In celebration of its twentieth anniversary, Commonwealth Honors College held a ceremonial alumni brunch over UMass Amherst’s Homecoming weekend. The event brought together alumni from 1973 to 2019 to reflect upon their time at the Honors College and celebrate how their shared time at the Honors College shaped their own successes.
The brunch connected former students and staff in what is a yearlong celebration for Commonwealth Honors’ twentieth year as a college, although the Honors Program at UMass Amherst predates back to the 1960s, with honors theses projects dating back as far as the nineteenth century.
Dean Gretchen Gerzina kicked off the event, focusing on the past, present, and future of Commonwealth Honors College. Dean Gerzina reflected on the Honors College’s inaugural year in 1999 when the incoming class consisted of 588 students. Commonwealth Honors has since grown to 3,300 undergraduates, consisting of fifteen percent of the student population. Over the years, the Honors College has helped UMass rise the ranks of the top universities in the country.
“UMass Amherst has risen faster and farther in the rankings than almost any other university,” Gerzina said. “From being ranked 52nd in U.S. News and World Report nine years ago to the just-announced 24th. The academic profile of the average student continues to rise even as the campus welcomed its largest class ever this year.”
Irwin Schwartz '82 served as a student designee of the Honors Program, and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism from the Honors College. He also spent time on the first Commonwealth Honors advisory board, where he successfully lobbied Massachusetts legislature for funding to the Honors College. Irwin went on to earn his law degree from Boston College, and founded BLA Schwartz, a business litigation firm. He also serves as the president and managing member of DIVIDEX Management, LLC.
While the alumni brunch served as a chance to reflect on his time at UMass, Irwin also used the opportunity to think about the future.
“The highlight of the twentieth anniversary brunch for me was to introduce my 13-year-old daughter to the Commonwealth College,” Schwartz said. They were able to discuss not only its history and purpose, but also develop “her newly-discovered appreciation for UMass,” he added.
Stacy Smith '00 attended the Honors brunch almost twenty years after receiving her undergraduate degree, and expressed hopes of rekindling her fond memories with other Honors alumni. After graduation, she continued her stay with CHC as she was hired to supervise the Peer Advising staff. After earning her master’s in education from UMass, Smith went on to teach history at Longmeadow High School. She is also the enrichment coordinator at the Longmeadow Enrichment Program, which offers opportunities for students of all ages throughout the community to take diverse and engaging courses to enhance their education.
Smith reflected on how a large public university like UMass, with its current population of 28,000 undergraduates, has transformed into a place of countless familiar faces, memories, and connections when she joined the Honors Program.
“To walk into a room full of people, many of whom I haven't seen for years, was like coming home,” Smith said. “We spent hours in meetings and retreats planning events and brainstorming how to enrich the lives of the students who are the lifeblood of the College. It was an honor and a pleasure to return.”
Michael Tarselli '03 received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the Honors College before earning a doctorate degree in organometallic chemistry from University of North Carolina. He served as the associate director of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, developing preclinical drug discovery software until 2018 when he joined the Society for Lab Automation and Screening as their scientific director. Through volunteering roles, Tarselli collaborates with students in mentoring and community outreach, while also serving on the Alumni Association Board of Directors here at UMass.
Tarselli looked back on his first year with CHC—he joined the same year the program transitioned into a college—and his fond memories attending TAP lectures. “I recall them converting space in Goodell, and how empty the high-ceilings and drab grey carpet looked as I arrived for our first pizza night,” he said.
“Thank you to Commonwealth, and here’s to twenty more years," said Tarselli. "I promise to visit the shiny new residential community again, even when it feels as lived-in as Goodell did in 1999.”
From a current Honors student perspective, Annamaria Orlandi '22 said, "It is interesting to hear from alumni about the transition the Honors College has made since its creation. Listening to how the College has helped shape the lives of these alumni, it excites me for my own future as the opportunities created by Commonwealth Honors seem both attainable and noteworthy."
Be on the lookout for more Commonwealth Honors Anniversary events happening in the near future.