Commencement 2015

May 18, 2015

Thank you, Todd – and a special thanks to our superb singer Floriana, to our Student Government Association President Eslam, and to our incredibly inspiring student class speaker – Nancy – what a speech – it captured exactly what we mean when we say that Rutgers University-Newark is where opportunity meets excellence! 

Welcome and congratulations to all our terrific Rutgers University-Newark graduates – this is such a triumphant day, for you, for your families, and for all of us – this is a day for smiling and cheering – and for applauding – never enough applause -- let’s join in a big round of applause for the entire class of 2015 graduates!

There have been many times in our history when the press of current events calls for new faces, new voices, new solutions, new conversations, and yet at the same time the familiarity of events – from Selma to Ferguson; from San Francisco to Nepal; from the Great Depression to the Great Recession – brings history to our consciousness and we know we need to heed the lessons of that past if we are to prosper going forward.

And, as the saying goes, this is one of those times.  And, you, the Class of 2015 of Rutgers-Newark graduates, are just what the world needs, now.

You are first generation students, first generation Americans, community college transfers, veterans, parents, working students, global citizens, and local residents—who do not take educational opportunity for granted. And while you come from breathtakingly diverse backgrounds, you come at the world together, bringing electric vibrancy to everything you do. You are science students studying the arts—inserting an “A” in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to make STEAM. You are entrepreneurs who know that innovation can be a powerful force for social justice.  You study peace and conflict across the globe even as you know the global city right here needs it too, and you see the beauty in the children that grow right here every day, ready to prosper if just given the opportunity.

·        You respect the past – the struggles and aspirations, dreams and disappointments of your families, your ethnic and racial and faith groups, your communities, your countries – even as you are looking to the future – your fresh faces epitomize age-old stories of striving, persevering, and believing for, as Willa Cather wrote many years ago in O Pioneers!, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

o   You do just that – telling a nuanced human story as you deftly forge pathways of wonderfully complex identities that lead from your heritage, through your present, into the future, whether you are thoughtfully examining the relevance of narratives of colonialism today or inspiring new generations here in your community to carry forward an ancient tradition as an instructor in classical Indian dance.

·        You know what it is like to sometimes be invisible, marginalized, or forgotten, and you know that the world needs you to be visible, central, and always remembered.

o   And you don’t just ponder these forms of injustice. You take them on—whether through advocacy for New Jersey’s thousands of undocumented students, by reminding others that a misstep, even with the law, does not mean you can’t learn, or traveling back to your homeland to support LGBTQ youth as they emerge from behind a curtain of stigma, returning to the LGBTQ Youth Summit, to support a similar process right here in Newark.

·        You don’t take success for granted but you also know it can and should be within your reach.

o   So you drive yourselves incredibly hard in ways that completely amaze us —I often say that at Rutgers University – Newark, we have the hardest working students in all of higher education! You work to support yourselves, and often your families, with jobs at rental car agencies, clothing stores, and bagel shops, and yet you find time to take on leadership roles on campus, and in communities near and far, whether as our championship policy debate team mentoring high school debaters in Newark or as volunteers for Muslim Dentists Without Borders in Sierra Leone.

o   And your performance in our classrooms and labs inspires your faculty mentors to reach for superlatives to describe your academic work. For example, they have called you, and I quote, “big thinkers” who write “beautiful” final exams—yes, a beautiful exam! Wow, I would love to see that one!

·        You know that fully appreciating diversity requires concentration that in turn is life-changing – and so you are not looking to all be alike.

o   Indeed quite to the contrary, as you demonstrate the very principle of a looking-glass self, capturing your own diverse faces, narratives, ideas and ideals by working, for example, with local photographic artists in Hycide Magazine to celebrate the comparably diverse stories of our Newark neighbors through portraiture.

·        You know that no one gets anywhere by themselves – that we all are interdependent, in it together, as hard as that can be.

o   And so you study criminal justice not to figure out ways to put yet more disconnected youth away, separated by bars from the nurturance of family and neighborhood, but rather to be the generation that reverses the mounting loss of human talent and social potential in our midst.

o   You believe in connecting people to opportunity, people to people, and bringing government to each of us, using your technology skills to create a 311 App for the City of Newark, even as you know that the public voice – or voices – can’t be reduced to virtual connections for true social cohesion to flourish.

·        You know that the secret power of education is that it gives you a voice – a voice in your future, and a responsibility for others’ futures. 

o   So, you looked at us, those who bear some lingering responsibility for the children left behind, left out, and you said to all that would listen– loud and clear in every town hall meeting, every strategic planning dialogue this past year– get to work – and make sure that future generations from your alma mater will experience opportunity and excellence, as they work to have a positive impact in the City of Newark, the State of New Jersey, our nation, and our world.

Yes, you are right – there is work to be done, and even though it is tempting to just let you do it – fix this all too fractured world that my generation and those before me have let splinter, I know, we all know, that the truth and honesty we learn at places like Rutgers-Newark, in cities like Newark, NJ, pleads for collective impact.  So we are all in it together. 

We know that with your incredible grit, incredible intelligence, and incredibly big hearts, you can move the dial on the greatest challenges we face today! You are really going places, and yet we know you won’t forget this one! So, go out there and show the world what you’ve got and remember we are right there with you! Congratulations!