May 20, 2017
Family, friends, colleagues, and distinguished guests: Welcome to this year’s Baccalaureate service. Our most special guests today are the members of the Class of 2017. So, welcome, Seniors!
Graduation from Tufts is a milestone for all who are close to our students. A college career can bring with it unforeseen challenges as well as hoped-for triumphs. Those who love and care for our graduates have provided them with support and encouragement all along the way, rejoicing in good times and offering a steadying hand when things got rough.
As we begin, I would like to ask the graduates to stand and recognize the support… care… love… and sacrifice… of the parents… grandparents… siblings… partners… children… and friends, who have made this day possible. Seniors, please give them a hearty round of applause.
All of you shared a portion of this journey and supported our graduates. We are grateful to you for entrusting these young people to be educated at Tufts, and helping them thrive while they were here.
I would also like to recognize the devotion and excellence of Tufts’ faculty, deans, coaches, and staff. In countless ways visible and invisible, academic and personal, they have supported and guided our students.
It is a privilege to share the stage with their representatives.
I am also grateful to the students who have enriched our campus and this day with the important messages of their faiths, traditions, and philosophical perspectives.
And to the Reverend Greg McGonigle and his colleagues in the University Chaplaincy for organizing this afternoon’s celebration.
Finally, thank you, Isabella, for that thoughtful Wendell Phillips address. You are an outstanding representative of the Class of 2017, and your address was all that I could have expected from someone who exemplifies the very best of Tufts.
Reflections on the Class of 2017
Members of the Class of 2017: This Baccalaureate service is the last time you will be alone together as a class.
You were already accomplished when you arrived at Tufts. When you matriculated, the headline read, “Most Selective, Largest Applicant Pool, Strongest Academic Profile of Any Undergraduate Class in University History.”
But those aren’t the only qualities that count.
As Lee Coffin, our former Dean of Admissions, said at your Matriculation, “One of the things that doesn’t get acknowledged as much when we report admissions stats is the vibe of this institution…. Their impulse towards citizenship, their sense of inclusiveness, their creativity and their willingness to think outside the box are qualities that are very much evident in the incoming class.”
He was right. Over the past four years, you have gone on to excel in your chosen pursuits with passion and creativity.
Your Class includes the first students to graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts since it became part of Tufts. In just this first year, the students and faculty of the SMFA are already having a tremendous positive impact as members of the Tufts community.
I have watched you act in extraordinary plays, and sing, dance, and perform with passion and brilliance. You have participated in national arts competitions ranging from dance to slam poetry. You even won the United States Universities Debate Championship for the first time in Tufts’ history.
During your four years here, the university’s athletics teams have won many NESCAC championships and participated in multiple NCAA championships, winning an impressive number of them. Earlier this week, we were able to hold a mini-Commencement ceremony for the seniors on our baseball team, who are competing this weekend.
During your time on the Hill, our campus has changed—we’ve welcomed our new Jumbo, opened state of the art facilities in the Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex, and honored our very own trail blazer Bernard Harleston with the dedication of Harleston Hall.
But perhaps the most remarkable physical transformation on our campus occurred during your second year, when you survived the record-breaking winter of 2014-15. Fortunately, the snow piles were not permanent—though they may have felt like it at the time!
You have not been just onlookers. Far from it.
You have worked for social justice and against racism… fought for LGBT rights and to prevent sexual misconduct on campus…supported undocumented and international students…and requested changes in university policy. You have been tireless advocates on campus, in our local communities, and around the world.
Tomorrow, you will join the over 100,000 members of our alumni community representing Tufts around the globe. I hope that you will cherish the friendships you have made here, keep in touch with your advisors and mentors, and stay connected with the university.
I know that your careers and accomplishments throughout your lifetime will give us cause for pride.
Navigating the Future
You leave Tufts to enter a world that is evolving every day. Success and satisfaction in a changing environment call for flexibility. I hope that you will look forward to the future with an open mind and embrace it with the same enthusiasm and passion that you brought with you to Tufts.
This is not just a question of adapting to circumstances: You can never know when an experience or interaction will unlock new opportunities by encouraging you to move in an unanticipated direction.
Those of you who attended this year’s senior dinners have heard me talk about how this happened in my own life—when hearing a talk by a young faculty member encouraged me, quite unexpectedly, to switch my graduate research from neuroscience to molecular genetics.
That was a huge risk for me personally, but it turned out to be absolutely the right decision.
The work led to the discovery of the first gene for a human inherited disorder based solely on a genetic approach. And last fall, some thirty years after I started that research, the FDA approved a new therapeutic treatment based on what we had learned. It is the first drug ever to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
I had followed my gut instinct about accepting a challenge, and taking that leap had an impact I could not have imagined.
Educated for the 21st Century
During your time at Tufts, you have gained compelling long-term skills—skills such as critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and verbal communication, and habits of minds that enable the questioning of established thought and social assumptions.
These are skills that will stand the test of time and serve you and society well both today and tomorrow. And they are the same skills that employers currently say they prize most highly in employees.
During your time on the Hill, you have acquired these invaluable skills through transformative learning experiences ranging from rigorous course work, study aboard, and independent research to energetic participation in athletics, leadership in campus activities, and service in the community.
All of those experiences have strengthened your resilience, enhancing your ability to be flexible and succeed in a changing environment. These are skills that will help you navigate transitions present and into the future.
Looking ahead, we also need educated individuals who are willing to take on causes larger than their own self-interest. Active citizenship is critical to creating and maintaining an innovative workforce, a vibrant culture, and a robust civil society.
In its most simple form, it means educating future leaders for positive change.
As students, you have demonstrated a commitment to active citizenship through your advocacy and your service to organizations and communities close to campus and around the world.
You have proven that you’re willing to take on causes selflessly; as graduates, many of you are drawn to mission-oriented roles that are vital to thriving communities and advancing society.
No matter what career path you follow, I hope that you will be an engaged member of your community, beyond your time here.
Bringing it back to the Beginning
Before you arrived at Tufts, you read the book Whistling Vivaldi as part of our Common Reading Program. In that book, Dr. Claude Steele—a renowned social psychologist—detailed his research on stereotypes and how they can diminish our performance and limit our opportunities.
At your Matriculation, I urged you to challenge the stereotypes you may carry. College provides a unique opportunity to test your preconceived ideas about the world. It’s also a time to challenge your notions of other people and yourself, to learn that what you observe by looking at peers is an imperfect indicator of their perspectives and experiences.
As Dr. Steele put it in his Commencement address to the Class of 2013, “When you feel under social threat, like the threat of judgment, try to avoid defensiveness, tempting as it is; rather, lean in and let in; try to let in what you don’t know you don’t know.”
I hope that this is what you have done at Tufts; that you have engaged openly with others throughout your time here; and that you have embraced difficult conversations as opportunities for growth. And I hope that you will continue to do that as you leave this Hill.
Now, it is more important than ever to challenge stereotypes rather than reinforce them.
In her Wendell Phillips speech, Isabella has reminded us how easy it can be even for the best intentioned among us to become surrounded by circles of affirmation. She has challenged us to scrutinize our own beliefs, to allow the other side in, to empathize with opposing arguments, and to challenge our personal biases.
It is no accident, that your Commencement speaker is Kenya Barris. Barris is the creator and executive producer of the hit ABC television series Black-ish. His show is not just entertaining; it is intentionally socially aware—challenging stereotypes, tackling controversy, and addressing the complicated relationships within our society.
I hope that you are looking forward to his address as much as I am.
As Jumbos, it is in your DNA to break molds–lean in—and learn from one another and make change.
We see the world facing great changes and challenges: from global warming and continuing economic transformation to political instability and conflict in regions around the globe. Tufts is engaged in all these areas, and many of you will be too as you begin your careers or continue your studies.
The complex and intertwined challenges we face require solutions that go beyond individual areas of study, public policy or industry. It will require excellence and depth in our disciplines, active listening, recognition of differences, and finding common goals if we are to work together to find innovative solutions to the big problems facing our society.
In an increasingly polarized landscape, I urge you, as Isabella did, to take risks and cross the boundaries of discourse.
Before Charles Tufts donated 20 acres on Walnut Hill for the founding of Tufts University in 1852, he was reportedly asked what he was going to do with the hill. He replied, “I will put a light on it.”
I hope that your experience at Tufts has been indeed a source of light. I believe we need that light now more than ever given the complex challenges our world faces. And I challenge you, the Class of 2017, to make that light shine even brighter in the 21st century.
Congratulations, Tufts Class of 2017!