Each student at UMBC graduation has 'a wonderful story'

After a year that marked the 50th anniversary of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1,300 members of the class of 2017 received their degrees Thursday at commencement exercises at the Royal Farms Arena.

"Each student here has a wonderful story," university president Freeman Hrabowski said.

From the podium on the Baltimore arena's stage, he asked the aspiring teachers, social workers and academic stars to stand. He singled out 22-year-old Heather Frank, who graduated with honors and a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

"Heather is the first in her family to graduate from college," Hrabowski said. Her next stop is Harvard University for graduate studies in biochemistry.

Frank's mother and father watched from their seats. In her family, Frank said, no one leaves rural Cumberland in Western Maryland. Her graduating class at Fort Hill High School had only 102 members. Frank said she wouldn't have dared to consider Harvard without encouragement from her campus adviser.

Cheers were in abundance for the graduates.

"We had a long road, but we got here, me and him!" said Teresa Lee, whose son, Da'Kuawn Johnson, 22, earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Johnson said he was born two months premature, nearly blind, and wore medical eyeglasses to train his eyes. Raised in the Gwynn Oak neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore by a single mother, he said he was diagnosed with lead-paint poisoning as a toddler.

He responded to music and his mother turned lessons into songs, teaching him to spell his name with a jingle. A music teacher offered him free piano lessons. Today, Johnson plays classical piano.

Johnson graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute with 3.65 GPA and turned down the Johns Hopkins University for scholarship to UMBC. He will continue his studies at University of Maryland Medical Center in August.

Hrabowski led a moment of silence for the Bowie State senior stabbed to death early Saturday at the University of Maryland, College Park. Police are investigating the killing of 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III as a possible hate crime. Sean Urbanski, 22, a student at College Park, has been charged in the murder.

The commencement speaker, Stephanie Cole Hill, told the crowd how her father Harry Cole, the first black man to serve on Maryland's highest court and the first elected to the state Senate, worked evenings in a country club, serving the same judges and lawyers he met in court.

Hill, a vice president at Lockheed Martin Corp., and chair of the Greater Baltimore Committee, urged the graduates to lead purposeful lives, even in small ways.

"Re-frame the idea of purpose," she told them. "Focus on infusing purpose into each day of your lives. Because when you do that, you can truly make a difference."

Former state Sen. Robert Neall, a regent in Maryland's university system, credited Hrabowski with elevating UMBC into a leading research university. Neall praised Hrabowski as "a force of nature."

The university has held its commencement at the arena for two decades, but the ceremoney will take place in a new $85 million, 172,000 square-foot events center on the campus starting next year.

"This is a special moment because for the past 20 years we have cheered as graduating students have come across this stage," Hrabowski said.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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