Middlesex Community College Grads Urged: Be Engaged

May 24, 2018 GMT

LOWELL -- Although they all described different stories of personal development, the commencement speaker and two student speakers at Middlesex Community College’s graduation shared a common theme: becoming engaged.

As more than 1,200 graduates looked on Thursday morning, speakers encouraged them not just to look with optimism to the future but also to play an active role in shaping it, to stand up for what they believe in and to serve as their own advocates.

“My message to all of you today is: your voice is critical,” said Gail Tuzzolo, a national political consultant who served as the Class of 2018′s commencement speaker. “Your voice is critical to the community you live in and to this world. When you organize and join voices with others, you can accomplish so much.”


Students and families packed the Lowell Memorial Auditorium for the graduation ceremony. The procession featured flags from countries around the world, reflecting Lowell’s diversity and the community college’s mission to serve everyone, and a traditional bagpipe performance.

Tuzzolo is a Middlesex graduate herself. She enrolled in the 1970s while she was a stay-at-home mother, and after completing an associate’s degree, she went on to Salem State University.

Since then, she has spent four decades as a lobbyist and political consultant and today oversees Gail Tuzzolo & Associates and Community Strategies Inc. She worked on various campaigns through the years, including Jimmy Carter’s successful presidential bid.

Today, Tuzzolo is chair of Middlesex’s alumni association. She received the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award at Thursday’s graduation.

“During my time at Middlesex, I found my voice,” Tuzzolo said.

In her remarks Thursday, she touched upon various stories of civic engagement, from an inspiring Ukrainian woman who fought for her community to the historic Women’s March in Washington last year to students in Parkland, Florida, who protested to call for gun control. She wondered whether changes in society as record numbers of women seek office were “a wave or a sea change.”

Tuzzolo returned to that language in one of the final lines of her remarks.

“We believe,” she said, “the Class of 2018 is a sea change.”

The two student speakers at Thursday’s graduation hit on similar themes. Raonak Ezahan Shristy, the first speaker, recounted growing up in Bangladesh in a culture where women frequently marry before they finish high school and are expected to remain home as caretakers.


Shristy wanted more, though. She moved to the United States with her husband after their arranged marriage and soon found herself bored with, as she put it, cleaning and watching Netflix.

“Pretty soon, the movies on Netflix were not enough to make me happy,” Shristy said. “I realized I was going to have the same life my mother had and her mother had, and I could not seem peaceful with that life. I wanted to become self-reliant.”

So Shristy, too, got engaged. She enrolled at Middlesex in 2016, something her husband supported, and put in long hours first learning how to do schoolwork at the college level and then excelling at it. Beyond the classroom, she began tutoring other students, something that gave her inspiration.

And she succeeded: after receiving her associate’s degree Thursday, Shristy plans to enroll at Umass Lowell to study public health, all because she decided not to accept the status quo.

“We all have our own challenges,” she said. “But as we all stand here today, we are all sharing the same joy.”

Earl Williams, the second student speaker, also shared a story of hardship and perseverance. Growing up, he faced abuse at home that he eventually forgave. Williams is legally blind, so school had been a challenge, and he struggled early in life to accept his sexual identity as a gay man.

He enrolled at Middlesex in his 40s, hoping to advance his career at the IRS to support his two sons as a single parent, but he found himself so fascinated by the psychology program that he now hopes to earn a Ph.D. in the topic and work in the foster-care system.

Like Tuzzolo and Shristy before him, Williams encouraged his classmates and their loved ones not to be passive.

“Be your own best advocate,” he said. “Don’t doubt yourself. Look beyond the present to prepare for the future.”

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