Warren urges grads to pursue issues that make their hearts flutter



Published: 05-14-2017 3:47 PM

AMHERST — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren took aim at Donald Trump and his administration during Friday’s keynote address at the University of Massachusetts Amherst commencement ceremony, where she pushed students to engage in politics.

Making jokes at Trump’s expense and her own, Warren urged the graduates to fight for everything from free speech to prenatal care and the cost of college, and drew loud applause when she said “no one in this country is above the law, and we need a Justice Department, not an obstruction of justice department.”

The day’s blazing sun stood in sharp contrast to last year’s rain-soaked event. Around 20,000 family members, friends and supporters shielded their eyes as they searched for their loved ones amid the mass of some 5,500 black robes inside Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium for the university’s 147th commencement.

In that waving, selfie-taking crowd were a diverse group of students clearly enjoying the day’s festive atmosphere: an engineering student in a Tyrannosaurus rex costume; a young woman who, after being denied the right to fly the Tibetan flag in the ceremony’s parade of nations, proudly held the flag in the crowd as the parade moved past her seat; and legendary UMass basketball star Marcus Camby.

Among the students were also a large number who, unsurprisingly, were anxious about their future jobs.

Marissa Burgess, a 22-year-old chemical engineering major from Westford, was one of them. She’s interested in material science, and would love to work for a company like Fitbit, the popular maker of wearable technology devices.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Beyond the plate: New restaurant Lao Hu Tong aims to bring Chinese food, culture to Amherst
Fan base conflicted on UMass’ decision to leave Atlantic 10, move to the MAC
Amherst Regional School budget cutting 10 teachers runs into buzz saw of opposition
Easthampton to use $100K to assess Town Lodging House site for affordable housing; neighbors upset with plans
Northampton first in WMass to back call for Gaza cease-fire
Former Easthampton school paraeducator charged with child sexual assault

Until she finds a job, however, Burgess, like many graduates, already has several canned answers waiting when asked about her future plans.

“I need a solid week of sleep and food,” she said, noting that she’s repeated a similar line numerous times in recent weeks. “I come up with some different variation every time.”

Burgess was walking with her friend and chemical engineering classmate, 22-year-old Miranda Goldman of Princeton, New Jersey.

“Probably failure,” Goldman said when asked her biggest fear. “Not doing everything I’ve always wanted to do.”

But before the realities of “adulting” set in, Goldman said she has plans to travel.

And the greatest lesson she learned during her four years at UMass?

“I guess having to do things for myself,” she shrugged.

Once the students were seated, with the inevitable beach balls began bouncing through the crowd, the proceedings began.

University Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy got a loud round of applause when he told students to “always remember, there is a huge difference between opinion and fact.”

Conor James O’Kelly, a communication major and English minor from Ipswich, was up next as the undergraduate speaker.

“This world was not meant for those who simply wish to live the dream,” he told his peers to a standing ovation. “It was meant for those who wish to change the dream.”

Renowned jazz singer and longtime UMass faculty member Sheila Jordan was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree, and local politicians like state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, joined the event.

Warren blends jabs, policy

The biggest cheers, however, came for Warren, D-Massachusetts, who drew laughter when she pledged a short speech.

“I understand that every extra minute I speak is a minute longer til you can hit the bars,” she joked, making reference to an “Elizabeth Warren commencement speech drinking game” she saw online.

“The downside of course is that now I know what you’re hiding under those robes,” she said. “If you learn nothing else from this speech, please know this: Fireball is a nickname that Donald Trump uses on Twitter, not a beverage to be consumed by distinguished college graduates.”

The humor, however, soon turned toward a pitch to students looking toward what’s next in their lives.

“I’m here today to ask you to get more involved in our democracy,” she said.

As an example of that involvement, she mentioned how elected officials set the interest rates on public student loans, which many of the graduates undoubtedly have.

“As a practical matter, how much you owe, and who has access to the first-rate education you’ve received here, is set in part by a handful of people who, in a democracy, are supposed to report directly to you,” Warren said.

But it’s no longer possible, she added, to assume that democracy will work if most Americans wait until elections to learn about the candidates and issues at hand.

“If elected officials don’t hear from you and people like you, then policies will be set by the people they do hear from,” she said. “And, believe me, they hear plenty from corporate CEOs, from Wall Street, from giant corporations and from others who spend buckets of money to make sure that their interests are heard.”

Warren challenged the students to engage in issues that really matter to them — the kind of causes that make their hearts flutter. Then, she said, they should study the facts underlying those issues.

“So go online and read the facts,” she implored. “Not the alternative facts, the real facts.”

The stakes, she said, are substantial, just as they were with previous generations of Americans.

“Your generation faces huge challenges — sharp differences that divide this nation along deep fracture lines,” she said. “Intergenerational challenges that have saddled young people in this country with an unprecedented $1.4 trillion dollars in student loan debt, an economy that is producing great wealth for the top 10 percent and locking everyone else out.”

But if the students are willing to fight for this issues that matter most, Warren said, they’ll live lives filled with those moments that make their hearts flutter.

“I believe you can make great things happen,” she ended her speech. “For our country, and for yourselves.”

“Go UMass!”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.