“I wish you uncomfortable but exciting lives, full of balance, promise, failure, compassion, fun, love, and utter devotion to the core principles that are seared into the hearts and souls of each of you at Holy Cross,” Dr. James J. O’Connell, president and founding physician of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), said in his address to the newly graduated members of the Class 2017 at the College of the Holy Cross’ 171st Commencement Exercises on May 26.
A total of 667 students were awarded Bachelor of Arts degrees in the presence of family and friends, Holy Cross faculty, administrators, staff and honored guests at the DCU Center in Worcester.
Addressing the full convention center, with particular focus on the Class of 2017, O’Connell offered students anecdotes of the many turns of his own journey in the years following his undergraduate experience, which eventually led him to pursue a career as an oncologist. Then, what was supposed to be a one-year commitment to working with the homeless of Boston turned into a 32 year-long career with the BHCHP, the country’s largest and most comprehensive program of its kind, serving more than 12,000 homeless people a year in two hospital-based clinics and more than 60 shelters and outreach sites.
O’Connell admitted he is still incredulous at where life has brought him and offered students advice to take with them as they begin their own journeys: “Stay dynamically present to the cosmic unfolding…Be humble and listen to those around you…Never lose your sense of wonder; wonder transforms routine…Listen to your heart. Defy convention, be irreverent, but always diplomatic. Stand for something larger than yourself…Embrace failure.”
Beyond this advice, O’Connell stressed that the Class of 2017 already had many tools in hand, garnered from their four years at Holy Cross.
“I promise you, if you keep your hearts open, as you have learned to do here at Holy Cross, your passion will come to you, and often when you least expect it.”
Valedictorian Haylie Butler, a Spanish and biology double major in the Health Professions Advising Program, addressed her classmates who listened, newly minted diplomas in hand.
“Whether you knew it or not, the day we chose to attend Holy Cross,” said Butler, “we made a collective decision as a class — a decision to let Holy Cross change us.”
Butler explained how Holy Cross challenged her and her classmates to put their personal checklists aside, and push beyond their anticipated plans — to do more, give more, and ask more of their education and themselves. For Butler, this meant spending her junior year in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in the rainforest of Costa Rica, falling in love with new cultures and places, and rediscovering her passion for service.
“We are not the same people who rolled up to Wheeler, Hanselman, and Mulledy on August 24, 2013, because we have shared the valuable and impactful gift that is a Holy Cross education,” said Butler. “One that encourages us to achieve greatness in a myriad of ways so that we may cross dimensions and interact meaningfully with others. We are a class of activists, leaders, and scientists. Storytellers, athletes, artists, and philosophical thinkers.”
As Butler concluded her address, she sent off her classmates with a simple assurance: “We are ready.”
After Holy Cross, Butler will be teaching English to high school students through a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Galicia, Spain.
In addition to O’Connell, Holy Cross awarded honorary degrees to Clementina Chéry, the president and CEO of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Boston, and Rev. Robert Kennedy, S.J., Roshi, professor emeritus of theology at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J., and the only American Jesuit priest who has also been installed as a Zen roshi (master teacher).
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