'All Progress Scrapes and Claws Before It Glides and Soars'

by Greg St. Martin

Billy Starr at CPS graduation

Forty years ago, Billy Starr founded the Pan-Mass Challenge, a charity bike ride across Massachusetts that raises money for cancer research. He said that a 400-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail and a 120-mile bike ride a couple of years earlier had helped him to discover what he wanted to do with his life: build a business that “serves a vast public need.”

On Friday, Starr urged graduates of the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern to find a way to nurture their own most fervent interests in life.

“Find a way somehow, utilizing all the skills and knowledge that you have acquired, to nurture that passion and maintain it as a central driving force in your life,” said Starr, who served as the graduation speaker at a ceremony for students who earned their bachelor’s and master’s degrees this year. “That pursuit does not come with guarantees. But I stand before you as a testament to its uniquely, exhilarating power on the path to success and happiness.”

Starr, who earned his master’s in education from Northeastern in 1978, traced back his job today as the executive director of the Pan-Mass Challenge to the early 1970s, when his mother, uncle, and cousin died of cancer. He also shared how the death of a rider in the fifth year of the event challenged him, recalling how he struggled to cope with the tragedy and pain that it caused the rider’s family.

But Starr said he never doubted the mission of his organization. Over the past 40 years, nearly 200,000 cyclists and volunteers have participated in Pan-Mass Challenge, and $654 million has been donated to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Triumph and tragedy often walk hand in hand,” Starr said. “To cope efficiently, it is essential that you have a clear grasp of who you are and why you set out on a particular path.”

Starr congratulated the graduates for earning their degrees. He told them to remember that most success is born of failure, and that “all progress scrapes and claws before it glides and soars.”

“That is why having a genuine passion for your work is so vital,” he said. “It is what keeps you going in the face of the inevitable obstacles on the road ahead.”

In opening remarks, Mary Loeffelholz, dean of the College of Professional Studies, told graduates that they represent “Northeastern’s global network of learners.” She said many students had earned their degrees online and through the university’s network of campuses in Charlotte, North Carolina; Seattle; the San Francisco Bay Area; Toronto; Vancouver; and London.

“You graduate already having begun to build a national and global network of your own making,” Loeffelholz said. “You have experienced learning without boundaries.”

Loeffelholz highlighted the diversity and accomplishments of the graduating class. She asked graduates to stand and be recognized if they had studied at Northeastern’s campuses outside of Boston, had come to Northeastern from another country, have served in the military, or attended the Lowell Institute School, through which students with previous college experience finish their bachelor’s degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or business.

The College of Professional Studies offers 95 undergraduate, master’s, graduate certificate, and doctoral programs, many of which are available online or through a combination of online and in-classroom learning. More than 1,600 students from 42 states and 44 countries received bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees from the College of Professional Studies this year, including over 200 students who were recognized for receiving their doctorates at a ceremony on Thursday.

Philomena Mantella, senior strategic advisor to the president at Northeastern, told the graduates that their education has positioned them well for a “lifetime of growth, discovery, and learning.”

“Learning will never cease, nor will your relationship with your university and those who comprise it,” Mantella said. “As you continue to grow, we are here to remind you that the Northeastern network will always be accessible to you."

In addition to the graduates, Friday’s ceremony honored professor of the practice Baktybek Beshimov and assistant teaching professor David Hagen for receiving the college’s 2019 Excellence in Teaching Award.

To see more pictures from the college's 2019 graduation, visit the photo gallery