Brooks, Lawrence send Class of 2011 off with high hopes and good humor

A day for rejoicing, thanking parents and looking to the future

Commencement speaker David Brooks and Brandeis President Fred Lawrence sent the Class of 2011 off into the world with good humor, serious challenges and upbeat assurances that, while life was about to change dramatically, graduates were leaving Brandeis with the necessary tools for building happy lives.

About 8,000 students, parents, faculty and friends filled Gosman Sports and Convocation Center for the ceremony, which featured a virtuoso solo performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of six recipients of honorary degrees. Ma played "Prayer" by Ernest Bloch and "Gigue" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Third Suite.

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Commencement Highlights

Ceremony Highlights video

Remarks by President Lawrence
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Keynote address by David Brooks
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Student address by Ilana Spector '11
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Yo-Yo Ma's Performance

VoiceMale Performance

Hear from the Class of 2011

What's next for the graduates?

What will they miss about Brandeis?

What did they learn at Brandeis?

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Before and after the ceremony, the campus swirled with crowds of gowned graduates and visiting relatives and friends from around the world.

Sriram Anbil, a neuroscience major from Austin, Texas, helped his grandmother, Vijaya Padmanabhan, 78, who was visiting the United States from Chennai, India, for the third time to see a grandchild graduate.

Imam Telal Eid  said he took "double pleasure, double joy" from this year's ceremony because of his participation as Brandeis' Muslim chaplain and because his fifth daughter, an English major, was among the graduates. "Now it's time to start the boys," Eid said.

"I don't know what I feel," said Tina Rong, a Health: Science, Society and Policy Program graduate from Brookline, who was taking pictures with friends from Korea, Quincy, Newton and Hawaii. "It's unreal – like entering a dream world of some sort."

Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times renowned for centrist cultural commentary, told the graduates that "there will be an extreme contrast between the life you led until today and the life you will start tomorrow," from a high-pressure, highly structured existence to an extreme lack of structure.

"If you are like most college grads, you will spend the next decade of your lives moving from city to city, school to school and from job to job experimenting with different careers and lifestyles," he said. "While you do this, by the way, your parents will slowly go insane. Everything will be contingent and uncertain."

The rapid-fire switchbacks between irreverent humor and genuinely heartfelt advice delighted the crowd, for Brooks was a friendly, serious and convincing counselor about what lay ahead.

"Over the past few years, we've learned a lot about happiness," Brooks said. "We've learned that the relationship between money and happiness is weak. Once you hit the middle class, getting richer doesn't make you that much happier. The relationship between friendship and happiness is strong. Joining a club that meets just once a month produces the same happiness-gain as doubling your income.

"The daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends," he said. "The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting."

Brooks filled in the details of the highly structured world on today's students with a series of uproarious jokes about Ubermoms, Volvos and Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

"You can tell the Ubermoms because they actually weigh less than their own children," he said. "Their kids are raised for six figure incomes and ecological sustainability. They get taken to Ben and Jerry's because even their ice cream should have a moral conscience." These are people for whom, he said, "it is socially acceptable to have a luxury car, so long as it comes from a country hostile to U.S. foreign policy...."

The laughter and applause were prolonged.

Suddenly, with graduation, the intense monitoring of young people's development by parents and then professors stops, he said, quipping that "Last month you were reading Tolstoy at Brandeis. Next month, if you're lucky, you'll be working the copying machine at some organization, providing the middle-aged people in the office with nothing more than fact-checking and sexual tension."

What comes next, he said, is a hunt for commitments.

"It's a mistake to ask yourself, ‘What career do I want to have?' It's better to ask, ‘What problem is life summoning me to tackle?' The value of your life will derive from how fully you tie yourself down to your problem," Brooks asserted. "Do you struggle with your problem even when it is no fun, even when it costs you friends, even when the problem looks unbeatable?"

Liberal arts graduates from Brandeis have the capacity to live life at this level, he said, "the only question will be: Do you have the courage to throw yourself into the commitment hunt? Will you try on many different experiences and lifestyles to see which ones summon you?

"Happiness is not achieved by chasing it directly," Brooks concluded." Your worth and happiness will be a byproduct of how zestfully you engage the commitments life throws in your path...The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It's to lose yourself" in the larger tasks to which life summons people to commit themselves.

President Lawrence based his first talk at a Brandeis commencement on a recent conversation with a graduating senior "who said to me the world is so messed up, the world is in such turmoil, economically, socially, politically, environmentally. And yet... I feel optimistic. Is it realistic to feel optimistic?"

Lawrence acknowledged "we face an economy and a world that has been greatly shaken over the course of your time here at Brandeis," but, he asserted, "you have every reason to be optimistic as you face the future."

He stressed that Brandeis had trained the graduate to communicate, to analyze problems and to turn information into knowledge – skills that would serve them well in the as-yet-unimagined future. This training occurred not only in the classroom but in a multiplicity of organizations and activities that taught vital lessons in emotional intelligence and risk-taking.

To the pleasure of his listeners, he quoted the basketball great Julius Erving, whom he called "a modern philosopher of sorts."

A college coach, after watching Dr. J execute a string of incredible moves, reportedly called the young star over and said, "Son, never leave you feet without knowing where you're going to come down." To which Erving is said to have replied, "Sir, I can't play basketball that way."

"Nor," Lawrence said, "can you live life that way.  You have learned that well at Brandeis."

"Remember what you liked best about yourself at Brandeis – and stay in touch with that person, the person you became, the person you are still becoming," Lawrence said. "You can't hold onto this place – you felt it this past week, trying to hold onto it, as it seems to be running through your fingers.  That is because places do not belong to us – we belong to them. You will always belong to this place, to its values and what it stands for."

Speaking of himself, the faculty, and the family and friends surrounding the graduating class, he concluded: "Maybe we love you too much. Maybe we expect too much of you. But we do, and you better not let us down."

His voice broke slightly as he said it, and a tear rolled down his cheek. The applause was thunderous.

In all 776 bachelor's degrees, 783 master's degrees, 88 doctoral degrees and 23 graduate certificates were awarded.

The Class of 1961, this year's 50th reunion group, returned 80 members to campus and raised more than $2 million for Brandeis. 

Heller School graduation a United Nations of diversity

Students from 62 countries received degrees from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management in Spingold Theater Arts Center. Altogether, 161 students received doctoral and master's degrees in social policy, management, sustainable development and coexistence.

Charged by the Federal District Court Judge Nancy Gertner to remember the words of  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that the opposite of good is not evil, but indifference, speakers representing each of six Heller programs demonstrated anything but indifference.

They spoke of acquiring skills to change unjust systems, stand up for the vulnerable and pursue peace. Acknowledging that we live in a world divided by conflict, they spoke of how their common goal of a socially just and peaceful world united them as a community.

Passionate about a belief in alleviating poverty and eliminating disparity from a strong knowledge base, graduates also paused to acknowledge professors who were critical for their roles  in  teaching and mentoring.

Dean Lisa Lynch encouraged graduates to foster a strong continuing network with each other and with the school.

Business School confers 185 degrees to students from 48 countries

The Brandeis International Business School conferred 185 degrees on graduates representing 48 countries during the school's 17th commencement exercises.

Massachusetts Life Science Center President and Chief Executive Susan Windham-Bannister, Ph.D. '77, told the graduates:

"You are joining the global workforce at a time when a new economy is emerging-what we are coming to call an innovation economy... The old rules and the jobs of the old economy are falling quickly away... Your careers will be built on finding new paths and new types of work, not on following the paths of generations before you, or stepping into the jobs that we have held in the past."

Windham-Bannister, who earned her Ph.D. at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, was awarded the Dean's Medal for exemplary leadership and significant professional accomplishments in the field of life sciences. She has been in charge of the state's $1 billion effort to promote innovation and growth within life sciences. Under her leadership, the center is encouraging unprecedented public-private collaboration and making strategic financial investments in translational research and work force development.

Bruce Magid, dean of the school and the Martin and Ahuva Gross Chair in Financial Markets and Institutions urged graduates to be innovative. "You will seize and create opportunities – even as the global economy continues its seismic shifts," he said. "You will confront and overcome obstacles; utilizing your interdisciplinary, multicultural education."

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