Commencement speaker Julieanna Richardson '76: 'You may end up being the best generation yet'

Brandeis University celebrated its 65th Commencement May 22

Photo/Mike Lovett

Julieanna Richardson '76 during her Commencement keynote address.

VIDEO: A look back at Commencement 2016

Newly-minted graduates were urged to discover their life's purpose in their dreams, never fear failure, and go forward with optimism and hope at Brandeis University's 65th Commencement ceremony May 22.

Thousands gathered inside Gosman Sports and Convocation Center Sunday to celebrate the graduates and listen to words of wisdom from distinguished speakers, including keynote Julieanna Richardson '76, an oral historian who created the world's largest video archive of the African-American experience.

Against a backdrop of celebratory music, from classics like "Pomp and Circumstance" to the contemporary sounds of Beyoncé, throngs of joyful families and friends greeted ecstatic students in robes and mortarboards, and faculty in full academic regalia as they processed down the red carpet in Gosman.

Student Union president Nyah Macklin '16 kicked off the ceremonies with an electrifying performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that ended with a standing ovation.

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Commencement 2016 coverage:

Jack Whitten: 'My paintings teach me how to live'

Agnieszka Holland tells graduates about the beauty of blending history and film

Snapshots from Commencement 2016

#BrandeisGrad: In their own words

Rabb School awards diplomas to nearly 100 GPS students

Stories of justice prevail at Heller School's Commencement 2016

BrandeisIBS graduates urged to transform global challenges into opportunities

Watch Nyah Macklin '16 electrify Commencement crowd with national anthem

Video and Text: Julieanna Richardson '76 delivers keynote address

Video and Text: Joel Burt Miller '16 speaks at Brandeis Commencement

Video and Text: Ahmed Naveed Noormal MP'16 speaks at Brandeis Commencement

Video and Text: Interim President Lisa Lynch's remarks at Brandeis Commencement

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Brandeis conferred honorary degrees on Richardson, MIT professor Mildred Dresselhaus, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, abstract painter Jack Whitten and preservationist Frank Brandeis Gilbert, grandson of university namesake Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

The crowd also gave Interim President Lisa Lynch, who will resume her position as provost July 1, a standing ovation for her steady leadership over the past year.

Richardson, the founder of The HistoryMakers, a collection of first-person video interviews with African Americans from all walks of life, told the audience that the inspiration for the archive was sparked at Brandeis four decades ago.

"I was profoundly shaped by my time here at Brandeis. My exposure to the Jewish tradition taught me so much about how to value history, heritage and legacy," she said. "In fact, it is here, as a black person, that I found my identity as well as my life's passion and the freedom to pursue it."

During her sophomore year, Richardson, a double major in American studies and theater arts, went to New York for a research project on the Harlem Renaissance. There she interviewed a handful of African Americans, including actor Thelma Butterfly McQueen, tap dancer Charles "Honi" Coles and historian John Henrick Clarke. These interviews and others sowed the seeds of The HistoryMakers, which has recorded more than 2,700 people since 1999.

Richardson offered graduates this advice: Have passion, purpose and a plan; hold on through life's darkest moments; mentor others; and go forth and do good.

"I do not worry about you. ... You may end up actually being the best generation yet. I say that because you came of age as the nation was electing its first African-American president. You have seen the country at its best and at its worst. You have been witness to the breakthrough in the LBGTQ movement, and you have seen hashtags bring down countries and make change," she said. "Remember fear of failure will lead you nowhere; it is not an option because failure is often the teacher of life's lessons and from which you will achieve your greatest glory."

The main Commencement ceremony featured speeches by Joel Burt-Miller '16 and Naveed Noormal, Heller MA'16, who were both selected to speak in a student vote. Burt-Miller encouraged his fellow graduates to look to their dreams to find their purpose in life.

"As I look to the future, I have no doubt that we can overcome our fears and achieve the dreams we have set for ourselves," Burt-Miller said. "My dream is to one day become a practicing physician working in underserved communities throughout the world. I believe each and every one of us has a purpose in life, and it is through our dreams that this purpose can be realized."

Noormal, who came to the Heller School on a Fulbright Fellowship from Afghanistan, recalled the war in his native land in 2001 when U.S. aircraft bombed insurgents in Kabul.

"The target was only two or three miles away from my house," said Noormal. "I used to watch the bombings, the bullets and the fires from the balcony of my house. But even at that time, I never gave up learning, because my dream was to be educated and to educate others."

Brandeis conferred 915 bachelor degrees; the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences awarded 421 degrees, including 64 doctoral degrees; the Heller School for Social Policy and Management awarded 153 degrees; the Rabb School of Continuing Studies bestowed 95 degrees; and Brandeis International Business School bestowed 185 degrees.  

Interim President Lisa Lynch, after taking a selfie with the class of 2016 seated behind her, drew on a series of memorable quotes from Justice Brandeis' life philosophy to inspire students in the next phase of their life. Quoting Brandeis — "Neutrality is at times a greater sin than belligerence" — Lynch urged graduates not to be neutral.  

"There will be moments when you will need to fight for what you believe in — to step in and not step back," she said.

Although their time on campus is coming to an end, the new graduates have created a community bond that is only just beginning, Lynch said.

"Nurture this bond and it will nurture you. As you commence this new phase of your life I urge you to do so with great optimism and hope," Lynch said. "We are all so proud of you and cannot wait to see what you will accomplish next. Class of 2016, seize the day, and repair the world."

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