Good morning! Welcome to this historic place on this glorious day! These will be your last academic exercises as Brown undergraduates. In a few minutes, you’ll be formally granted your degrees. When you walk out through the Van Wickle Gates, you will do so as alumni of the great Brown University Class of 2021!
Presidential commencement addresses often follow a predictable pattern. The president arrives with a carefully-prepared speech, in which graduates are praised for their accomplishments as students. This segues into a discussion about one or more of the pressing challenges facing society—climate change, racial injustice, global health. At the end, the graduating students are encouraged to go out into the world and use their knowledge to tackle these challenges and do good in the world. And then … within days, weeks, months they can’t recall anything about the topic of the speech.
Still, speeches like these are fine. I’ve given that kind of speech myself. But I’m not going to do that today. For one, you don’t need me to tell you about how much you’ve learned here. And, I’ve rarely met a Brown student who isn’t passionate about using their knowledge to make the world a better place.
Second, it feels inappropriate to do the predictable thing in a year that was anything but predictable.
This was a year when all of the scripts that we use to guide our lives just…flew out the window.
The truth is, it’s frightening when we don’t have a script—when our world shifts unexpectedly and all of the usual patterns and ways of doing things are upended. When this happens, it’s natural to want to go back to what’s familiar and safe. It’s normal to yearn for “normal.”
For my part, a “normal” academic year is entirely predictable: Students arrive over Labor Day weekend. Family weekend and football games are in October. The MLK Lecture is in February. Student protests, which I wholeheartedly respect, are usually in April. And Commencement falls on Memorial Day weekend. This is the script that usually governs my life.
And I expect that, before the pandemic, you had a vision of how your senior year would play out. Although each of your visions would have been unique, I bet that most of you expected senior spring to be your best semester at Brown: a time to wrap up your courses and honors theses, of course, but also a time to have fun, spend time with your best friends, and have a blast at Campus Dance before marching out through the Van Wickle Gates.
Then the pandemic came and, the script went out the window.
Over the past 14 months you have lived with incredible uncertainty—not only about how the pandemic would play out, but also about basic aspects of your daily lives: Where you’d be living, how you’d be learning, and how to ensure the safety of your families.
And the people and institutions you usually count on to provide guidance in uncertain times—your families, your university, political leaders—were just as unsure about what to do next as you were. (And in some cases, leading voices were actively spreading misinformation.)
And so, without a script, you adapted. You shifted your perspectives.
Through all this, you have been extraordinary. I’m so impressed by how you have navigated the past 14 months. You had to abruptly leave campus last March and shift to remote courses, and you continued to learn. You supported your friends. You followed new public health rules to keep our community – and the greater Providence community – safe. You advocated for what you needed. You stood up for equity and justice.
You defied the common belief that college students would be super-spreaders of the virus. It’s because of your efforts that we are all here today. I want to thank you for that.
And, without a script to follow, you’ve been forced to know yourself better, understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and hone your values. When you’ve had to make decisions with little information to go on, instead of asking yourself, “What am I expected to do,” you’ve had to ask, “What’s the right thing to do?”
This is far from the last time you’ll be uncomfortable. You will face uncertainty in the future. Hopefully not pandemic-level uncertainty, but uncertainty nonetheless.
Sometimes things won’t turn out the way you expected. Like when the job you thought you’d love…you discover you hate. Or when the demands of juggling work and family life necessitate that you shift course—like move to a new city, or make a career change. You’ll make important life decisions knowing that, in hindsight, they may prove to be great choices or bad mistakes.
The truth is that, in the decades ahead, you will continuously write and rewrite the scripts of your own lives. And it’s important to remember that this is yours and yours alone to do. Never let anyone impose a plan on you that’s not of your own making. Never let some pre-conceived notion of what you are expected to do drive your decisions.
And you’ve got this! You are so well-prepared to write your own scripts, in the most glorious way possible.
Through your experience with the Open Curriculum, you’ve learned how to learn. Knowing how to learn in changing and uncertain circumstances is one of the most valuable things you will take away from Brown. And through the course of this year, you’ve further honed the qualities of character and compassion that will serve you so well in the future.
As I look out at all of you today, I can say with confidence that you are ready to graduate and take on the world.
As you leave Brown, remember that we’re proud of you, we love you, and we wish you full lives of meaning and purpose.