UMass Boston News

JFK Winner Alia MacPherson’s Speech at UMass Boston’s 43rd Commencement

Alia MacPherson | June 03, 2011
JFK Award Winner Alia MacPherson addresses the Class of 2011


Good morning! Class of 2011, can you believe it? We made it!

Thirteen years ago, this day seemed so very far out of my reach, as I’m sure was the case for many of us. But thanks to all of the incredible people we have crossed paths with on our journey, here we are: college graduates.

As I thought about all of the profound things I wanted to say today, the message I wanted to instill, the lasting impression I wanted to leave... one image continually manifested itself in my thought process. It is an image that has been with me for as long as I can remember, and it comes to the forefront of my thoughts during times when I need some guidance and direction for my next move.

The image is a memory, one of my earliest, and it was the first of many important lessons my mother taught me about life.

I was five years old. At the time, we were living by the Merrimack River and she brought me down to the bridge by our house. She took one rock and tossed it over the side. As it dropped into the water, she pointed out the rings emanating from the center of where it fell. She told me that every person gives out energy and has an impact and an imprint on the world, like the rings from the stone. She threw another rock in very close to where the first had landed. The ripples from both crisscrossed and changed paths. She told me that my energy, choices, and direction would do this to everyone I encountered as I went through life and that I would need to be aware of this when navigating my path.

At five years old, my eyes were opened to the concept and ideal that I have been dancing with my entire life. And because of that lesson, I know that I owe this honor of being the 35th JFK award winner to all of those who have made such indelible impressions in my life.

I have been blessed to have been given the many opportunities that I have – and time and time again, I am reminded that very few things in life are ever accomplished alone. I would like to take a moment to thank the families, friends and UMass Boston professors who have supported not just me, but the entire class of 2011, in becoming the people we are today.

I would like to also say a personal thank you to my own mother for teaching me to believe in myself, giving me the ability to navigate through life’s challenges and showing me the true meaning of love, strength, and resilience amidst circumstances that shake the very foundation of those attributes. There is no doubt in my mind that if it were not for your incredible parenting, I would never have made it through.

It seems as if it were just yesterday that I walked into my first summer class here at UMass Boston. I remember being anxious, unsure of myself, and unclear as to where I was headed, as it had been so long since I had been in a classroom setting. A little less than 10 years earlier a family medical crisis made finishing high school an impossibility, so I dropped out and got my GED instead. It took me almost a decade of working both full and part time jobs and surviving a four-letter word I call life, before the opportunity to go to college presented itself to me.

All I knew when I walked in the doors of UMass Boston was that I wanted an education and that I was ready to conquer whatever obstacles got in my way. The word NO was not something I was willing to accept any longer, especially in regards to my future.

During that first class something awoke inside of me that I did not know was there. My own energy had encountered the energy at UMass Boston, and the ripple effect from that collision was dramatic. It was almost as if a switch had been flipped internally that sparked an insatiable drive to learn as much as possible, take every opportunity that came my way, and not stop until I had found not only my own personal path but my true calling in life.

There were a thousand and one reasons why pursuing a college education at that exact moment in my life was not ideal, but there was a much stronger pull that said “What if this is your last chance? What if is this is your only chance? What happens if you never get the chance to try again?”

I applied to UMass Boston and did not get in right away. I was told that because of my GED scores, I would have to take a few classes and get good grades, before a final decision was made. When I entered the university as an undeclared major, I set my sights on the College of Nursing and Health Sciences Undergraduate Nursing Program. The idea of being a nurse not only made sense to me pragmatically, but clicked viscerally, as my mother was a nurse and her passion for the profession was something that could not be ignored as I was growing up.

I took all of the prerequisite courses for the nursing program and I was told many times over and in many different forms that our nursing program was exceptional, highly competitive, and that it would be wise to have a back-up plan, which incidentally I never came up with. I applied to our nursing program three times before I got in. I still have all of my rejection letters, framed above my desk reminding me that NO only applies until you get a yes.

During my first clinical nursing course, Professor Judith Healy-Walsh told us that she believed nursing was not a career, but rather a calling. This one statement resonated with me so intuitively, it was as if I could see yet again this collision of energies and choices and directions, spreading out like rings. Nursing was my calling.

And it was just a few months later that I was blessed with the single most incredible opportunity to date on my path to becoming a nurse, another stone in the river that carried me around the world.

In the summer of 2009, I was given the opportunity to travel to Kenya with The Kenya Heart and Sole: Afya Njema Project, which is an annual medical mission and research project studying cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the village populations surrounding Nairobi. This opportunity was the gift of two very amazing women, Dr. Eileen Stuart-Shor and Mercy Kamau, who do not normally take sophomore nursing students on this trip, but accepted me that year after many persistent e-mails. I often wonder how different I would be, if they had said no.

My first trip to Kenya changed me on a deeply personal level. On that trip, the people that I met, spoke with, and spent time with brought me right back to the day my mother taught me her most important lesson, standing on that bridge. They showed me how despite the incredible poverty, primitive infrastructure, lack of resources, and the many other staggering social and political problems, hope and love are very much present, alive and thriving. I could see it in every child’s face, in every man’s smile, in every woman's outstretched arms welcoming us, into their villages, into their homes, and into their lives. This first trip to Kenya showed me how to be present in my own life, with hope and love, even when my surroundings are in opposition to these attributes. When I came back home I sincerely felt as if I gotten more than I gave.

I also felt as though my work was not done there, and I returned last year for a second time.

It was on this second trip that many things came full circle in my life, and I was finally able to define my future aspirations. As my fellow students in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences know, there are many ways to be a nurse. Until that second trip to Kenya, I lacked direction and focus for my future. But soon it hit me, like a rock tossed off a bridge, and I was able to put some facts together:

-- Although the United Nations declared in 1948 that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” I did not have this experience during the family medical crisis that I went through at the end of my high school career. This showed me the downfalls and failings of our healthcare system here in the United States.
-- Ten years later, in Kenya, I realized that in regard to health, we are in the midst of a local and global crisis. While heart disease and cancer are significant health threats, health disparities such as lack of access, poor quality, high cost, and even language barriers are killing our diverse population quicker than any other disease out there.

These are unacceptable, inexcusable facts, and while I was in Kenya, I made the conscious decision to spend my life and career reducing these barriers for individuals as well as populations across the world. I will be heading off to Yale School of Nursing later this year to continue studying and growing, so that I am as prepared as possible for the road ahead of me. I won’t ever forget that it was UMass Boston that helped me arrive at these realizations, gave me the foundation for my future, and provided me with opportunity after opportunity to succeed.
Class of 2011, we are graduates of a unique university. I know I am not the only one here today who has been moved by the example to serve others that is so apparent on this campus. The ripple effect that UMass Boston has on all of us will always compel us to give back, to use our education and wisdom to help make the world a better place.

Well, Class of 2011, WE did it, we made it to the end of this part of our journey. It is incredible. The future of both our country and our world is standing here... today... WE are the future and there are so many things that WE need to do.

While the road has been long and for many of us paved with challenges and adversity, it is not time to rest. There is an enormous amount of work to be done in the world we live in, and the time to begin is right now. The end of this particular journey sparks not simply a call to action, but rather a scream to action. The community, country, and world need us, to pave the new path of strength, courage, innovation, change and above all... hope.

We must remember that like stones in the river, each of our actions, reactions, and interactions have an effect on the world we live in. Every choice we make, every action we take, every bit of energy we exude, crosses the paths of others traveling along with us. I hope you will all remember the effects this university has had on us throughout our years here. I know I will.

I am personally very proud to say that I am a member of this diverse graduating class. Wherever your journey takes you from this point forward, do not ever forget where you came from, always be grateful for what you have, and do not accept the word NO when you are fighting for your destiny. 

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