Commencement Speaker Robert Lewis: “Influence others to greatness and lead with your soul”

May 13, 2019

Before a crowd of thousands, Robert Lewis Jr., chief executive officer of The BASE, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides athletic, education and career-building resources to enable student-athletes to pursue a college degree, shared his life story of struggle and achievement and inspired the Class of 2019 to live a life of meaning during the Assumption’s 102nd Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 12, at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester.

During the ceremony—in which 456 Bachelor of Arts degrees; 144 graduate studies degrees (Master of Arts and Master of Business Administration) and certificates; and 35 Continuing and Career Education degrees (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Business Administration, Bachelor of Science, and associates) were awarded—Francesco C. Cesareo, Ph.D., president of Assumption, urged graduates to continue to be mindful of the mission of the institution as they go forth to use their gifts and talents to better the world.  

“The Catholic intellectual tradition at Assumption has challenged you to examine your life, to examine the values which define your life as you became more aware of who you are, who you wanted to become, and how you would live this out each day of your life,” said President Cesareo. to the graduating class. “You have discovered your vocation during your time at Assumption.  Our society today needs individuals such as yourself who have developed a moral and ethical framework grounded in a Catholic worldview, who understand that policies, decisions, and actions devoid of values have negative consequences which will be detrimental to the common good.”

In addition to delivering the Commencement address, Robert Lewis, Jr. received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. An honorary degree was also conferred upon Sr. Anne Credidio, B.V.M., who raised funds to rehabilitate a neglected hospital wing in Ecuador for those with leprosy and restored dignity to those suffering from the disease.  The recipients were honored for their dedication to community service and living mission of Assumption.

In her introduction of Lewis, Julia Demkowicz ’19, salutatorian, shared of his tireless passion for empowering inner-city youth, specifically his efforts to break down the stereotypes of urban America.

“Robert Lewis may not have had a lot growing up as a child of teenage parents who lived in public housing, but he did have love and the mindset that he could be successful despite any limitations society tried to place on him,” shared Demkowicz. “He grew up with a longing to share this message with others in similar situations. After reviewing a report on poverty that showed that Black and Latino men were disadvantaged in many ways, including lower graduation rates and higher incarceration rates, Lewis was determined to change this narrative by launching The BASE in 2013.”

Assumption was one of the first three institutions of higher education to partner with The BASE, providing scholarships and other opportunities to individuals in the program. Thus far, 11 The BASE students have attended Assumption; two graduated in 2018; four others are among the Class of 2019; five more will continue their studies next year. Nationwide, The BASE serves 1,400 individuals.

“The BASE provides educational, athletic, and career-building resources to enable students to pursue college degrees,” explained Demkowicz.  “All of these students enter the program through word of mouth and social media, a testament to the power of the program’s message. The BASE builds on the students’ passion for sports, including baseball, softball, and, most recently, basketball. The program gives them a sense of belonging and also provides academic resources, such as homework support, writing workshops, SAT prep classes, and college and career visits.”

Lewis shared that through The BASE, students were provided opportunities to obtain a college degree, but also to change hearts and minds.

“I started The BASE because I wanted to shift the narrative,” explained Lewis. “Urban talent is American talent. When you look at me, what do you see? Your future. You see the next generation of a workforce. Don’t call us at-risk. Don’t call us underserved. Don’t call us disadvantaged. What you might call us is college graduates. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Following an incident in which his house was firebombed when he was 16, Lewis “knew at that moment that I was going to do something good for humanity.” Later in life, he would collaborate with Nelson Mandela in South Africa to build a national service model. He also advised British Prime Minister David Cameron during a period of unrest in the United Kingdom in 2011 and served as an advisor to the nation of Haiti following an earthquake there. On Mother’s Day, Lewis shared with graduates the limitless potential of their future, especially when supported by a mother’s love.

“Nelson Mandela, David Cameron and Haiti,” Lewis pondered. “Who would have thought that a person born to a mom at 18 with a fourth-grade education that those opportunities could come? She did. And that’s what you have graduates, when you look around and you see your parents. They see your future, and it’s bright.”

“As I look out into this crowd today, what I see is a kaleidoscope of beautiful people filled with promise and hope,” shared Lewis. “You represent what is great in our country right now and for generations to come. I am inspired by you and I know your families are so proud of you.”

Lewis also expressed his gratitude to President Cesareo for his support of The BASE program.

“President Cesareo, your belief in The BASE and our organization…is changing the game for urban young people throughout the country,” shared Lewis. “I want our student-athletes from The BASE Boston, BASE Chicago, BASE Indianapolis and Pittsburgh to experience this wonderful institution and they will.”

In closing, Lewis called upon the Class of 2019 to make a difference in the lives of others.

“Be impactful, every day,” Lewis concluded.  “Influence others to greatness and lead with your soul. The future will be shared by those willing to commit their minds and bodies to the task.”

Zachary Fournier ’19, Class of 2019 valedictorian, shared how as students, and now as graduates, they have been called to Light the Way for others.

“Each of us, in a way unique to our experiences, has been shaped by our time here at Assumption,” said Fournier. “Each and every one of us is unique, in both where we come from and where we are going: sitting among us are students who discovered their future calling as doctors, scientists, business professionals, and educators, commuters who have found a second home as welcoming as their own, and those who may have never before known true friendship who now have lifelong bonds. Regardless of where we came from, Assumption enabled us to find our vocation and where we are going. Just as our school has shaped us, however, we have left a lasting impact on the campus we have called our home through our achievements in and beyond the classroom, through our collective impact on our community, and through our service to others. As we go forth, keep the flame that was ignited four years ago burning brightly. Use it to do the same for others, illuminating their lives as Assumption has ours.”