Twitter executive gives keynote speech at UMass Amherst commencement

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Photo Gallery | UMass Amherst Commencement

AMHERST — A high-tech executive told roughly 5,500 graduating University of Massachusetts students to "make your own rules, hack the system and change the world," while driving rain fell upon a sea of umbrellas at the university on Friday.

An estimated crowd of more than 20,000 attended the college's undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, where students from 65 different nations received diplomas.

Wayne Chang, 32, director of product strategy at Twitter, delivered the keynote address.

As a UMass student, Chang did hack the college computer network prior to dropping out at 21 to found startup website i2hub, an early Facebook competitor, in 2003.

"Don't worry, UMass and their attorneys know everything I'm about to tell you, so I promise I won't get tackled here on stage," Chang qualified.

He ended up getting caught by campus security.

"Here I was, freshman year, about to be criminally charged for hacking into the school system," Chang said. "But then they said, 'We won't press charges, we just want to know how you did it.' "

He added, "So I told them, and had a great relationship with the department afterwards."

Chang offered advice based on his experience: He told the graduates to "ignore" the "obstacles others put in front of you" and "their system of rules," for they tend to produce "mediocre results."

At Friday's ceremony, Chang finally received his UMass degree, an honorary doctorate in business. He joined Twitter after it acquired Crashlytics, a mobile crash-reporting service he co-founded in 2011.

In addition to reading a letter he'd written to his 21-year-old self stressing the importance of family, Chang also recounted a story of being an isolated in his early schooling, as an illegal immigrant from Taiwan with a shaky grasp on English.

A life-changing moment, Chang recalled, came when one day a boy in his class approached and handed him a Transformers toy.

"We're all just blobs of emotion, waiting for someone to listen and pay attention to how we're feeling," he said. "Know that everything you do for someone else, no matter how small, has the potential to transform their life."

Student speaker Elkhansaa Elguenaoui of Medford, a neuroscience and psychology major and biology minor, stressed "walking in the footsteps of others and growing through each other's experiences."

Elguenaoui said this happened in and out of the classroom, while marching with fellow students for Black Lives Matter, cramming in for cheap slice days at Antonio's Pizza, or "walking in endless circles in Morrill [Science Center]" as a means of "finding my way through my own moral dilemma."

"If my days here at UMass have shown me one thing, it's this: It's not who you're labeled as, me being a first generation Arab American Muslim woman of color, but more about what I do with that," Elguenaoui said. "It's not what I look like, but who I am. And I couldn't have learned without you all."

It rained throughout the ceremony, held outdoors in the stadium.

"Given the amount of goodwill and joy in this stadium, no amount of rain can dampen our spirits and enthusiasm," UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said.

Meanwhile, college President Martin T. Meehan called the 2016 graduates "clearly the smartest class that has ever graduated from this flagship campus."

"In order to make it in this society today, you have to be committed to lifelong learning," Meehan said. "Always embrace an opportunity to get an advanced degree, to get a certificate and to continue to learn as you continue your career."

The college also gave an honorary degree to Sheila C. Bair, former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., at the ceremony.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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