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Commencement speaker surprises UMass Boston graduates with $1,000 at graduation ceremony

By Sara Smart, Caroll Alvarado and Ashley R. Williams, CNN

(CNN) — Graduates from the University of Massachusetts Boston left their graduation ceremony with more than just diplomas thanks to a generous billionaire.

Before walking the stage Thursday, 2,000 undergraduate students learned they’d be receiving two envelopes containing a total of $1,000, according to the university.

Commencement speaker Robert Hale, a billionaire CEO of a Massachusetts-based communications company, interrupted chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco as he began announcing the distribution of diplomas, the ceremony’s livestream shows.

“You guys have survived, you’ve prospered, you are to be celebrated,” Hale said at UMass Boston’s 55th undergraduate commencement.

Hale, the founder and CEO of communications services provider Granite Telecommunications, told students they’d also be getting $1,000 cash, which led to a roar of excited cheers and applause, the livestream shows.

“You’ve overcome. It’s not easy,” said Hale, whose commencement speech followed that of co-keynote speaker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“We’re here and we are proud of you,” Hale said.

Encouraging younger generations to give

One envelope contained a $500 gift for each student, while the other held $500 for the students to gift someone “or another organization who could use it more than you,” Hale explained.

“This is a celebration of all you’ve done to be here,” he said.

UMass Boston graduate Wendy Humphreys told CNN she and several other graduates were shocked when Hale returned to the stage for the announcement.

“I looked at my friend and jokingly said, ‘he’s going to give us each $2,000 each,’ but I was completely kidding,” Humphreys said.

She was astounded to discover she wasn’t completely wrong, she said.

“I can now scroll through GoFundMe and donate to causes that speak to me,” Humphreys, who majored in English, said of her plans for the gift portion of the cash. “I care a lot about abortion access and LGBTQ rights, so I plan to donate to those causes.”

A friend of Humphreys, UMass Boston graduate Addie McElreath, 27, said she felt Hale likely introduced a new generation to the act of giving.

“A lot of college students probably never had the time, money or opportunity to donate or gift to others before now,” McElreath told CNN.

Her grandparents traveled from Maine to see her earn her bachelor’s degree in English.

“I think that’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes to something I think is really important societally, which is just giving as much as you can,” McElreath said.

Hale said he believes the graduates will put the funds to good use, he told CNN’s John King.

“We hope (they) take the money, give it to an individual or an organization and feel the joy, and I am telling you, it is intoxicating … and they will want to do it more frequently,” Hale said.

“It will become a trait that carries on for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Hale made the 2023 Forbes billionaires list with a net worth of around $5 billion, according to CNN affiliate, WBZ-TV.

Hale has previously extended his generosity to recent graduates. In 2021, he received a standing ovation at Quincy College’s commencement in Quincy, Massachusetts, after gifting graduates with $1,000 each, CNN affiliate WCVB-TV reported.

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