By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Let’s face it. Try as they might, graduation speakers do not always hold the attention of their audiences – especially if they go on and on and on.
Liz Murray, who lived on the streets of New York for several years but earned a psychology degree from Harvard in 2009, commanded the rapt attention of graduates, faculty and guests during her entire speech at Merrimack College yesterday. Merrimack, founded by the Catholic Augustinian order in 1947, awarded 512 bachelor’s degrees.
Few if any of the graduates shared Murray’s life experience. Her parents received a welfare check at the beginning of the month and most of it was spent on drugs, she said.
Her mother and father, she said, “partied a little bit too hard” in the 1970s and ended up living in a severely blighted Bronx neighborhood. Her father served time in prison and her mother, a heroin addict, “lost her battle with AIDS,” she said.
That was when the family lost their apartment – and Murray ended up on the streets.
After several years of life on the streets, however, Murray decided to return to school, even though her academic record had been “marred by failure.” She set a goal of graduating with high honors, took double course loads and finished in two years.
She studied in parks and on the subway. When she applied for a New York Times-sponsored scholarship, her story became known. The newspaper wrote her story; a television movie, “Homeless to Harvard,” came out in 2003; and her memoir, “Breaking Night,” published in 2010, was on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
Murray received a sustained standing ovation. The college awarded her an honorary doctor of public service degree.
Yesterday was the Feast of Pentecost, so perhaps it was fitting that the speakers be inspirational.
Student speaker Kathryn Ganser, who graduated summa cum laude with a biology degree and captained Merrimack’s basketball team, shared the inspiration she received from a guy named Jimmy she met during a service trip to Camden, N.J.
Jimmy, a middle-aged man, came to the United States from Cuba when he was very young, expecting to find a better life. It didn’t work out that way.
He endured family tragedies and remained poor. Yet when Ganser expressed pity for Jimmy, he said, “You’re lucky. Don’t feel guilty. Take advantage of it.”
“Be who God meant you to be and set this world on fire,” said Ganser, of Needham, who aspires to attend medical school.
Many of Merrimack’s newest crop of graduates seem intent on doing just that. Daniel Laverty, of Salem, N.H., earned a double major in chemistry and biology. He’s headed for Johns Hopkins University, where he will pursue a PhD in chemistry.
Laverty intends to teach or do research. He said he’s especially interested in medicinal chemistry. He graduated magna cum laude and tutored fellow students in chemistry so he appears to be well on his way.
He said he “learned a lot” at Merrimack.
Jennifer Brooks, of Tewksbury, earned a business administration degree with a concentration in marketing. Wearing a sash with the national colors and coat of arms of Spain, she explained that she studied in Madrid for a semester.
“I absolutely love this school,” Brooks said. She especially likes the college’s emphasis on service to the community and the world, she said.
Among other service activities, Brooks volunteered at the Greater Lawrence Boys and Girls Club. She also made six service trips, she said, to Virginia, Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., where she helped build homes for lower-income people and worked in soup kitchens
While she hopes to make a lot of money in marketing, she also intends to continue her alma mater’s tradition of serving others, she said.
Will Griffin, of Ringwood, N.J., graduated with a degree in religious and theological studies. He plans to work for a while, but ultimately, he aspires to be a teacher.
Griffin said he values the friends he made at Merrimack and would “definitely do it again.”
Tabitha Roman, of Lawrence, commuted to Merrimack during her college years. she also earned a degree in religious and theological studies. A graduate of Central Catholic High School, she’ll be attending Boston University in the fall, where she’ll work on a master’s degree in criminal justice.
The next step, she said, will be Suffolk University Law School. She earned her Merrimack degree cum laude and said her four years there were a positive experience.