Perhaps a hero is a Harvard graduate improving and changing the world of social work and policy or perhaps it is the two children sitting in the Shed at Tanglewood watching their mom delivering the valedictory address for Berkshire Community College's commencement.
But whomever it is, Soncere "Starr" Williams believes anybody can be a hero every day.
"Heroes can come in different forms. Each one of us can become a hero as we embark on the adventure of life. Being a hero does not necessarily mean you have super powers like the ability to fly or super strength although that would be amazing," Williams told her fellow classmates from the stage.
"Being a hero simply means doing what we can in our daily lives to make the world a much better place even if it is just the world of a single person."
Williams came to Berkshire Community College in the non-traditional way. She dropped out of high school as she became a teen parent. Her background is filled with trauma, poverty, addiction, and loss. With bright dyed-red dreadlocked hair, tattoos covering her arms, and multiple piercings, and she may not look like what comes most to minds when they think about the who is a hero.
But if you asked her clients at Berkshire County Arc, they might tell you she is.
Williams didn't see the world as being full of heroes. So she decided to become one. After 15 years in retail, she made the decision to go to BCC, earn her high school equivalency diploma and then continued on with her studies and got a job in the field of social work, where she felt she could make a positive change on the lives of others.
She graduated on Friday after achieving a perfect 4.0 grade point average. She has already been accepted to Elms College and her professor, Stacy Evans, has promised a recommendation letter to her alma mater, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, in hopes Williams will go for her master's there.
Williams listed — as she pulled a red cape from under her gown and let it drape onto her back— the qualities she sees in the hero she wants to be. She had help from other graduates who stood in front of the crowd with large signs stating the qualities as she read them out loud because — heroes unite.
Courage. Williams called on the students to have the courage to stand up for what is right, speak out against what is wrong, and challenge other's thinking.
Passion. She told the graduates to be passionate about whatever they choose to do in life. Integrity. She said to do the right thing even when no one is looking.
Honesty. She said if there a problem it can always be solved if you are honest about it but if not, the problem will never be known.
Confidence. Williams wasn't sure she could even graduate from college at first but she gained it and gave it to others and that's what heroes have.
Patience. She said success takes time and encouraged her classmates to be patient with themselves and with others.
Selflessness. Williams said heroes volunteer their time, donate to others, and advocate for those who can't advocate for themselves.
Caring. Williams called on the students to care about everything and everyone because it makes the world more beautiful.
Humility. She said everybody makes mistakes, that it is part of the human condition, and the only way to learn from them is by accepting them.
Supportiveness. She called on her classmates to support others just as others had supported them to get them to the Tanglewood stage on Friday.
And then she looked at her son and daughter, and thanked them for being heroes to her.
"The world needs more heroes and I challenge you all to become one regardless of the path you choose after today," Williams said.
The college's 59th commencement celebrated 297 students receiving degrees in a variety of fields. Led by Sheriff Thomas Bowler, the graduates cloaked in their gowns walked, some jumping for joy, others waving to family, others more serious, into the Shed as the Berkshire Highlanders played the bagpipes.
It was a moment of happiness, just as college President Ellen Kennedy wanted it to be.
Salutatorian Jessica Levy is recognized.
Kennedy asked the students first to think of three people who helped get them there. And then, she asked them to think about the three traits they had that helped them get to this point.
"Over the rest of your life, when your situation is difficult or even dire, when in doubt you have the ability to complete, participate, or achieve, remember these traits or these reasons. Remember the happiness they engendered on this day at Tanglewood. Remember the people who came here to celebrate your accomplishment, the faculty that invested in you, and remember that you, likewise, invested in yourself," Kennedy said.
"Remember the happiness you feel right now, right here. May this happiness be never far no matter what you face in your life."
Kennedy focused on happiness as she believes it is an experience that becomes fleeting in today's age of social media.
"When we realize happiness is with reach, we realize no, there is something more to want, to aspire to, to covet. Social media has us comparing our life, our moments, to thousands of others who define happiness differently. Maybe some of us feel we haven't done enough, we haven't suffered enough, we haven't achieved enough to warrant the gift or please of happiness," Kennedy said.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey served as the commencement speaker. The senator had started his college education as a commuter, living at home with his parents all the way through law school. He, too, called on the students to thank those who supported them.
Markey's background is similar to many of the students walking across the stage Friday. His father was a truck driver and his mother, while a class president in high school, hadn't pursued higher education because her mother had died and she had to raise her sisters.
Markey said he'll never work as hard as his father did nor will he be as smart as his mother. But what they did is provide him an opportunity to became the first college graduate in his family and do anything he wanted with his life, just as the BCC students now have.
"You get to choose because they sacrifices, they fought, they had a vision for their families," Markey said.
He called on the students to help others get that same opportunity. In his role, he said he's introducing a bill that will allow high school students to also attend community college for free to help expand that opportunity.
Markey said something needs to be done to reduce student debt, which is nationally at $1.5 trillion. He wants to allow people to renegotiate their student loans, to expand Pell grants, and to provide those who work in public service assistance in paying off education loans.
"The big dreams of college should not be thwarted by the small print on student loans," Markey said, later adding, "when we expand financial aid it means more people sitting where you are now, people who worked hard, and people who will feel the same sense of accomplishment that you are feeling now."
He wants the students to also go forth into the world and help solve the climate change problems. The co-author of the Green New Deal Resolution said the world can't survive rising sea tides and warming climate and it is up to the next generation to create the revolution into green energy.
"Our energy future will not be found in the dark of a mine but in the light of the sun," Markey said. "You are the revolutionaries and your job is to continue this revolution."
He encouraged the students to embrace technology. He said technology provides more opportunity and mobility to create new products, companies, and discover different ways to do thing. He said when the telecommunications laws were written in the 1990s, there was no broadband but now everybody has a massive amount of power.
"Today, only 20 years later, you all have a device that you are carrying more powerful than the computer that sent the Apollo to the moon," Markey said.
And, he called for helping fighting income inequality. He said the median Fortune 500 CEO makes $12.4 million while the kindergarten teacher makes around $50,000. Who contributed more to society? he asked. The senator said women still make 79 cents to a man's dollar. And he called on the graduates to fight the corporate money being infused into politics.
"So there it is. Save money, save the planet, save democracy, and save your parent's Netflix login so you don't have to pay," Markey joked as he wrapped up his series of advice.
After Markey's speech, the graduates got what they came for — the degrees. After they walked across the stage,
Darlene Rodowicz, chairman of the board of trustees, in her last act for the board, conferred the degrees giving the graduates the right to move their tassels.
But before they could leave and celebrate with their families on the lawn, Kennedy echoed Williams' words and reminded them to "go be a hero."
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