will be interactive, allowing visitors and students to reenact debates, learn the histories of each individual Senate desk and its past occupant, and study the legislative process.

“It will be a dynamic center of learning and engagement that takes advantage of 21st-century technology to provide each visitor with a unique and information-rich, personalized experience that literally will bring history alive,’’ Kennedy said in the commencement address on a warm, sunny morning.

The senator’s widow also received an honorary doctor of laws degree, an award UMass chancellor J. Keith Motley said was earned for her “strong advocacy for women, children, and families,’’ as well as her work against gun violence.

Another Bay Stater, US Representative Edward J. Markey, was given the Chancellor’s Medal for Exemplary Leadership for his three decades of work on energy and the environment. Markey, a Democrat and the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, chairs the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independent, coauthored the House climate change bill, and has been a prominent national voice in the Democratic response to the oil spill disaster off the coast of Louisiana.

Recalling that Markey, as a young state lawmaker, had so aggravated legislative leadership that his desk was put out in the hallways, Motley praised Markey’s determination.

“They could not tell you where to sit,’’ Motley said. “They tried to tell you where to sit, but not where to stand,’’ he added, before placing the medal around Markey’s neck.

Markey, recalling his personal history as a milkman’s son who had never been to Washington, D.C., until he was sworn in as a congressman, told the graduates how lucky they were to have the opportunities afforded by the urban university. “Congratulations to you. Go out and change the world!’’ he told the graduates.

The university, situated on Columbia Point and adjacent to the JFK Library, awarded 3,366 degrees and certificates, including 2,115 bachelor’s degrees and 1,251 master’s and doctral degrees. Some 59 percent of the graduates were the first in their families to complete college, Motley said.

Honorary doctorates were also awarded to George A. Russell Jr., executive vice president and director of corporate citizenship for State Street Corp., and the poet and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda.

Vietnamese-born student Thao Xuan Do was given the highest honor offered a UMass undergraduate, the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence.

Do, 26, from Norwood, arrived in the United States in 2004 as an immigrant with her mother, unable to speak any English. In the six years since, Do traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where she volunteered in local clinics and studied the impact of AIDS there. A chemistry major, she hopes to become a doctor.

Beginning her remarks in Vietnamese, Do said, “Today, I am a college graduate,’’ before translating her words for the audience. She then urged her fellow students to integrate their mistakes into their learning, instead of papering over them.

“Know yourself, and life will take you to your destination,’’ said Do, who is headed off to Bethesda, Md., on a fellowship to do biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health.

Susan Milligan can be reached at

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