“You are joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — above career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us, that equality, real equality, is the hallmark and birthright of all Americans.”
– Ken Burns to WUSTL Graduates
On Friday, May 15th, more than 15,000 people gathered in Brookings Quad to recognize the accomplishments of the Class of 2015. Graduates and their guests were addressed by historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, who called on the next generation to solve the deep-seeded problems caused by our predecessors. Burns’ remarks were hyper-relevant and enthusiastically received, especially his emphasis on civic efficacy and his affirmation that Black Lives Matter. I encourage you to watch his speech here: (https://youtu.be/L7RQ8BclW3U).
I was deeply impacted by the reflections shared during graduation; therefore, I want to offer my perspective with the hope that it helps you better understand the WashU experience. Walking through campus was a bit like watching a class of fifth graders on their first day of sex ed: the perfect mix of excitement, fear and anticipation; after all, about 3,000 new graduates were embarking on the next chapters of their lives. I attended the all-university commencement, as well as the ceremonies for the College of Architecture and the Civic Scholars Program. As I heard students reflect on their experiences at WashU, I thought about what I would say if I were graduating. No one was mentioning their GPA or their awards; instead, people told stories of the road trip they took to Nashville, the picnic they enjoyed in the park, or the penguins they walked with at the zoo. No one was quantifying their relationships or their memories; instead, graduates spoke of deep connections and lifelong friendships they have made. These reflections were subtle, yet effective reminders of what is important in college. Yes, it is important to study and work hard. Yes, it is good to have dreams and work toward them. But I will encourage you to see that there are opportunities to learn and grow in every situation, and there are many things you can’t learn in a classroom. The #BlackLivesMatter Movement has a rally call that is often proclaimed during protests on college campuses: “this is what an education looks like.” As a student considering going to college, I hope you will embrace the multitude of forms that an education will take. Many of my peers in the Class of 2015 embrace this maxim in their everyday lives, meeting Burn’s call to “preserve the values, the sense of humor, the sense of cohesion that has long been a part of our American human nature.”
The graduation ceremony, for me, demonstrated the lifelong commitment to learning and justice that is necessary in this time of great change. Regardless of whether you are a prospective student, parent or otherwise, I encourage you to consider how you are responding to the call to action set forth at Washington University’s 154th Commencement ceremony.