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Nichols College Awards 480 Degrees During Commencement Ceremony

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WORCESTER, Mass.—At their May 6, 2017, graduation from Nichols College, 480 students in the Class of 2017 were given three specific charges from one of their own, who just happened to have led one of the top luxury home design brands in the world: take action; manage a connection; and “do 1 percent better” than the competition.

“Learn what a 1 percenter is,” former California Closets Co. President Marty Allen, a 1975 Nichols graduate, challenged the students in his Commencement address. “The concept is simple; you cannot do anything 100 percent better than your competitor. If you do, what happens? Your competitor will copy you, and while copying you, they will improve upon your product or process and ultimately leapfrog you and be in the lead… But here’s what’s very difficult to copy: Go into your business and find 100 things that you can do 1 percent better.”

Undergraduate and graduate students, their families and friends, faculty and staff, trustees, and other special guests were on hand at the Commencement ceremony, held at the DCU Center in Worcester, to experience the inspirational messages delivered by keynote speaker Allen, Nichols College President Susan West Engelkemeyer, Ph.D.; the two valedictorians, Brieanna L. Baron ’17 and Alexandra Morrow ’17; and Senior Class President Paola M. Solano ’17.

During the ceremony, 294 Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degrees; 37 Bachelor of Arts degrees; two Associate in Business Administration degrees; and 147 graduate degrees (Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Organizational Leadership) were awarded.

“We have been proud to mentor you, to challenge you, and to help you succeed and learn to lead,” President Engelkemeyer said in her remarks. “We know you leave us at your best—for now. Commencement, by definition, marks the time when something begins. Your time at Nichols was a dress rehearsal for what comes next, and your dress rehearsal prepared you well.

“We estimate the full-time students in the Class of 2017 have given over 2,500 hours of community service and delivered over 10,500 presentations,” she added. “You have interned at organizations that include the Boston Celtics, Massachusetts State Police, PwC, and the Center of Hope Foundation. Thirty-eight of you are continuing your graduate studies at Nichols. Most of you will soon begin your professional careers at companies ranging from KPMG and the Kraft Group to MEDITECH, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, and the Walt Disney Company. With our Graduate and Professional Studies students, we have 75 ‘double bison’ [two Nichols degrees] and 19 ‘triple bison’ [three Nichols degrees]. You, the Class of 2017, are truly amazing. You have inspired us as we watched you grow and develop, and we’re confident you’re ready to start down a new path on your life’s journey.

President Engelkemeyer offered the graduates a piece of advice: “Don’t follow your dreams. Dreams are aspirational, and you need that. But those aspirations are useless without the planning and perspiration to transform those dreams to reality. Your Nichols education has equipped you with the tools you need to be more than a dreamer.”


Since graduating from Nichols, Allen became a successful business leader. In 1991, he was hired as president of California Closets Co., a division of Williams-Sonoma. Over the next two years, he rebuilt the company from a $3 million loss, to profitability and record sales. In 1996, he became CEO of Party America, which he led out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a record six months. Party America grew from just over 50 stores to 300 stores nationwide in 18 months—to become the second largest party chain in the country. In 2006, Allen was the first person to be inducted into the Party Retailing Hall of Fame. He was also director of marketing and product development for Jostens, the nation’s largest producer of yearbooks and class rings; and CEO of Scholastic Video.

The professional skills Allen gained through his Nichols College experience shaped the first chapter of his business career. In his Commencement remarks, Allen shared with the audience the business-related and personal challenges he faced throughout his career and how he overcame them.

“You will experience it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he said. “Up until today, you have been programmed by teachers, professors, and parents. Starting tomorrow, it truly is your life. How your life turns out from this point forth is determined 100 percent by your actions—or your inability to take action. Let me repeat that: Everything that happens to you from today forward will be a result of your taking or not taking action.”

As a Nichols student, Allen served as senior class president, editor of the yearbook, and president of the Photography Club and the local chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Management; and was on the Who’s Who in Colleges and Universities list. Raised in the Philadelphia area, he lives in Sausalito, Calif.


Also during the ceremony, honorary degrees were conferred upon Allen (Doctorate of Business Administration) as well as two other distinguished individuals: local civic and philanthropic leader Shirley A. Becker (Doctorate of Humane Letters), and, posthumously, her late husband, Herman F. Becker, an entrepreneur and also a civic and philanthropic leader (Doctorate of Business Administration).

Herman Becker, who died in 2003 at age 74, exemplified entrepreneurial and humanitarian ideals. His contributions have made a lasting impact in Dudley and Webster. After high school, as a student at Worcester Trade School, Herman worked as a mechanic and delivery man for Nectar Ice Cream Products, which he bought in 1949 at age 19 and sold to the HP Hood Co. in 1955. He built and ran Nectarland—a full-service restaurant, car hop, and miniature golf course in Webster—for 20 years. In 1962, Herman founded Sterling Realty and served as owner, broker, and developer of Grandview Estates in Dudley and Lakeview Heights in Webster. He was one of the founding directors of The Commerce Insurance Company (now MAPFRE Insurance). During his many years of service to the community, Herman was a longtime secretary of the Webster-Dudley-Oxford Chamber of Commerce, where he tirelessly promoted the growth of business and the wellbeing of the tri-town area. He successfully spearheaded the effort to construct the highway connection (Interstate 395) through Webster and Oxford to the Massachusetts Turnpike in Auburn, and later co-chaired the development of the Webster Industrial Park. He led a series of fundraising initiatives for St. Louis Church and School and founded the St. Louis Endowment Fund, which has raised $5 million in support of Catholic education in Webster.

Shirley Becker has continued her husband’s leadership in her commitment to the Dudley and Webster-area community and beyond, including supporting disease research and prevention, the arts, and children’s and social services. She has shared her time, talent, and treasure to promote numerous causes, including UMass Medical School and its Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (CANDO) Clinic, Indian River Memorial Hospital, and the Habitat for Humanity of Vero Beach, Fla., where she has lived since 1994. She has served as secretary of the Parents and Friends of St. Louis School, secretary of the Webster/Dudley Visiting Nurses Association, and member of the St. Louis Parish Council.

As matriarch of the Becker family, Shirley has been a generous advocate and supporter of Nichols College. The family boasts eight Nichols degrees: Marc ’81 and his wife, Andrea ’96 MOL ’10, an employee of Nichols; Randy ’83 MBA ’96, a member of the Nichols College Board of Trustees, and his wife, Donna ’83; and grandsons, Kiel ’09, and Andrew ’12. In recognition of their long-term association, service and contributions, Nichols dedicated to the family in 2009 Becker Market, a convenience store in the Copper Beech I Residence Hall.


In her valedictory address, Baron, a sport management major from Woodstock, Conn., offered: “Realistically, every day at Nichols College was a new day to challenge ourselves. Think about all the opportunities that our class has taken head on. We joined varsity sports teams. We took chances to study abroad and travel with the school to places like Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Greece, and Portugal. We networked with professionals. We gave back to the Dudley-Charlton community, and we have held internships all over the world. Think of all the times you were challenged to do more. It doesn’t matter if you succeeded or failed; what matters is how you faced those challenges, and what you did with those opportunities. That is how you will define your own success, and that is what makes you a Bison.”

Morrow, a sport management major from Townshend, Vt., shared in her valedictory address: “I am thankful that Nichols has provided me with so many experiences and opportunities to further my passion and discover all the aspects of the sport industry. These experiences have led me to network with Nichols alumni and professionals in the industry, as well as to gain real-world experience. Embracing experiences, living life as an endless rookie, always being open to learning new things, and seizing opportunities are some of the most humbling and rewarding moments that we can have. If there is one piece of advice you remember from my speech, it is this: Every experience—good or bad—is an opportunity to apply advice you’ve been given, make it your own, and then pass it along.”

Solano, a human resource management major from Worcester, said: “Our graduating class is now ready for the world. I know that we have complained about all the times we’ve had to update our resumes, our LinkedIn accounts, and cover letter samples, but in the end, after sitting through four different Professional Development Seminar classes, we can conquer interviews and get the jobs we aspire to have. In the end, it has all been worth it.”



Nichols College is a college of choice for business and leadership education as a result of its distinctive career-focused and leadership-based approaches to learning, both in and out of the classroom. Founded in 1815, Nichols transforms today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders through a dynamic, career-focused business and professional education. Nichols serves students interested primarily in a comprehensive business education that is supported by a strong liberal arts curriculum.


Lorraine U. Martinelle
Director of Public Relations and Social Media
Nichols College | Learn. Lead. Succeed.
Dudley, Mass.
Email: | Twitter: @NicholsNewsroom