Inspiration for the Class of 2023

June 25, 2023—Following college commencement season, I always look forward to reading about the encouragement and wisdom shared by the wide array of speakers—celebrities, scholars, civic leaders and public officials. This week, I am passing along excerpts I intend to share with my students. I also hope these excerpts will inspire all the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

Oscar award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter returned to her alma mater Hampton University to share the wisdom gleaned from her illustrious career journey. She encouraged the graduates to be life-long “students of your profession, continue to improve your craft…and make sacrifices today so your tomorrow is rewarded.” Check out Ms. Carter’s address at this YouTube link.

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump told the graduates of Morgan State University that they have the mission to continue to uplift their communities as they advance in their careers. He encouraged them to take their education “back to the hood.” You can watch Mr. Crump’s address at this YouTube link.

Wes Moore, the state of Maryland’s first Black governor, addressed the graduates of Morehouse College. Only the third Black governor ever elected in the history of the nation, he urged graduates to know and defend their history. “I stand before you with a very simple message,” he said. “Our history is our power!” You can see Gov. Moore’s remarks at this YouTube link.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project” for the New York Times, gave the commencement address at Spelman College. She urged the graduates to focus on what they can control, noting: “You can’t control how people will see you, judge you or treat you. What you can control is your own excellence.” You can watch Ms. Hannah-Jones’s remarks at this YouTube link.

Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown travelled to his hometown to address the graduates of Washington University in St. Louis. He said: “For me, the goal of higher education is the same overriding goal I have for my life. And that is to become the next best version of myself. And you’re the only one who can know what that is—if you give yourself the time and space to listen to what is already inside of you.” Check out Mr. Brown’s address at this YouTube link.

Nicole Hockley was forever changed when her son was one the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. She left her corporate career and became the co-founder and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, which is working to end the threats of gun violence against children. She spoke at her alma mater Trinity College, which is located in Connecticut, telling the graduates: “Whether your life transitions from one positive experience to the next or has seemingly endless, unsurmountable challenges at every turn, you will find a way through. But please remember, you don’t have to take it all on yourself. Find those with similar purpose, those who share your passion, those who inspire you, who make you laugh out loud, who help you push past your fear and challenge you to think, to dream, and to be brave and bold.” You can watch her remarks at this YouTube link.

I also was moved by the quote shared in a report about the remarks given by the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos when he addressed the graduates of the University of Notre Dame. He discussed the threat of nuclear war, the dangers of artificial intelligence and the environmental risks that they will face. In addition, the former President of Colombia said: “When progress is based on exclusion, it is fragile and will ultimately disappear. However, when progress is based on inclusion, when we understand that everyone’s life is as valuable as our own, then that progress is lasting and real.” You can watch President Santos’s remarks at this YouTube link.

And finally, I urge you to check out the remarks given by renowned environmentalist Wanjira Mathai, who is the daughter of the late 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Wangari Maathai. Ms. Mathai addressed the 2023 graduates of Soka University of America, which is located in Southern California. She also received the university’s highest honor, the Soka Global Citizens Award.

Ms. Mathai said: “Graduates, you’re entering a reality that is completely different from when you entered this university, even more different from a decade ago. We know more today about the impacts of climate change than we ever have. The science is so clear. But we also have a huge role to play in helping the human family take responsibility for what needs to be done. If we are to survive the worst impacts of climate change, it will take all of us and the sort of education you’ve had and you’ve been granted…”

She also reminded the graduates about the importance of appreciation: “Don’t forget to express gratitude to those who have supported you throughout this journey, your family, your friends, your mentors, and maybe even sometimes you will remember some of the professors who taught you, and you’ll send them a note. Just say … 30 years since I left my college, I still remember my choir director, and I send him a note every so often: ‘Thank you for allowing me to stay in choir even though my voice was a little bit off.’

And as she closed, Ms. Mathai noted: “…The mission of Soka University of America is to foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life. Remain true to that and never compromise your values and your beliefs. Stay grounded. Stay humble. Remember that success is not just achieving your goals. It’s not just about achieving your goals. But it’s also in seeing the humanity in others, making a positive impact.” You can watch Ms. Mathai’s address at this YouTube link.

As always, I want to know what you think. Were there any commencement addresses that “spoke” to you? I invite you to share your comments below.

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