May 29, 2015

For four years I’ve posted Graduation Day at UMassBoston in tribute to my school and especially the truly special students who graduate each year. I also presented a conference paper in 2013 with a very talented graduating senior, Jason Agress. In truth he did most of the work so I invited him to publish a blog post on the paper topic here. In open defiance of my request, Jason instead submitted a student’s view of graduation day. I hope you enjoy it. You will hear much more from this young man in the years to come. Jason’s post first ran in 2013.

When I entered the UMass Boston commencement ceremony on Friday, I was initially somewhat apathetic. While enthusiastic about graduating, the ceremony itself seemed unimportant – especially when it was outside on a 90+ degree day. But as the ceremony went on, I began to understand its significance. In one place, at one time, I was in the company of 4000 other graduates who studied a diverse array of subjects and achieved an impressive list of accomplishments.

When you’re studying for that final exam or writing a paper, I think it’s sometimes easy to forget that a university is about more than just taking classes, getting grades, and becoming “credentialed”; a university is a creative establishment where knowledge is discovered and shared, and where life lessons – in addition to academic lessons – are learned. This was most clear from the stories told and awards presented at the ceremony.

But for me this lesson was learned earlier on, when I had the opportunity to work on real research projects as an undergraduate. That’s right – research, papers, conferences, and panels like those expected in graduate school and beyond. My first foray into original research was in Prof. Cunningham’s Massachusetts Politics class and a subsequent independent study, which culminated in a presentation at the Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference. I worked on a project about legislative professionalism in the Bay State – conducting a serious literature review, collecting data from state house records, forming hypotheses, analyzing data, and ultimately producing what I believe to be a fresh contribution to political science. I experienced firsthand what it means to be a member of the academic community – its benefits, rewards, and magnitude.

My academic journey continued when I applied for and was chosen as a Provost Research Scholar, sponsored by UMB Provost Winston Langley. The award provided me with the chance to again work with Prof. Cunningham, this time on a topic he wanted to research – political blogs. We identified key questions and related data to collect, operationalized concepts, and evaluated results – eventually leading to our participation in a panel at the New England Political Science Association’s annual conference. Attending this conference, in itself, was an eye-opener for me as I watched political scientists describe their work and defend their findings; I realized how passionate these academics were about their work and how much fun they truly had sharing it with their colleagues. NEPSA was a prime example of how universities foster creativity and promote the discovery of knowledge.

Engaging in undergraduate research, and the experiences the went along with it, helped me understand why Chancellor Keith Motley always emphasizes that UMass Boston is a “research university with a teaching soul.” While teaching is about the dissemination and sharing of knowledge, research is how it’s discovered and refined. Put that way, it’s obvious how research and teaching go together – and why it’s so important that both take place at institutions like this one.

Discovering and sharing knowledge is not something that can be done in isolation; rather, being part of a community is fundamental. I know I am lucky to have been part of such a supportive academic community at UMass Boston, with professors who want their students to succeed and people who truly love what they do. Because of this community, I know that graduate studies are in my future, for how could they not be after the stimulating undergraduate experiences that I had?

So Commencement really does matter. It showcases why we spend so much time in places like my now alma mater, UMass Boston.

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