Mary Lou McDonald delivers commencement address at Westfield State University

Mary Lou McDonald
Address to Westfield State University Commencement
Friday, May 17th, 2024

Thank you for such a warm welcome.

Thank you, President Thompson for that glowing introduction and for inviting me to be part of this special day.

It’s a privilege to deliver this commencement speech and my honour to be conferred with a degree and counted amongst your ranks this afternoon.

So, Hello Westfield State and the graduating Class of 2024!

You made it.

You all climbed the mountain in your own way.

Today, you proudly plant your flag on the summit of success.

All of the sacrifice,

hours in the library,

the late-night assignment deadlines,

the exams, whether prepared for weeks in advance or crammed the night before,

all of the moments where you doubted or questioned your path but still found the determination to believe in yourself and carry on,

it all led you to here – to this incredible point of success.

It was all worth it.

Never underestimate your achievement.

This life will have lots of twists and turns, ups and downs, but nobody will ever take this day or this achievement away from you.

Because you earned it.

Of course, success is a team sport.

Nothing great is ever accomplished alone.

You didn’t walk your journey alone.

That journey began in kindergarten, through elementary school, middle school, high school and led you to the doors of this fine institution.

Your parents, guardians, brothers, sisters, your grandparents, uncles and aunts, family and friends, your incredible teachers – your tribe – has been with you every step of the way.

Everyone who loves you, believes in you, never stopped wanting the best for you.

As you take the next steps in life, you’ll find that doesn’t change.

The parchment you receive today is of course an important mark of qualification but it’s also testament to what’s possible when we support and stand by each other.

Today is a day to appreciate and express gratitude for all those who stood by you.

So, how about a round of applause for everyone who made your achievement possible.

Take a look around you.

Take in your classmates.

Take in this moment together.

Freeze it in your mind.

You’ve made bonds here that will last a lifetime.

You’re now alumni of Westfield State University.

That means something very important.

It means you’re part of a community.

Be proud.

Be compassionate.

Be leaders.

Westfield State carries a legacy that pulses through the educational and social fabric of Massachusetts and of this entire Nation.

This university is a history maker and future shaper, driven by the values of togetherness, integrity, equality, and access to education for all.

Your university courageously broke down barriers and reached for the light in times of darkness.

“The first coeducational college in America to offer an education without barriers to race, creed, or economic status.”

For generations, the ethos of Westfield State has centred on driving progress and change.

Today, you become the guardians of Westfield’s legacy and the belief that education can push the boundaries, overcome big challenges, and make this world a better place.

You stand on the shoulders of giants, on the foundation stones laid by the great Horace Mann.

A visionary. A trailblazer. A changemaker who really believed that public education could change America and the world and dedicated his life to that noble vision.

In 1859, he challenged future generations to come up to the mark with these words,

“Be ashamed to die until you’ve won a victory for humanity.”

The woman who leads your University today lives by those values.

Dr Linda Thompson has dedicated herself to make life better for vulnerable children, young people, and for minorities.

She too is a believer in the power of education.

She too is a groundbreaker – the first African American woman to serve as President of a Massachusetts State University.

So, class of 2024, you don’t have to look far for inspiration, motivation, and for role models.

My accent will tell you that I’m an Irish woman

I am a proud Dubliner.

My mother comes from the majestic Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary.

You may know that song it’s a Long Way to Tipperary.

It’s certainly a long way from Massachusetts.

But if you ever get the chance to go.

Take it.

The Galtee Mountains landscape is breathtaking.

It’s where I spent my childhood summers and, even now, I’ve yet to look upon anywhere more beautiful.

My uncle used to say “It’s the last place that God made.”

My mother raised four of us on her own .

In the seventies and eighties, things were very tight in Ireland, especially for a lone parent.

But Joan, my mother, made it happen for us.

No matter the background noise in our lives, she held tightly to the belief that a good education was the most powerful thing to give her children.

She moved mountains to ensure we had the best.

My mother knew that education provides a window to the world and opportunity.

It brought me to Trinity College, Dublin where I studied English Literature.

Education is the great equaliser.

Teachers are incredibly powerful.

Teachers expand what’s possible, shape the future and change lives.

And they do it every day.

I had the privilege of being taught by the late, great Irish poet Brendan Kennelly.

Brendan was a Kerryman and for those don’t know, Kerry is the seat of all wisdom.

Let me share some of his wisdom with you.

Wisdom about optimism, resilience, never giving up, never giving in, always starting again

Brendan believed that every beginning is a promise.

He wrote,

“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

That always seems about to give in

Something that will not acknowledge conclusion

Insists we forever begin.”

Education, love, life are all done best when we forever begin.

When we believe that every day marks a new start and presents a fresh opportunity to take the chance to make things better.

To take the chance to learn each day.

To say sorry when its needed.

To do better.

To do more.

So, we should not, must not search only for endings.

But reach instead for new beginnings. Always.

You’ll meet with challenges.

You’ll meet adversity.

There are times when things won’t work out the way you hoped.

But rise and rise again.

To evoke your great poet, Maya Angelou – rise through the dust of failure, rise with the air of success.

Meet those two outcomes with the same heart.

Don’t let either change the person you were raised to be.

Be a good friend.

Be a good neighbour.

Be a hand of rescue when somebody reaches out for help.

In the end, that’s the real mark of success in life.

In the young people of the world, there is immense capacity for good.

Limitless potential to make a real lasting difference.

Young people fill me with hope.

Hope that we can end poverty and grow prosperity.

That we can end inequality and expand inclusion.

That we can consign war and conflict to the dustbin of history.

That we can win the race against climate change.

The cynics say it can’t be done.

They say it’s the dream of misty-eyed idealists.

I say, hold tightly to your ideals.

Idealism is a good thing.

In fact, it’s the best thing.

Guard it, nurture it, don’t ever lose it.

I believe that your generation can create a future of equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Your generation can change the world.

I hope you choose to do just that.

As I journeyed here, I reflected on the special relationship between our two countries.

Two nations, two peoples fastened by a shared history held by bonds of friendship and bonds of family.

It was one of Massachusetts most beloved sons and proud Irish-American, President John F. Kennedy who best summed up the unique connection.

Speaking before the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, in 1961, he said;

“And so, it is that our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history. No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States. And no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters.

They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived in the United States. They left behind hearts, fields, and a nation yearning to be free.”

Irish people know what it is to struggle, to endure and to triumph.

To rise again.

We came to these shores fleeing oppression, famine, and in later generations to seek work and opportunity.

The United States has been safe haven for generations of Irish people. 

In return, Irish people made an immense contribution to American society across politics, arts, business, and sports.

The spirit of the Irish to overcome and the American ideal of liberty create a natural bond that has stood the test of time.

It’s a bond and friendship that we renew today at Westfield State University.

This friendship has celebrated the hope of progress, and held strong through the pain of conflict.

On this day, fifty years ago, three car bombs ripped through the centre of my home city.

Ninety minutes later, another bomb exploded in the town of Monaghan.

Attacks aided by, facilitated by the British state.

Thirty-four people were killed.

It was the biggest loss of life in a single day during the Irish conflict.

Ordinary people going about the business of their everyday lives.

Those precious lives were wiped out.

For fifty years, their heartbroken families and survivors have fought courageously for truth and justice.

This afternoon on Dublin’s Talbot Street and in Monaghan they gather to remember those they lost.

They demand truth from the British government.

I send my love and solidarity to them and say from Massachusetts that the people of Ireland will stand with them for as long as it takes.

Many more families suffered in the conflict.

Enormous hurt was inflicted on all sides.

Through that pain and suffering, a generation of courageous peacemakers reached for hope and a better future.

We made peace.

You should know, your country, the United States of America, backed peace in Ireland and that has made all the difference.

So, Ireland has known the pain of colonisation, dispossession, partition, and conflict.

We now know the success of peace.

We know that peace is a question of will.

Today, our hearts break over the horror unfolding in Gaza .

The slaughter, starvation and displacement.

The bombing of schools, of hospitals, entire families wiped out, millions driven from their homes.

The horror of the October 7th attacks and hostage-taking does not, cannot justify Israel’s onslaught.

The Israeli slaughter of Gazan men, women and children is the cruel crescendo of seventy-six years of occupation and apartheid.

The suffering of Palestinians has gone on for generations.

Many of the most powerful voices calling for peace, justice, for a ceasefire, come from the Jewish community.

Their call is shaped by the unimaginable horror, the collective trauma of holocaust inflicted on their people.

In the name of humanity, they say – never again – not to another people.

Their demand of “never again” is drowned out by the thunderous sound of missiles raining down on children, every single day.

All their tomorrows, gone.

Gaza, the graveyard for children.

Leaders cannot look continue to look the other way, cannot continue to arm, to fund an Israel that acts with impunity.

We need an immediate ceasefire.

A ceasefire now,

the return of all hostages,

and the renewal of a peace process grounded in international law.

Palestine must be free.

Peace is the only way that the children of Gaza and Tel Aviv, the children of Haifa and Ramallah can have the future they deserve.

Síocháin is the Irish word for peace.

In Hebrew it’s shalom.

In Arabic it’s salaam.

Whatever word you use it means the same thing.

Peace is a choice.

Peace is a decision.

And peace must now be the will of the international community.

Young people across the world, of all backgrounds and races, of all faiths and none, are standing together against these war crimes.

The world must listen to the voices of the young, because this generation is right.

Friends, in my years as an activist, a public representative, as a leader of a political party, as a woman is public life, as a mother, I’ve learned a few lessons.

Le me share one of them with you.

Breaking down barriers, working for change and to make a difference isn’t easy.

Making the effort is always, always worth it.

To stand up and be counted.

To cast off restrictions and defy expectations.

To try to make things better for others.

To do your best.

These are the efforts in life that you’ll never ever regret.

This moment is a big one for you all, to reflect on how far you’ve come.

A time to celebrate with your friends and family.

And now I come from Ireland and ask you to change the world.

I get it.

Changing the world is a lot to put on your shoulders at your graduation!

But here’s the thing.

Personal progress, money, success, happiness for your family – none of it happens in a vacuum.

We’re all connected to each other.

We breathe the same air.

We share the same world.

We are travelling to the same future.

And some day, you may look into the eyes of your own children.

Trust me – as sure as you sit here today -you will ask yourself if you’re doing all you can to make the world a better place for them.

In that future moment, you will ask yourself if you stepped up. If you showed up. If you came up with the goods.

And this is the sum of what I wish for each of you.

That you answer that question with a full heart and a resounding yes.

That’s the power you hold in your hands today.

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

It’s up to you.

Nobody can step forward for you.

You will never have this time again.

The gift of youth is that you have the time to make the years count, to make a real difference.

To bend the arc of your life to do the maximum good.

Your generation can change the world.

Please choose to do so.

And if you’re not persuaded by Mary Lou McDonald, the President of Sinn Féin, that’s okay.

But perhaps listen to Mary Lou McDonald, a proud honorary graduate of Westfield State University, one of your very own.

Go Owls!

Watch Mary Lou McDonald’s Commencement Address