Baccalaureate Address to the Class of 2015

May 17, 2015

A very good afternoon to you all. It is a joy and an honor to be with you today.

To the deans, staff, and especially the members of the faculty who have shaped this class: Welcome and thank you.

To the parents, grandparents, mentors, friends, and loved ones—whose support has guided this class through to this day: Welcome and thank you.

To the Class of 2015: Welcome and congratulations! I invite you all to please stand and recognize the people who have loved and nurtured you through to this momentous occasion. This day is as much a celebration of their commitment to you as it is of your accomplishments.

This is a very special Baccalaureate Service for me, too. You are the first class that I have seen from our Matriculation together in 2011 all the way through to tomorrow’s Commencement ceremony.

The first Baccalaureate Service at Tufts University was held in 1864. From that day until now, it has been the privilege of the President to offer on this occasion “laurels of oration” to inspire our Seniors as they look toward the Commencement celebration and the excitement of the future.

I thank the University Chaplaincy for organizing a Baccalaureate celebration that reflects the diverse perspectives of our campus community. I am especially grateful to the students who have enriched our campus and this day with the important messages of their faiths, traditions, and philosophical perspectives.

For more than a hundred years, the President has always been joined on this platform by the member of the graduating class selected as the Wendell Phillips Orator. I want to extend special thanks and congratulations to Michael Maskin. Michael, thank you for sharing your reflections and aspirations with all of us, and for representing your Class so eloquently today.

This afternoon, I want to take some time to share with you some reflections on our experience during our four years together at Tufts. As I said at our Matriculation, we chose Tufts and Tufts chose us because this is where we found the most exciting environment to learn, to undertake research, and to engage actively with our society. When I consider how that journey has unfolded since we first met on that sunny August day four years ago, three words come to mind: opportunity, teamwork, and responsibility.

From the moment we arrived here, we all knew that Tufts was a special place where talent could flourish and dreams could be realized. On my second day on the job, the students in the BEST program hosted me for lunch to welcome me to campus and I began to see how extraordinary the backgrounds of your Class were. When Dean Coffin formally introduced all of you at Matriculation, the full picture of your qualities emerged.

Your academic qualifications set new records for an entering class at Tufts. You came from 47 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and 37 nations around the world. And almost 10 percent of you were like me, the first generation in your families to attend college.

The Dean said, rightly, that you were “smart,” that you were “kind,” and that you were “going to be important.” Each of you came to Tufts with a desire to contribute…a passion for intellectual engagement…and a commitment to problem solving through the kind of research only universities can support. Indeed, you possessed the blend of brains, personal qualities, and ambition without self-importance that made you all Jumbos.

I noted that you were entering Tufts at a time when the world was facing great challenges. But I also knew that you would find ways to create solutions that went beyond individual areas of study or traditional academic disciplines, and that you would work together to find them. That is why I chose to add “Fly Like an Eagle” to the playlist we created for your arrival.

You arrived at Tufts just as the US economy was beginning to show signs of recovery after the 2008 financial crisis that marked your first years in high school. The world had just watched the Arab Spring unfold as you donned cap and gown in your hometowns, and when you got here many of you began taking courses on those events and their implications for the future.

You all dove head-first into your education, exploring topics ranging from international development, to human factors engineering, to philosophy. You brought to Tufts diverse interests, and you took them with you into your classrooms. You looked to integrate those interests so that you might not simply learn, but explore and grow intellectually.

Your second year at Tufts brought new challenges. You began to specialize in your courses and delve deeper into the topics of greatest interest to you. You helped get your fellow students—and faculty, staff, and members of the Medford and Somerville communities—to the polls for the 2012 Presidential Election.

You faced a hurricane in the fall and record snowfalls in the winter. When blizzards hit during the ironically named spring semester, you pushed through to warmer weather.

Nothing could have prepared you, or any of us, for what happened in April of 2013 when a sunny Marathon Monday—your second at Tufts—turned tragic. Several of you were running that year, and many were volunteering. You got each other to the finish line—both in Copley Square that evening and on this Hill as the academic year drew to a close.

One of your classmates who lost her father on 9/11 and ran the marathon both in 2013 and this year, said at the time: “I do not like to talk about these things, but as someone who had gone through something similar, I wanted people to know that I’m fine and you will be, too.” She was right. And this year, more than 20 of you ran the marathon.

At first glance, running a marathon may seem to be an individual accomplishment. But the success of Tufts’ Marathon Team runners on the Boston course over the years reflects the tremendous power of mentoring, collaboration, and teamwork. Those are all qualities you have demonstrated here at Tufts.

Together, you have contributed to and led some of the most successful sports teams in Tufts’ history. You have been recognized with national awards for your work to address both local and global challenges and better the lives of others. You have delivered outstanding performances in the arts. And you have worked closely with your faculty mentors doing original research in fields all across Tufts’ intellectual landscape.

As a team, you have seized the many opportunities Tufts has offered and you have made the light on this Hill shine even brighter during your four years here.

The sense of responsibility that has informed how you have used your opportunities here is quite literally in our Jumbo DNA. Looking ahead, my hope is that you continue to hold fast to that ideal, and that a sense of responsibility will inform the choices you make as you confront the opportunities ahead of you.

Tufts’ third President, Elmer Hewitt Capen, put it this way when he delivered his Baccalaureate Address to the Class of 1899, “You are conscious of your strength and power to do an untried work and, if need be, to bear an untried burden.” But how will you put that idea into practice as you undertake the work of living, every day?

There are many ways in which you can meet your responsibilities to others. And here I will share an experience from my own career.

Two years after I graduated from college, as an M.D.-Ph.D. student, I was working on the genetics of muscular dystrophy. My own research was highly technical laboratory work. But I was asked to meet with patients and their families once a week in the muscular dystrophy clinic at Children’s Hospital—which brought together practitioners from across clinical disciplines to care for young people facing a terrible diagnosis. The experience of working with those families gave me an entirely new sense of responsibility—and an awareness that I was fortunate enough to be able to act on it.

Now, many years later, potential treatments for this condition, based on the discoveries my colleagues and I made, are being fast-tracked for approval by the FDA. The sense of responsibility I took away from my time with patients and their families was the best possible spur to my own creativity and effort as a scientist.

I believe that the best way to bear the burden of responsibility is to shoulder it together, and to spread it widely.

I relied greatly on my colleagues—neurologists, surgeons, physical therapists, nurses, and others—in those muscular dystrophy clinics. Collaboration allowed us to harness insights from many areas of medicine and science.

The teamwork you have demonstrated in your activities on and off campus will serve you well. You have learned lessons in leadership and collaboration here that should last a lifetime.

Sharing those experiences together also means remembering to stay in touch with the people sitting with you in cap and gown today. It means updating your faculty and staff mentors here as you progress. And it means asking them for the guidance and insight they are eager to share. Your mentors will be here to guide you through your challenges—to push you, to work with you, to support you. That does not end today or tomorrow. You can always come back to this Hill – we will always be here for you.

And Tufts will be there for you off the Hill as well. Our alumni form a worldwide community that is more than 100,000 strong. I encourage you to stay connected with the University through the many activities of the Alumni Association not just in Medford, but globally.

I also hope you will value and nurture the friendships you have made with your classmates at Tufts as well. They have the potential to sustain you through all the challenges that life may present to you in the decades ahead. Friendship is itself a responsibility, and requires real effort. But I can assure you that effort will bring you great joy.

Now, what about acting on responsibility? Here, too, your Tufts experience will show you the way. You came here because you believed in the University as an engine for intellectual, scientific, social, and economic progress. And during your time here you have demonstrated that you understand the critical importance of extending that sense of responsibility—of widening the circle of action and engagement.

You have learned how to engage others in the causes that are important to you. You have registered them to vote, you have organized them for community service projects, and, yes, you have organized them to protest.

As you go out into the world, always remember the lessons you have learned here.

All of you are headed toward careers and challenges that embody service. Earlier today, seven of you were commissioned in our military; many of you will be teaching in underserved school districts around the country.

But remember that responsibility and service can take many forms. Whatever your field, you will have opportunities to serve the greater good and make an impact on society. And wherever you go, I hope that awareness of the opportunities that have shaped you, will reinforce a sense of responsibility to others—and that you will hold true to the best values of Tufts.

Members of the Class of 2015: You go into the world tomorrow with our best wishes for your success. Your teachers, parents, and I believe that you are well prepared, not just to meet the world’s challenges personally, but to join with others to turn challenges into opportunities.

As you embark on your journeys, remember that this Hill and those on it will always be here for you when you need them.

Congratulations, Class of 2015! We look forward to hearing your stories from the road.