Oprah Winfrey brought the house down during a spirited conversation at UMass Lowell Thursday night, helping raise more than $3 million for scholarships at the school in the process.
Winfrey told thousands assembled at Tsongas Arena that she chose to visit the school because proceeds from the talk — the third edition of the school’s Chancellor Speaker Series — would go directly to funding student scholarships.
“When I heard that you were going to use it as a tool of service to raise money for scholarships, I thought, ‘That’s worth firing up the jet for,’” Winfrey joked. “Let’s fire up the jet and get to Lowell!”
Winfrey commanded the stage all night long, speaking with UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, and offering uplifting words and humorous anecdotes from her decades as a talk show host, actress, and entrepreneur.
Previous talks in the series have been headlined by author Stephen King and actress Meryl Streep.
“Your purpose is everything you’ve been doing,” Winfrey said, when asked about how she had managed to run her show for so many years. “It’s the thread that connects the dots of everything you’ve been doing. Your purpose is not one big thing you discover. It’s what you’ve been doing all along. How you honor yourself, how you honor others, how you tell the truth, even when people aren’t looking. Your purpose is how you show up every day.”
Winfrey also made a point to acknowledge UMass Lowell professor Andre Dubus III, whom she credited with helping get her to the school. His 1999 book “House of Sand and Fog” was one of Winfrey’s selections for her book club, catapulting the book’s sales into the millions.
“He was one of the few authors out of the 70 we had chosen that actually sent a thank-you letter,” Winfrey said. “It was such a beautifully written thank-you. It was written with a deep appreciation of what it had meant to be chosen.”
At one point, Oprah briefly stoked the crowd when she used the word “president” in discussing her powerful speech at the 2018 Golden Globes.
Winfrey explained that she had been given only three-and-a-half minutes to deliver a six-and-a-half-minute speech when accepting the lifetime achievement award from the Globes, which was why she gave the speech with such urgency.
“I wasn’t trying to run for president,” Winfrey said, “I was just trying to finish the speech.”
“I’m glad you mentioned that, because everyone keeps asking me to ask you about that,” Moloney replied.
Winfrey quickly demurred, but her response was drowned out by cheers.
At the end of the evening, former UMass Lowell chancellor and current UMass President Marty Meehan gave brief remarks before the school granted Winfrey an honorary degree.
“An honorary degree is the highest honor you can bestow on an individual, and some people think it’s [only] honorary. It’s not. It is earned.” Meehan said. “It is earned through a lifetime of making a difference in this world. And I can tell you, I can’t think of anyone this university has ever given an honorary degree [to] who is more worthy than Oprah.”
Moloney then announced that the school had raised more than $1.5 million from Winfrey’s talk. In her last act of the night, Winfrey announced she was matching the $1.5 million, bringing the total to more than $3 million.
“It is my honor to meet each of you,” Winfrey said, addressing the school’s six inaugural Oprah Winfrey scholars. “I read each of your letters. I was so moved by each of your stories, that coming here and speaking and sharing this beautiful evening with you all, I wanted to do even more. I want to match the $1.5 million.”