[Baltimore Sun] A special year for college commencement speeches | GUEST COMMENTARY

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For many college seniors, whose high school celebrations were upended by the pandemic, this year was their first time to experience the time-honored rituals of graduation: jubilant crowds, caps tossed high — and, of course, commencement speeches.

Such speeches, whether by a university president or celebrity, are usually lofty but predictable. This year’s commencement speeches were anything but ordinary, however, tapping into a surprising range of themes and emotions.

At Morehouse, a historically Black college in Atlanta, President Biden vowed to defend democracy. While acknowledging “dissent about America’s role in the world” amid campus protests over the Gaza war, Biden focused most of his half-hour speech on threats to freedom from “extremist forces,” which he argued would escalate if Donald Trump were re-elected.

Meanwhile, on opposite sides of the country, two popular actors took different approaches. At North Carolina’s Duke University, comedian Jerry Seinfeld eschewed politics and tried to maintain a light note (even as students walked out to protest the Israel-Hamas crisis.) Sitcom star Rainn Wilson, however, turned serious at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. In his deeply philosophical address, Wilson emphasized the need to create “a meaning of life” through close relationships, embracing love, and staying optimistic.

Other commencement speakers echoed the same message of finding purpose and fulfillment after college. Indeed, as 2024 graduates will soon discover, life after college is different. It can be more stressful, yet also rewarding, as one learns to live independently and plan for more than weekend fun after a final exam.

Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber noted the challenges of that transition while speaking last month at the prestigious, but also protest-disrupted, campus in New Jersey. In his address, which he titled “Lean into Life,” Eisgruber urged the nearly 1,300 undergraduates “to lean into life after Princeton, and into your communities wherever you are, with the same dazzling energy and imagination you showed while you were here.”

At Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Dr. Sanjay Gupta offered words of advice that may have resonated not just with graduating students, but everyone in attendance.

“Spend your time becoming wise,” said Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent. “A smart person knows the right answers; a wise person knows the right questions, and there is a difference.”

Howard University’s speaker summed it up more pithily. Thasunda Brown Duckett, president and CEO of TIAA financial services, offered a memorable quip to the graduating class in D.C.

“Think back to something you all probably learned in driver’s ed,” she advised, and “don’t dwell too long on that rearview mirror.”

I was inspired by many of the speeches I listened to. But some graduating seniors missed out, again, amid chaotic clashes as pro-Palestinian encampments spread across campuses. Columbia University and the University of Southern California canceled their commencements, while other colleges tightened security. Actress Mayim Bialik withdrew as keynote speaker at the University of California, Los Angeles. Most colleges proceeded, however, a relief to students who had to settle for drive-through high school graduations during Covid lockdowns.

My favorite address of all was given by Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels, here in Baltimore. (I teach at Hopkins, so I may not be completely impartial.) I was moved by his acknowledgment of the shared challenges in emerging from Covid’s shadow — and his belief that even our smallest daily interactions can make a difference.

In-person graduation mattered, Daniels noted to the nearly1,700 undergraduates and thousands more graduate students, after several years without ordinary college life. During the pandemic, Daniels recalled, he suddenly found himself on a mostly empty campus. So he and his wife got a dog. As the crowd cheered, he introduced Barney, a black-and-white Boston terrier.

At first, Barney enjoyed the deserted Hopkins lawn known as “the beach” as his own dog park. But when students and professors returned, Barney was eager to greet everyone. By walking his dog, Daniels said, he made new connections, meeting people he might otherwise have missed.

His conclusion was simple: Learn from Barney and “go small.” He urged students to introduce themselves to a new person, read a new book, maybe even get to know that professor who seems intimidating. At a time when our country is more divided than ever, and when commencement speeches can seem like simple platitudes, Daniels’ advice rings true.

We all need to “keep it small.” Take one day at a time. Concentrate on one task. Meet one new person. And, of course, get that dog.

Lynne Agress teaches in the Odyssey Program of the Johns Hopkins University and was president of BWB-Business Writing Inc., a writing and editing consulting company. She is the author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working with Words,” as well as numerous articles, reviews and opinion pieces. Her email is: [email protected]

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