Dominique Powell, a Dorchester born and raised University of Massachusetts Boston senior who became passionate about veteran affairs after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, was the first veteran in UMass history honored with the 2009 John F. Kennedy award for Academic Excellence at the Universityâ€™s 41st commencement ceremony May 29.
In addition to the prestige of the awardâ€”which is given to a student who exemplifies a commitment to service, acts as a â€˜citizenâ€™ of the University and the world, and attains a near perfect GPAâ€”Powell, 27, got to take home a bronze bust of JFK, a cash prize, and, arguably the most anticipated of the perks, she got to speak to more than 10,000 graduating students, faculty, and family members at the schoolâ€™s rainy graduation ceremony, which coincided with what would have been JFKâ€™s 92nd birthday.
â€œI joined the U.S. Marine Corps because I was promised a free ride to college,â€ Powell, who now serves part-time in the Air Force Reserves, said as she looked out from the podium at the nearly 3,000 graduates hidden beneath a rainbow of umbrellas and white ponchos. â€œThen, it wasnâ€™t until one of the most horrible tragedies happened to this nation â€“ 9/11 â€“ that compelled me to, both as a Marine and as a person, selflessly give my heart, soul, and dedication to people who need my help.â€
Despite having lofty dreams of becoming rich and famous after watching the Cosby Show when she was a little girl, after graduating high school from the Boston Latin Academy, Powell decided to deviate from her Hollywood dream and enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000. Thatâ€™s when the soft-spoken, introverted teenager moved to North Carolinaâ€™s Camp Lejeune, the military base Powell would call home for the next four years, surrounded often times by marines who abused drugs and alcohol, she said.
â€œLife in the military was not as glamorous as life in Hollywood but filled with many trials and tribulations that one had to employ his or her physical and mental strength to surpass,â€ she wrote in her testimony for the JFK award selection committee. â€œWhat I have witnessed and encountered in the Marines has put me through a lot of tears and stress, but nevertheless, has hurled a young-minded, timid girl into womanhood.â€
But actually leaving the military for Powell was harder than enduring it. After an honorable discharge from the Marines at the end of her service in 2004, Powell admitted she felt lost, depressed and confused about transitioning from the marines to civilian life, to the point of addressing her parents by â€˜sirâ€™ and â€˜maâ€™am.â€™ Even after enrolling into a Bachelor of Arts Program at UMass in 2005, Powell said she often felt overwhelmed.
â€œGetting out of the Marine Corps was one of the hardest things for me, because all I knew was being a Marineâ€”I didnâ€™t know how to be normal,â€ Powell remembered about the time she wasnâ€™t sure if college was for her after all.
But Augusto St. Silva, the UMass Boston Veteran Affairs Director who was intent on keeping Powell enrolled since the day she walked into his office asking for help in 2005, helped Powell find direction at school.
â€œGus St. Silva helped me out tremendously, because he knew what I was going through,â€ said Powell, who developed a passion for veteran affairs soon after identifying with some of the 700 veterans at the University and getting involved with campus clubs.
As the Coordinator of the Student Veteran Center, Powell has helped veterans claim GI Bill benefits, arranged seminars on post-traumatic stress disorder, and talked with veterans about their problems transitioning from the military. Powell has also tutored math and science, (two subjects she modestly says sheâ€™s good at) to veterans at Veterans Upward Bound, a UMass project aimed at preparing veterans for a post-secondary education.
â€œLuckily, I had people around me who cared enough about me, so hopefully I can give that [support] back to people and they can give back to others,â€ Powell humbly said. â€œI just hope whoever I was helping got touchedâ€”that would be my light at the end of the tunnel.â€
It was that dedication to service and commitment to others that made Powell the first ever veteran to be presented the JFK award in the 32-year history of the award.
â€œThis award is one I have waited over two decades to acknowledge,â€ St. Silva said. â€œI have cherished this award and as I work commencement every year, I listen to the speech made by the student and I am going to be overly excited this year because it is a veteran student who is receiving this award,â€ Silva said proudly. â€œThis is an award I would place as high as the Stanley Cup or the World Series, and I hope Dominique holds it high as she walks across that stage.â€
Whether or not it was the weight of JFKâ€™s bust that prevented her from raising the award high above her head commencement day, Powell did show her pride and hope for the future to the class of 2009 in words.
â€œWhen you do things for people or help them without expecting something in return, then you are doing service,â€ she said. â€œCongratulations, class of 2009, for all of your accomplishments thus far; today is your day and I challenge you to serve others in whatever direction your life leads you.â€