Citing the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico among a laundry list of national crises, Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” told the University of Notre Dame’s Class of 2010, “There is a solution to each of our nation’s challenges in each of you,” at the 165th University Commencement Ceremony held Sunday (May 16) in Notre Dame Stadium.
Williams was the principal speaker and the recipient of an honorary doctor of laws degree at the ceremony, at which 1,829 new graduates received their diplomas.
“There are four million gallons of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” Williams said. “Oil is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico as I stand here. There is nothing to stop it, nothing at all. They’ve asked the public for ideas. My certainty is that this institution, this graduating class, has the brainpower to fix it, and now you’ve just been asked.”
After first reciting a list of past Notre Dame Commencement speakers, including eight U.S. presidents, Williams noted his “staggeringly modest background and accomplishments” and earned laughter and applause when he addressed several seniors quoted in the student newspaper The Observer, from an article that named him as this year’s Commencement speaker.
Of national crises, Williams stated “60 million of us are obese; we have a 17-percent poverty rate; and we’ve fallen to ninth now in global rankings of prosperity. We patriots see the problem and we want to get better. This involves you.”
Thanking the men and women currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Williams recognized veterans in attendance. He also addressed a need for “better Catholics.”
“I’ve traveled the world and sadly that means I’ve walked through great destruction,” Williams said. “I’ve seen staggering loss…from Baghdad to Port-au-Prince to New Orleans, Louisiana. Where I’ve come across people suffering and dying, I’ve also found Catholic charities standing right there alongside me, ministering and soothing, helping and healing without regard to self, every one of them a shining, towering example of sacrifice and selflessness. Let’s make that what people think of when they think of the Catholic Church in America and around the world.”
In addition to Williams, other honorary degree recipients were: Steven J. Brickner, a leader in the field of antibacterial drug development; Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University; Archibishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Rev. Reginald Foster, a Catholic Carmelite priest and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Latin language; MaryAnn Mathile, chief executive officer, board chair and treasurer of the Mathile Family Foundation; Marc Maurer, a 1974 Notre Dame alumnus and president of the National Federation of the Blind; venture capitalist Ted McCourtney; and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
Dana Gioia, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, received the 2010 Laetare Medal, Notre Dame’s highest honor and the most prestigious award given to American Catholics.
“Even though we now live in a culture of boundless self-esteem,” he said. “I am eccentric enough to believe that it’s not a bad idea occasionally to recognize our own unworthiness. That recognition helps us appreciate how much we depend on the love, understanding and forgiveness of others.”
Joking that anyone who has spent six years in Washington working for the federal government deserves a medal, Gioia admitted that upon receiving praise for an accomplishment, his immediate response is to realize how much more he should have done.
“When I think about what helped me exceed in life, I know that I owe the most to my family and to Catholic schools,” he said. “My family members were good and generous Latin people who survived immigration, poverty, war and discrimination with dignity and good humor.
“The metaphors God has given us to understand Him come mostly from family. I was educated by sisters, brothers, fathers and one particularly formidable Mother Superior. I was a poor, scruffy kid on whom they showered riches. What a blessing to have started out surrounded by such people.”
Katie Washington, a biological sciences major with a 4.0 grade point average from Gary, Ind., delivered the valedictory address.
She encouraged her classmates to revel in the celebration of Commencement, but to consider what her research advisor Dave Severson, professor of biological sciences, reminded her ─ that research is not for the purpose of being celebrated and rewarded.
“Last December…I saw my study of mosquito population genetics in Haiti in its published form, for the first time,” Washington said. “Through the collaborative efforts of the members of Dr. Severson’s lab and the Notre Dame Haiti program, we were able to demonstrate that human activities are likely responsible for the distribution of infectious mosquitoes throughout Haiti.
“Each year, mosquitoes transmit diseases that kill more than one million people, mostly in impoverished countries. I was pleased to know that I had made an important contribution to the global health community. But, on January 12, after only a few weeks of (my) celebration, an earthquake hit Haiti.
“At first, it was exciting to know that my work could help solve problems that many people don’t even know about. However, the earthquake reminded me that I had done so from the safety, security and comfort of a lab here at Notre Dame.”
Washington challenged her classmates to embrace post-Commencement quiet.
“We can continue working to understand our own privilege,” she said. “We can use real empathy to recognize violence and injustice. We can build relationships with people who are confined to the margins of society. And maybe one day, each and all persons will be able to participate in every dimension of life as they wish.”