President Ron Liebowitz: "[This class] represents a generation of action & change"

President Liebowitz at the podium:

Good morning. Members of the Board of Trustees, honorary degree recipients, faculty, staff, alumni and alumnae, honored guests, families and friends of our graduates, graduates of the class of 2018, and most especially all the mothers here today on Mother's Day. Welcome to our 67th Commencement Ceremony of Brandeis University.

It might seem odd to be celebrating Mother's Day on a university campus. Well, I hope the pride that all the mothers and grandmothers feel for the accomplishments of their graduates reduces that oddness, and maybe even takes away the mild sting of being away from home on this holiday. The students who we will recognize today have worked hard to reach this milestone. At the same time, we cannot let this occasion pass without recognizing all those family members and friends whose devotion and support have contributed significantly to the successes we are celebrating here today. I ask all our graduates to please stand, turn to your loved ones, especially your mothers if they are here, and join me in thanking those who helped you through your Brandeis journey, please.

I also want to thank the members of the Brandeis staff, whose weeks of preparation have made this commencement weekend possible. Again, please join me in thanking our dedicated and talented staff. There are two members of the class of 2018 who are not with us today, and their absence is like a hole in the heart. Zimeng "Boots" Xue and Chuanchuan "Kurtis" Zhang passed away before graduating. They are here with us in spirit and I ask you to join in a moment of silent reflection as we remember with fondness and affection, Boots and Kurtis. Thank you.

I would like to begin my remarks today with a special welcome to someone who is not here in Gosman today, and is missing only his third commencement since the university's first graduation in 1952. Frank Brandeis Gilbert, grandson of Louis Brandeis, our namesake, has been a regular at these commencement ceremonies since the beginning. This year, however, Frank and his wife, Anne, could not make it to campus and so we send our best wishes their way, knowing their hearts, at least, are with us today. As it is Mother's Day, I would be remiss not to mention that Frank's mother and Louis Brandeis' daughter, Susan Brandeis Gilbert, was a remarkable woman and a major figure at the university at its founding. She followed in her father's footsteps by becoming a formidable lawyer, having graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, and was one of the first women to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. Susan Gilbert gave much of herself to Brandeis in its formative years. She was a member of the Board of Trustees, a university fellow, served as Honorary President of the National Women's Committee, and took quite seriously the role of interviewing high school students who had applied for admission to the university.

I mention Susan Brandeis Gilbert today, not only because of her relationship to Frank Gilbert and Louis Brandeis. I do so because she represented so much of the good that I see in Brandeis students today, things that generate the hope and optimism I feel about the future. As Dorothy Thomas, writing about Susan Brandeis Gilbert, said in the Jewish Women's Archives, "In looks, in her drive, vigor, and political and social skills, Gilbert took after her father, Justice Brandeis. In her lifelong lack of interest in cooking and clothes, she resembled her mother. Her social consciousness, morals and social values were a legacy of both her parents. To her, literature, law and causes for human equality were always more important than material possessions."

After two years as President on this campus, I continue to be inspired by you, our students, and it's more than just the intelligence and passion you show when talking about your double majors, triple minors, or triple majors, double minors, or the latest paper you're about to publish on your way to completing your Ph.D., or the new ventures you are contemplating here in Waltham or halfway around the world. Yes, there is an undeniable passion when it comes to your academic and professional pursuits, but there is also a great deal of compassion in how you see the world and your desire to improve it.

I could randomly select a group of students who are graduating today, provide you with a brief sketch of what they have done and aspire to do, and I would guarantee that even the most cynical among us would feel hope for the future. To prove my point, here are brief files of students from different degree programs across the university who, while exceptional, are representative of this year's graduates and should provide sound reason for optimism in our ever increasing complex and fractured world.

Mihir Khanna, majored in physics. Mihir majored in Physics with minors in mathematics and art history. He has worked in the Brandeis high energy physics lab for the last two and a half years. He will move to Geneva, Switzerland to work for CERN, the renowned particle physics laboratory and home of the Large Hadron Collider, which in 2012 discovered the Higgs Boson elementary particle.

Millie Knopp earned her master's degree in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School, has been accepted into the Global Health for Fellows program, and will begin a 13-month fellowship working at UNAids Together for Girls in Washington, D.C. as youth advocacy officer.

Uri Kedem, who before Brandeis was a paratrooper in an elite Israeli army unit, earned his MBA at the Brandeis International Business School where he served as a leadership fellow. Uri has already launched his own 3D – had already launched his own 3D printing business – prior to coming to Brandeis, and while here he worked with the Brandeis maker lab to launch a new course in digital robots and printing at IBS. Following commencement, Uri will be working for Dell in Austin, Texas.

Roza Azene. Roza Azene is a Wien International Scholar from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who majored in economics and mathematics. Roza excelled at Brandeis, serving as a teaching assistant, an undergraduate departmental representative and a tutor. She will work in Washington, D.C. as an economic consultant starting this summer.

Danielle Gaskin. Danielle Gaskin double-majored in international global studies and Health: science, society, and policy. She followed her father's footsteps, she followed in the footsteps of her father, Darrell Gaskin, class of 1983, by serving as the co-president of the Brandeis Black Student Organization. She participated in Global Medical Brigades in Honduras during her first year, completed a health-related internship through study abroad in Thailand during her junior year, and plans to attend the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School to pursue a graduate degree in public health.

And Lauren Bernard, who will begin a Ph.D. program at Columbia University after finishing her master’s degree in musicology in our Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Lauren was a 2017 Diversity Excellence and Inclusion Scholar and studied the complex relationships among music, politics and social interactions.

I mention these students, neither to embarrass them, nor to slight any of our other graduates. Rather I did so to showcase the representative talent and accomplishments of the graduating class that represents a generation of action and change. More than any other generation of students since the 1960s, I believe today's graduates are more aware of, and learned about, the great challenges facing humanity. More importantly, I believe they are more willing to take action than their predecessors. They combine the intellectual curiosity and academic focus with a commitment to making the world a better place. And they are following a passage of ancient Jewish wisdom, which speaks to one finding one's unique self and sharing it with the world. From Pirkei Avot or Ethics of the Fathers, the text asks, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Whether it's gun control, growing inequality, the impact of climate change, voting rights, fairness for immigrants and refugees, support for funding scientific research, criminal justice reform, or any number of issues that represent great challenges to society, it is this generation that gives us the greatest hope to counter what has become a stalemated and ineffective political system. And as we celebrate our graduates' accomplishments this morning, I want us also to celebrate our university, an institution with a remarkable history, and for us to appreciate how that history factors into my sense of optimism about the future.

The American Jewish community proudly founded this university in order to provide an education to gifted students denied entry to leading colleges and universities because of antisemitism and bigotry, yet, from the outset, founding president Abram Sachar stated that Brandeis would be nonsectarian and open to all. And while many gifted Jewish students responded to the call of the university and eagerly filled its early classes, other groups, who had also faced bigotry and prejudice at many universities soon followed suit. President Sachar aggressively recruited and hired leading scholars and public intellectuals, many of them immigrants from Europe. Most, if not all, were unable to secure jobs following World War II because of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments in many of the leading colleges and universities. These scholars were deeply and broadly educated and set a very high standard for academic excellence, a standard that endures to the present.

Thanks to President Sachar, this university from its beginning, provided a learning environment rooted in openness and rigor.That combination has fostered a culture of learning that will never leave you. It has become part of you. The commonly heard trope around this campus, double major, double minor, will soon morph into deep and meaningful engagements in the arts, in community service, in scientific research and in scores of other pursuits, the results of which will be consequential well beyond yourselves. And that is why I am so optimistic about the future.

To the class of 2018, undergraduates and graduate students alike, we wish you the very best as you leave Brandeis to begin the next chapter of your lives. We will be watching with great and abiding interest as you engage the world with the same zeal and curiosity and intelligence we witnessed during your time here. Congratulations, and Happy Mother's Day.


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