Commencement 2023 Address on May 15th, 2023. Remarks as prepared.
Good morning, Wake Forest. Good morning, Class of 2023.
And thank you, Chaplain Auman, for your invocation. And thank you to our faculty, deans, provost, vice presidents and members of the Wake Forest University Board of Trustees for joining with me today to carry out one of higher education’s most significant responsibilities: the conferral of academic degrees.
It is really wonderful to see all of you here today filling this quad: families and friends and partners and loved ones of our graduates here today. In so very, very, very many ways, each of you has played a role in the journey that has led to this moment in your graduate’s life. Please join me in thanking your families and friends – both for the role they played in getting you here and for being here to celebrate you and lift up the Class of 2023.
Graduates, we have a momentous morning ahead of us. Many important and inspiring people are gathered here to offer you words of encouragement, wisdom and hope as you prepare to enter the next phase of your lives. But my message for you is simple, and it is rooted in what I know to be true of you, the Class of 2023. Actually, I only have three words that I want you to carry from this moment and take out into the world: You are ready.
Across my time in academia as a university leader and a faculty member and a graduate student and a college student, I have participated in more than 30 commencement ceremonies. And as a lover of traditions, there’s no greater moment or more joyous moment in our academic calendar than this moment that we are sharing right now. We can feel the excitement and celebration in the air.
But right underneath, there might be another feeling, too: uncertainty. I know we were all dealing with uncertainty over the past couple days about whether the weather would cooperate. It did.
But I speak to the question of what will tomorrow bring. Yes, for all of us who have walked across stages like this across the country and the world on days very much like this one, we know uncertainty is lurking around the corner or whispering in your ear, prompting you with questions like: Did I choose the right major? Should I have taken a few more classes to double-major or add a minor? Did I allocate my time in the best ways? Will what I learned here translate to where I’m headed next? Will I find community? Will I make new friends? And simply: Did I do enough? Am I enough?
Those of us gathered here with you – families, faculty and staff – we empathize with you. You are not alone. We have been where you are now – sometimes at many different stages of our careers. And that is how we know that, yes, you are ready.
Now I know you’re ready because you’re armed with an exceptional education, one led by a faculty of outstanding scholars in their chosen disciplines who are, at the same time, completely devoted to their teaching. Our faculty chose Wake Forest from so many other academic institutions in part for one reason: you. The chance to teach students like you. As one member of the Class of 2023 told me over lunch, “Wake Forest faculty are completely brilliant, but they never make you feel small.”
I also know you’re ready be of what you have overcome. Your class will go down in hjstory – here at Wake Forest and across the country and across the globe – as the class that experienced before and after and all within your undergraduate experience. For those of who arrived in the fall of 2019, you were excited about what lay ahead. And in the spring of your first year – and I say this without irony or drama – the whole world changed.
During the pandemic, you were tested. Indeed, all of us were. You navigated a once-in-a-lifetime global crisis while also adapting and learning right along with all of us about how to continue amidst deep uncertainty and even fear. And here you are today.
I imagine that you, like many of us who work and teach here, committed yourself to returning to campus with an even greater sense of what’s true and what’s important and with an even greater appreciation for this truly beautiful place. For the friends who made you laugh during Zoom classes but even more for your dinners in The Pit. For the faculty who gave their all to teaching you in new ways and even more when they welcome you back – perhaps a little tearily – to their classes in person. And for the staff who helped you get through the toughest of times and who celebrated your triumph as life here settled back into a new rhythm on campus. You did something that hopefully no other graduating class will ever experience again. And you are so much stronger and more resilient because of it.
I know you are ready because through it all, you’ve also learned about yourselves. You have grown as people. And it is this knowledge – truly understanding who you are, what is important to you and what you value and who you want to be – that will carry you through the inevitable bumps, twists and turns and uncertainty that lie ahead.
Now those of who are just a little bit older than you have a lot to learn from you, too. Your generation has elevated for all of us the importance of caring for oneself and for one another. From mental-health awareness to your focus on wellbeing to the ways you have advocated strongly for justice and a more equitable society, you have lived the lesson that every flight attendant tries to teach: You must put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others. Carry that with you. It is already part of who you are. You have to care for yourself in order to effectively care for others. In order to take all you have learned here an go out into the world and be a catalyst for good.
The biochemist Marie Daly, the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in my field, said, “Courage is a habit. A virtue. You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”
I urge you, the Class of 2023, to be courageous in the face of your next steps and in any accompanying uncertainty because you are ready. You have everything you need. The path before you will reveal itself with each step forward. Trust yourself. You’ve gained the skills and knowledge you need to live fulfilling and purposeful lives, to lead with integrity and courage, to be catalysts for good in society and to embody Pro Humanitate at home and in the world.
And I have great news for you: Wake Forest will always be here to welcome you home again. Congratulations and my very, very best wishes to you on this most special day.