Photo Gallery | 2016 Berkshire Community College graduation
LENOX — Thirteen years prior to the 56th Berkshire Community College Commencement on Friday, Benjamin Downing was mowing lawns at Tanglewood, a law school reject wondering what came next.
"This hadn't been part of the plan," said Downing, now a state senator back at Tanglewood as keynote speaker addressing 328 graduates receiving their associate degrees.
After graduating Providence College in 2003, Downing said, he was turned down by every law school to which he applied. He described feeling "shattered;" his confidence was gone and he "questioned everything."
But plans gone awry, insecurity, unsureness, distress — these can be mothers of opportunity, a lesson many of Friday's graduates had probably already learned, like the young Downing, who soon took off to Washington after a chance invite from a friend.
There, Downing worked as a "no-pay intern" by day and served "good burgers and bad beer for next to no pay near George Washington University" by night.
"I landed in a situation where I didn't have any more time to think of what was next," Downing said. "I simply had to do it. Sometimes the path forward is not going to be clear. You need to bet on yourself and the work that you have put in to be able to make an opportunity where one might not currently be."
Soon he was hired by former U.S. Rep. John W. Olver's office, and a few years later, in 2006, won the Senate seat he has now occupied for a decade by a margin of 243 votes.
But Downing spoke to the students on Friday as a comrade in uncertainty about the future. Having announced plans not to run for another term, Downing remarked on the similarities between his and the students' present stations — and that of his younger self.
"By the way, graduates, don't you hate people asking you what you're going to do next?" he said. "Or is that just me?"
Downing thanked county voters for giving the "25-year-old bald kid with a short resume a chance to represent you in the Senate" and he offered a hopeful note for all those, including himself, who were "on to the next chapter."
"I'm betting that the work that I've put in over the last 10 years and the lessons that I've learned will help me find a way and path that seem anything but clear so far," he said. "You can always find a reason to not do something if you look hard enough. A great political veteran once told me, 'It's always the rational thing to do to not run for office.' I think the same is true in life. You can avoid all of the risk if you want, but don't expect rewards to just fall in your lap."
In a similar address, the class's valedictorian, Laura P. Forero, said she entered the school "undecided" and "frustrated," and ended up dumping one major for another partway through, scrambling to make up the credits over the summer.
"Now, I find myself as the valedictorian today: The undecided student of two years ago will have a degree in a few minutes," Forero said. "We all persisted to reach our goals, and that is how we got here. We may not have everything planned out for the future, but that is OK."
School President Ellen Kennedy offered some sage advice to the graduates: "Don't rush to judgment, be respectful of different opinions" and "use your gift of discernment to improve the world you inhabit."
Also at Friday's ceremony, three professors — Eric Gauger, D. Clifford Myers and Audrey Ringer — received emeritus recognitions.
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.