AMHERST, Mass. - South African freedom-fighter, and former political prisoner on notorious Robben Island, Ahmed M. Kathrada was guest speaker at the Commencement ceremony held Saturday morning, May 20, by the Graduate School of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The ceremony was held in the William D. Mullins Memorial Center on campus.
Degrees were conferred on nearly 1,300 master''s and doctoral candidates. Nearly 700 of those eligible to receive degrees attended the ceremony, along with nearly 5,000 family members and friends.
Kathrada received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, one of three honorary degrees awarded. Evan S. Dobelle, president since 1995 of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., received a Doctor of Public Service degree. A University alumnus, Dobelle holds both a master''s degree and an Ed.D. from the University. Bruce M. Penniman, who teaches English at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School and Middle School, received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Penniman holds three degrees from the University, a B.A., an M.A., and an Ed.D., and was 1999 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.
Kathrada was given a long, sustained standing ovation as he received his honorary degree. He said he dedicated his degree "to the men and women who made the transfer to democracy [in South Africa] possible." He said he accepted the award on behalf of his fellow prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and on behalf of "all those who were killed in the struggle." He then read a list of names of other anti-apartheid fighters who had been tortured to death, shot, assassinated by letter bombs, and who died after being thrown out of high buildings.
He said he hoped Robben Island would be remembered as "a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil." He was released in 1989 after more than 26 years as a prisoner, most of it spent on Robben Island.
University President William M. Bulger said he would keep his remarks brief, and he did, wishing the attendees "Congratulations and Godspeed."
Chancellor David K. Scott compared today''s class with the last time a graduating class embarked on a new century, the Class of 1900, which consisted on 20 under-graduates and one graduate student. He said the students from 1900 "might be a little envious that they hadn''t waited 100 years to study with one of the most distinguished faculties at any major teaching and research university." He said this year''s graduates "are true examples of what we, as a University, strive to produce - complete and integrative human beings capable of creating a better, wiser world."
Scott also said he was proud that Kathrada, who holds four undergraduate degrees, finally had the graduate degree for which he had long yearned, and that it was awarded by the University of Massachusetts.