President Fred Lawrence's commencement address

Mr. Chairman, my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, honored guests, my dear faculty colleagues, my dear staff colleagues, alumni, supporters, families, friends of the graduates—and none of you will be offended if I say most especially – soon to be alumni of Brandeis University – the class of 2014.

Presidents are not supposed to have favorite classes, and indeed we do not. Having said that, you will always be my first and you will always remember your first. You guys weren’t sure that I had the guts to say that. I began with you on January 1, 2011, and I have always thought of myself as a mid-year in the class of 2014. My family and I will forever be grateful to you for the way you let us into your lives as fellow members of the Brandeis community.

Your Commencement Day is a significant threshold in your lives – as you complete this significant phase of your life and start toward the next. Having reached this threshold, I know your thoughts turn to family and friends. You owe much of what you have accomplished to the support and indeed the sacrifice of those who love you and have cared for you. Please now stand and recognize those who have supported you during your years here at Brandeis, and in fact throughout your life.

We have shared much here over these past years. I was here with you for Hurricane Sandy – and for more than a few major blizzards. Indeed, it was through one of the blizzards and we figured out where you get your news from.  We put this out on my Facebook and then put out the email 30 minutes later. My favorite comment was “Pres Fred. You da man.” That is when I figured out that all I had to do to be popular is cancel school. We celebrated the opening of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, the re-opening of Linsey Pool, and some truly amazing art exhibitions that showed the world that the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University is still one of the world’s best. We all felt this sense of community most acutely last spring when we faced tragedy and uncertainty in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and the day that we, here in Waltham, were in lockdown. There are those among you today, especially members of our BEMCO emergency medical corps, who were among the first responders at the finish line that day. You thought you would be doing dehydration and charley horses, little did you know. But whether there or on campus, you approached these terribly hard days with grace and compassion, leaning on each other, and finding ways large and small to bring light into the darkness.  

Even as we celebrate your individual achievements today, we celebrate your collective accomplishments as well. You know well how much you have learned from each other, and taught each other, these past years.  I will highlight one particular collective source of pride for us all and that is the good that Brandeis students do in our local community. This year, once again, Brandeisians topped 55,000 hours of community service in areas ranging from running after-school programs, to building playgrounds at a local public housing development, to serving donated meals at our local day shelter. 55,000 hours – that’s 2,291 days (!) – of community service.

Your impact on the world begins here on campus, and reaches into nearby Waltham. But that is only the beginning. Indeed, the hallmark of a Brandeis education is preparation for the role of global citizen that each of you will take on, each in his or her own way. Your education has been global, both in the sense of our student body representing countries and cultures from literally around the globe and in the curriculum that has given each of you a window on the world. The role of global citizen will require you to be able to assimilate and evaluate information – the heart of a liberal arts education – and to communicate clearly and persuasively, orally, in writing, and through a host of electronic forms. As a global citizen you will be called upon now and in the future to engage in civil discourse – something that sounds simple but alas is far more complicated to practice and I fear rare to accomplish in our world. And it has never been more needed. The essence of civil discourse is to challenge without attacking, it is to question without threatening, it is to critique without de-legitimizing another’s point of view. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has taught us:  “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong,” he told us. Thoughtful criticism, even hard-hitting, should be encouraged; collective judgments should not. We must learn to understand each other better, and to essentialize each other less. Time and time again, you have embraced this spirit, setting an example for all of us to follow.

You have had important opportunities to develop these critical skills for global citizenship. I have watched with the Class of 2014 as turmoil hit the Middle East, the Global Debt crisis hit our financial markets, and the Occupy Movement made headlines. I listened attentively with you as expert faculty helped explain current events. At Brandeis, many of you reacted to change and challenges by selflessly reaching out to help others, including victims of the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and, more recently, to the families of those killed in the tragic ferry accident in Korea. You never hesitated to stand up when others needed you, as you heeded calls to action with purpose and with conviction.

On campus you have expressed your passion for global citizenship through events and conferences that are becoming models for other schools for passionate, yet respectful, dialogue on difficult issues. ‘Deis Impact continues to grow as a festival of social justice, which this year – as we mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela – hosted two of his grandsons to hear about their Africa Rising Foundation. bVIEW (Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World), a conference conceptualized and created by students with a wide range of views, has created a context for talking about Israel and its place in the world that others have looked to as an alternative to polarization that has become all too common on this and other complex and controversial issues.

We welcome global citizens at Brandeis as we have throughout our 66 year history – the class of 2014 includes representatives of nearly 100 nations – a number that grows quickly when we include our outstanding graduate and professional students, those who come to Brandeis for advanced study in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, or to study at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, and the Brandeis International Business School. I thought I would get applause from the IBS guys when I said that – and next time without prompting! You will take your place in a worldwide network of Brandeis alumni. I have had the privilege of meeting our alumni in Europe, Israel, India, China, and Korea – and that is just within the last 12 months.

On campus, our community has embraced one staff member, Mangok Bol, one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys” who came to Brandeis, excelled in his education, earning his MS at the International Business School, and whose brother and sister-in-law were tragically killed this spring in their home village, and their four children kidnapped. The Brandeis family helped Mangok travel to South Sudan to get his mother to safety, look for the children, and advocate for their location and release. We reached out to United States and foreign officials, the United Nations, and other nongovernmental groups and they helped in his continued search. Our faculty organized a teach in and thousands of small donors – including faculty, staff, and students – helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to assist him. This is a very Brandeisian reaction to a tragic story, action in the face of tragedy, and we keep him in our thoughts and prayers.

Our global community reminds us that we understand ourselves better by seeking to understand others. Almost every week during the academic year students spearhead events featuring one or more global cultures, culminating each year with Culture X – one of the most powerful experiences on campus that demonstrates culture through dance, music, poetry and other forms of expression. At Brandeis, this is nothing new. In fact, the Brandeis University Intercultural Center celebrated its 20th anniversary during your time here.

So if we can all agree that we are called to be global citizens, whether we express this in Massachusetts, Moldova, or Malawi, it is worthwhile to take a few minutes, to think about how you will address the challenges of a world that is becoming more interconnected and therefore has more need for cross-cultural understanding.

I want to think about this from the perspective of the precise moment that you are at today:  how have you been prepared here at Brandeis for global citizenship.

From the perspective of today, I think the right question is not “what have I learned?” although it is related to that.  The right question is “who have I become?” or better yet, “who am I in the process of becoming?” There are many aspects of this question to be sure, but for each and every one of you graduating today, part of that answer is, “I am a Brandeisian.” The beauty of this answer is that being Brandeisian is not one thing, but a wonderful collection of influences – and one of the hallmarks of a Brandeis education is that you have been open to influences that you never expected to encounter when you came to Waltham four years ago.

How you, personally, have integrated Brandeis values into your own experience will vary, but I am going to suggest to you today a few common themes.

Being Brandeisian means that you passionate about what you do.  This passion is exemplified here in many ways. Academically, by the ways in which you embraced the seamlessness with which our undergraduate program is connected with our graduate and professional schools, wide-ranging disciplines connect with each other. Among you are more than 400 dual and even triple degrees recipients here today.  Even walking here today, I spoke with many of you studying things like: biology and American studies, business and art history, health: science, society & policy and film, biochemistry and English and the list could go on. Consider as well the number of you who explored studies and projects on a graduate level while still undergraduates. You have co-authored papers with neuroscientists, psychologists, economists and historians.  Moreover, you have combined your studies with a truly astonishing range of campus activities. Your pursuit of knowledge, experiences, and leadership – whether through asking a difficult question, standing up for something you believe in, taking an idea and making it a reality, helping friends out of difficult situations, communicating your ideas clearly and convincingly, and righting wrongs, has been extraordinary to watch – and most of you do all of that in a single day!  Now that you are graduating, on behalf of your parents I can say, for God’s sake, get some sleep.

Twenty-five years ago on this stage, the class of 1989 heard from the eminent author E.L. Doctorow. Doctorow told the Class of ’89, “The presumption of your life here, the basic presumption of every life, is that every life has a theme.  It is a literary idea, the great root discovery of narrative literature – every life has a theme. There is human freedom to find it, to create it, to make it victorious.” To be truly victorious, you must take a few risks – to do things that challenge you or even scare you.  I believe that – if you think about it – every one of you can identify an instance during your time here at Brandeis where you have stuck up for a cause you believe in or moved beyond your comfort zone. Is there any greater risk in this society than the sheer risk of daring to be yourself, and of trying approaches to life without certainty of success or outcome? And I believe that you have learned that well at Brandeis.

I have every confidence as I look out at your class today that you will achieve amazing and unique things in this world as you go off to law school, medical school, grad school, new jobs, to start your own companies, and those still looking where the path is going to take them.  Wherever your story leads you, I have no doubt that each and every one of you will have a positive influence on your world.  

Look around you today. As you leave this place, you are most decidedly not alone. It is absolutely striking to me how many Brandeisians, going back to our first class of 1952 to today, tell me that their closest friends continue to be their Brandeis classmates. There is much you take from your time here, but most of what you take is each other. As I told you four years ago (and you knew it was coming), you are an undergraduate student for four years – you are alumni for the rest of your lives. As you now join the ranks of our exceptional alumni – generations of leaders making their impact across the world – know that you are in the very best company.

It is not only each other that you take from this place, it is the place itself. 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. There’s a paradox here.  You can’t hold onto this place – you felt it during this past week as the rain finally gave way to the gorgeous spring weather we have been promising since January. You felt it during senior 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.

I hope that in the months and years ahead, you will always feel that Brandeis is a place to which you can return, either in your mind or even literally here to campus – return to find a beacon of clarity in an all-too-uncertain world.  Calling this place home, in the deepest sense of the word and for the rest of your lives -- that more than anything is what it means to be a Brandeisian.

I thank you all.

We will miss you all.

God bless you all.

Categories: Alumni, General, Student Life

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