Kennedy told graduates to have faith in themselves, be open to new things and participate in their community and nation.
LENOX, Mass. — Many of the 308 graduates of Berkshire Community College are in a position to start a "chain reaction" within their families through their academic success.
Victoria Kennedy, wife of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, spoke of how her own father was the first in his family to graduate from college, then went on to law school.
His educational opportunity "started a chain reaction of opportunity for all his children and grandchildren," said the Tulane University graduate and successful attorney to those gathered in The Shed at Tanglewood on Friday evening for the Pittsfield college's 52nd commencement exercises. Those about to be awarded their associate's degrees and certificates included a number who were also the first in their families to pursue a secondary education, she said.
"You're starting your own chain reaction of opportunities for your families that will cascade down to your children and grandchildren and beyond," said Kennedy. "You have all the right tools to make a positive difference in the life of your family, your community and your nation."
Kennedy got the graduates on their feet to give their loved ones and friends a standing ovation for the support they'd been given over the course of their studies. She teased them a bit, too, by noting that the only word they wanted to hear was "congratulations."
"There is never only one word," she said before promising not to speak for the "very, very long time" like the speaker at her graduation. Then she threw out her arms and grinned, "I'm actually on the stage at Tanglewood!"
There was more joshing on the stage than in the front-row seats where the mostly quiet graduates were seated — at least until most of the diplomas were handed out and the whooping began. And there was some joking about the college's new leader "President (Ellen) Kennedy" — "Doesn't it make you feel special that it took a Kennedy to replace a Raverta," quipped state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli to retired BCC leader Paul Raverta in the audience. He also got the graduates shouting with an "Are you ready for this?" "YEAH," they responded.
Ellen Kennedy, recently selected by the board of trustees after several months as interim, thanked the staff and faculty and boards of the college and BCC Foundation for their efforts. Most of all, it's the students she found most inspiring.
"The words 'commitment' and 'hard work' don't come close to describing what you did to get here today," she said. "Sacrifice is probably more accurate. I listened to your stories ... I know your stories. You inspire me and everyone in the audience.
"And today, we celebrate those stories and what you have accomplished. Hope alone would not have gotten your here."
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi congratulated the graduates for their "bold move" to pursue higher education but also noted the "special place in our hearts for BCC," which he described as a creative and innovative partner.
Victoria Kennedy also noted BCC's role in "vanguard of educational innovation" as the state's first community college. Beginning with 153 students 52 years ago, the school now enrolls more than 2,600 students in more than 30 disciplines while also providing one of the few lifetime learning programs in the state.
She gave the graduates a list with three wishes: first, that they have faith in themselves and a positive attitude, and second that they be willing to collaborate, listen and ask for help. "I hope you will chose to be civil because we need so much more civility in our daily lives," said Kennedy, pointing to the ability her husband had to cross the aisle and work with Republicans, despite being a Democratic leader.
Thirdly, that they become active in their community and in public service - and especially, vote. "What matters is that you participate," she said. "Your voice and vote are important. ... Please don't leave something as important as your future in someone else's hands."
Ellen Kennedy presided over her first BCC graduation. Right, valedictorian Caitlyn Bessette said the college was a steppingstone for her future. More photos here.
Also attending were Eugene Dellea, president of the BCC Foundation and a longtime friend of the Kennedy family; state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Gailanne Cariddi, and Sheriff Tom Bowler, who opened and closed the commencement. Recognized as professor emeriti were Benigna Chilla, Alice Jehle and Nancy Travis. Joseph Sicotte sang the national anthem. Susan Lombard, chairman, brought greeting from trustees and asked each graduate to "commit yourself to being a lifelong learner."
Valedictorian Caitlyn Bessette, a liberal arts major, said she thought of BCC as her foundation and a steppingstone to her future, and thanked her mom for pushing her to do better. She stressed the importance of education in modern society and told her classmates they should be proud of the hard work they had done in educating themselves.
"We have the power to do anything and to achieve everything and to soar beyond all expectations," she said. "Congratulations class of 2012."
The two-year school awarded 263 associate degrees and 55 certificates. Graduates spilled out onto the lawn for pictures and congratulations from friends and family.
Rachael Daley, a graduate of Lee High School, returned to attend BCC after four years in the Air Force. The main reason she chose BCC was because of her other responsibilities: two young sons.
"It's a little tough but doable," she said as the crowd began to disperse. With a degree in health science in hand, she's planning to continue her education in occupational therapy. But Daley isn't the start of a chain reaction that Kennedy spoke of; rather, she's part of the cascade.
"My mom was the first to graduate from college in her family," said Daley, and earned her master's degree a few years ago. She was appreciative of Kennedy's call for civility and to vote. "She's wonderful," said Daily. "My family, we all love the Kennedys."
Kennedy, recalling her husband's words, sent the class off with a call to create their own legacy.
"All of us will live on in the future we make," she said. "Class of 2012, we're all looking forward to the future you make. I know it's in good hands with you. Congratulations and godspeed."
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