Talking about how he took a pay cut when he left a private law firm four years ago to work for the governor, Massachusetts’ interim US Senator William Maurice “Mo” Cowan told Boston College Law School graduates Friday morning to “find proper balance between your net worth and your self-worth.”
“[Net worth] often seems to be the only measure that popular culture cares about,” Cowan told the crowd of 272 graduates and about 1,500 of their friends and family gathered for the commencement ceremony inside Conte Forum. “We obsess over starting salaries, bonuses, raises, interest and investments.
“But you won’t find too many blogs quantifying your self-worth, because your self-worth is the immeasurable return on one’s investment in pursuing a full life with true purpose, while making a difference in our world,” he said. “Your self-worth is an asset that can never be taken from you. And, an asset that improves not only you but further empowers you to improve the world.”
Cowan, a Democrat and former chief of staff to Governor Deval Patrick, was appointed by Patrick on Feb. 1 to fill the seat vacated by John F. Kerry, an alum of BC Law who left to become secretary of State. Cowan will soon relinquish the seat to the winner of a June 25 special election.
In 2009, after working at private law firms for a decade and a half, Cowan said he surrendered his role as partner of a large Boston law firm and “a significant chunk” of his salary to become chief legal counsel to Governor Patrick, who Cowan described as “an old friend and mentor.”
“I jumped at the opportunity because I had found myself spending more and more of my time away from the firm doing what I am suggesting you on the life and career journey choose: interacting with the world around me by giving back through volunteer and community service,” said Cowan, a 44-year-old North Carolina native.
He said he had joined a music education nonprofit, worked with a foundation to introduce young people to the justice system and volunteered to mentor students from high school through law school.
“By interacting more with the world around me I gained perspective – and wisdom – that made me better at what was my day job,” said Cowan. “These interactions and activities also helped me strike a reasonable balance between doing good and doing well.”
“They also helped me realized that the governor’s offer for a position in public service was far more valuable than the state salary might seem,” he continued. “And, as expected, I have found much gratification through my work in state government and in my recent tenure in Washington.”
Cowan told the graduates that the law degree is versatile, “the Swiss Army knife of graduate degrees” and said that “critical thinking or reasoning” is the “corkscrew” of their degree.
“Everyone knows that of all the implements attached to your Swiss Army knife – the blade, the mini-scissors, the toothpick, the nail file – the corkscrew is the most awesome,” he said smiling and drawing laughter from the crowd.
“Graduates, as you survey the life and career paths before you, consider how the meaningful application of your exquisite Swiss Army knife of a degree, especially application of your critical thinking, can lead to greater investment in your self-worth,” he added at the end of his address. “When you do, your true career path will be as clear as a bell and you will know how best to utilize that versatile tool of remarkably infinite utility. At a minimum, you will know how to use that corkscrew I told you about. And that will always come in handy.”
Cowan, the first African-American to represent Massachusetts in the Senate since Edward Brooke held the seat as a Republican from 1966 to 1978, said he has not yet decided what he will do once his Senate job ends later this summer.
“I don’t know. I don’t have any plans at the moment,” he said in an interview after the commencement. “I’ve been focused on the work [in the Senate]. But I hope to continue to have some involvement in public policy even as I return to the private sector.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time in the Senate. I’ve really come to enjoy the job, but I still don’t have any interest in the application process,” he said smiling.
During his speech, Cowan also spoke about the Boston Marathon bombings and how the wake of the tragedy has brought about “the very best of human spirit.”
“What we saw was the whole of this city – and the nation – acting out the Jesuit principles that are the root of this institution and the foundation of your legal education,” he said.
Cowan said he saw that Jesuit spirit from many people, including BC Law School graduate Brittany A. Loring, 29, of Ayer, who suffered three leg wounds and a fractured skull in the Marathon bombings and was one of just six students this year to complete the university’s dual-degree law and business school program.
On Monday, she received a master’s degree from the Carroll School of Management, walking across the stage alongside friend and fellow bombing victim Liza Cherney to a standing ovation from classmates.
“Brittany, I speak for all of us when I say we are in awe of your strength, inspired by your recovery, and so glad that today you will receive your second BC diploma of the year,” said Cowan.
For many, the day was a welcome celebration after the recent attacks.
“It’s exciting, with everything that has happened in Boston, to see everyone come together like this,” said law school graduate Vanessa Ebode-Messi, 24, of Braintree.
She stood alongside friend and fellow graduate Eric Skeffington, 25, of Woburn, who, like her, was eager to start the next chapter.
“The BC community is really special. And you go through so much to get to this point,” he said.
Skeffington, who finished his studies in December, has already started working at a law firm. Ebode-Messi will start working at a law firm soon.
Matt Whitehead, 25, of Ashland, also has a job at a law firm lined up.
“I feel great. It’s a long journey but a fun one,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling. I’m thrilled. It’s kind of hard to put into words.”
Whitehead’s parents, brother and girlfriend were among those who came to watch him collect his diploma.
“It’s a very proud day,” said his mother, Meg Whitehead. “I’m so proud of all the hard work he’s done.”
Ebode-Messi said she liked Cowan’s message about having solid moral values and giving back through community service.
“It’s not just about taking this degree and getting rich,” she said. “It’s important that we engage in the service aspect as well.”
Matt Rocheleau can be reached at email@example.com.