Framingham State University students graduating from the hilltop school experienced a bittersweet commencement Sunday afternoon, spotted with congratulatory balloons and brightly-colored flowers, but also set against the backdrop of tragedy and transition.
The Framingham State community has been no stranger to misfortune this year. Colleen Kelly, a 21-year-old senior hoping to start a career in library science, was struck and killed while crossing Route 9 in December. Kelly’s siblings accepted her posthumous bachelor’s degree in English during the ceremony Sunday.
The crowd was reminded, too, that during the spring semester, several Framingham State community members witnessed the Boston Marathon bombings. One Framingham State senior, Robert Wheeler, had just crossed the marathon finish line when the bombs detonated and sent shrapnel flying. Wheeler can be seen in a widely-circulated photograph, showing him using his sweaty jersey as a tourniquet on a bloody victim.
“Robert immediately ran back toward the danger,” said Framingham State president Tim Flanagan during his commencement remarks. “I’m sure many of you have seen the iconic photo of him removing his shirt and wrapping it around the badly damaged leg of victim Ron Brassard.”
Gesturing toward the audience, Flanagan said that Ron and his family – who were also injured during the attack – were seated in the crowd to watch Wheeler graduate.
“I know they have formed a special bond since the incident. Please join me in recognizing them,” Flanagan said, as the audience stood to applaud.
However, the ceremony was melancholic for Flanagan as well: this was the last Framingham State commencement he would lead.
Flanagan announced earlier this month that he will depart this August, after serving the college for seven years, to head up Illinois State University as president there. Framingham State officials have yet to pick his successor.
In recent years, Framingham State has significantly grown its campus and seen surging applications and enrollment.
“Today is a bittersweet occasion,” Flanagan said before the graduation, stopping to pose with students and families for pictures. “I’ve really come to love this place, and the students and the faculty. But I’m also excited to head to Illinois.”
Others who attended Framingham State, however, never left: Framingham Board of Selectmen chairman Dennis Giombetti, who graduated from the college in the 1970s, said he hoped the graduates found the town welcoming during their stay as students.
“In the next chapter in your lives, I hope you have fond memories of Framingham, and I hope that some of you will become part of our diverse community,” Giombetti, who
Keynote speaker Elizabeth Warren, who was recently elected to the US Senate, also shared a connection with the students: she, too, had attended a public university, which she said led her on a path to teaching at Harvard, influencing major financial policy, and ultimately, to a seat in the Senate.
Warren, who graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree, implored the recent graduates to keep their profession plans firm but flexible, as Warren noted that her own career jumped from her first post-college job as an elementary school teacher.
“Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected,” she said. “Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to entertain the improbable opportunity that comes looking for you.”
Warren’s commentary also comes as the federal government is reeling from scandals involving the IRS investigating conservative groups and the Department of Justice secretly obtaining phone records from the AP.
However, after the ceremony, Warren said that although what happened was wrong, she has not lost faith in the Obama administration.
“What the IRS did was wrong – there’s no moving around the edges on that. It was wrong, and it needs to be investigated in full,” she said. “We need to understand what happened, and make any changes necessary to make sure that never happens again.”
When asked if she believed Obama’s claims that he truly did not know about the IRS probe into the opposing party, Warren said, “We’ll find out. That’s what investigations are for.”