Thank you, Laura.
Father John, deans, family and friends, – and most important – graduates, I am honored to be HERE with you as we celebrate this momentous occasion on this beautiful day in this lovely setting where I can see your unmasked, joyful smiles.
I am not really a big fan of ceremony or the hoopla that tends to accompany milestone events. Early last summer, Fr. John gently told me that because of the pandemic, he would not be able to host a welcoming event for me as provost. I will admit that after leaving his office, I looked heavenward and offered my thanks to the Holy Mother.
Here I am, in the middle of all this hoopla, wearing what I like to refer to as my batrobe, and, embarrassingly, several of my colleagues are wearing the same dress! And I’m supposed to say something inspiring and hopefully inject some humor.
So here we go…
We live in a time where popular culture pushes easy gains and where ideology trumps thoughtful engagement. We live in a time where, despite the complex problems our world faces, we are encouraged to lean back and go with easy, pat answers.
Yet, in the face of that overwhelming cultural message to take an easy route, all of you have chosen to do something hard and meaningful and important.
I imagine that some of you have struggled to explain to family and friends what you have been doing in graduate school – and why you chose this path. The decision to pursue a master’s or doctorate can be a hard choice to explain. I am guessing that some of you have been asked many questions by family and friends. Like, what do you do in graduate school? And what’s a thesis? And what’s it for? And so who’s going to read it? And why would you do that anyway? When I was in graduate school, I took to answering the ubiquitous “so how’s it going?” question with “oh, you know, slowly but slowly.”
These past many months have been challenging. Even under the best of times, earning a master’s or PhD is difficult work.
Doing it during a pandemic… separated from others by masks and distance… operating under a compressed academic calendar… living under the threat of COVID infection… all while the nation is experiencing extreme social, racial, and political divisiveness… facing the growing threat of global climate change… and an uncertain economic future. We are in the midst of a polyvalent crisis.
But all I’ve done now is describe how hard things have been – I haven’t given you any answers to those pesky questions about graduate school from those pesky family and friends.
So here’s a really good reason to go to graduate school: people like you who are willing to put in deep, concentrated, single-minded effort are creating the pathways that will lead us out of this polyvalent crisis – and you are helping ensure that we will emerge a better, more just, and more compassionate society. I’ll mention three people who have been such pathfinders.
Kati Kariko began working on mRNA technology more than 30 years ago, swimming against the current of scientific trends of the time – believing in her ideas while others repeatedly told her they would not work. Yet it is her science that formed the backbone for the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.
Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, was doubted by the medical community as she—nearly a decade ago—pursued the difference in infection transmission via droplets versus aerosols. She described her own work as “fringe,” but her flat-out persistence and doggedness changed the way we think about disease spread. And in particular, along with other colleagues, such work informed CDC and WHO guidance on COVID.
Tony Fauci first changed the world by developing therapies for formerly fatal rheumatological diseases and then through his work on HIV/AIDS. I have the greatest respect for Dr. Fauci’s science, and would further argue that he has had significant impact through his relentless advocacy for and clear communication about science – so clearly on display throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He has helped the world face and overcome the two greatest public health crises in the last 40 years – HIV/AIDS and now COVID-19.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that scientists are the only people we need in these challenging times.
Engineers help us monitor water supplies to track the spread of the virus – and to build more sustainable, climate friendly technologies.
Computer scientists build algorithms and data systems to support management of scarce health care resources – and to rethink the knowledge economy.
And nobody even had any idea what epidemiologists did until we needed them so very much these past many months.
Social scientists have helped us determine how to shape behavior, encourage vaccination, and increase access to life-saving technologies – not to mention wrestle with the racial and social injustices that have characterized our nation for so long.
Historians have contextualized what we are witnessing today within the broader sweep of history – helping us to understand the mistakes we do not want to repeat.
Philosophers and theologians have reminded us to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of who gets access to what and when in a crisis characterized by tremendous inequalities.
Poets have given us breathtaking moments for reflection, pause, wonder, and hope.
And musicians and artists have moved our minds and our hearts during our darkest moments. May I just say to the sacred music graduates here today that during the very hardest times this past year, accidentally happening upon your beautiful voices was a balm to my soul.
I could continue – covering every field represented here amongst our graduates – all of which offer something unique and important.
The past year has been so very challenging. It has been exhausting and, frankly, I myself am ready for a nap. But you did it! You succeeded. Amazing things happen when you do hard things. You grow… you become closer to others who shared the experience… you become stronger as a person… we become stronger as a community, and we become better versions of ourselves.
All that work you have done as graduate students has given each of you your own particular expertise. There are so many challenges ahead of us and so much need for all your expertises. So much need for that deep, concentrated, single minded effort. The world is better off because of the commitment you made to your graduate studies – your commitment to becoming expert.
As much as I want to highlight the importance of the expertise you have developed, I also want to make the point that you will face situations in the years ahead where you will have no relevant expertise; you will have no evidence base to rely upon; your intellect will not be able to supply a needed answer. In those situations, I would like to suggest that you respond with love. Expertise is really good. Expertise is really important. Expertise can help you see the world differently. Expertise can help you change the world. Expertise is powerful, but love always wins.
Some people say that graduation is for the students, and others say that it is for the parents. But the truth of the matter is that graduation is for the faculty. For faculty, working with students is not something we do – that work is truly a gift. We love you for your belief that you can become expert. We love you because you actually did become expert. We love that working with you, watching you succeed, and following your adventures as you leave this place – all of those contribute to our own sense of meaning and purpose. All of those contribute to the warmth we feel as we carry you in our hearts.
I encourage you to carry others deeply in your heart as you make your way in this world and remember that you are being carried in others’ hearts as well.
Commencement speeches are perhaps best known for being completely forgettable. But maybe you could remember this: the lady in the batrobe says what you have done and will do is a big deal. Your expertise—when coupled with the Notre Dame values of love and community—make us confident and hopeful about the future you will create.
My warmest congratulations to all of you.