To the Class of 2020, allow me to once again congratulate you on your graduation. As chancellor and as an alumnus of this great institution, I am pleased that you are part of our Washington University alumni community — a long line of extraordinary people who are committed to our mission to discover and disseminate knowledge and to improve lives in service of the greater good. Our shared commitment to embody that mission does not end here. Rather, it remains with you no matter where your path takes you, and it remains with us as we seek to prepare the next class and the next generation.
I won’t sugarcoat it, last March really stunk. At times, it even felt a little bit like Armageddon. We had to make a lot of difficult decisions in a very short period of time. We all had to make sacrifices and adjust. While it was hard on all of us — you, the Class of 2020, truly got the short end of the stick.
Some of you had to suddenly adjust your research and theses. Others had to find a place to live on hardly any notice. Others had athletics seasons end abruptly during the culmination of your seasons. Still others had career plans put on hold, or in some cases, completely altered.
You missed out on traditions, recognition ceremonies, and proper goodbyes with professors, role models and mentors.
Indeed, those were hard moments. Since then, you’ve faced many other challenging moments as you’ve lived an entire year in a pandemic and experienced a number of national and international tragedies that have caused all of us to reflect on our humanity, identities and roles as global citizens in a rapidly changing world.
With all this in mind, I suppose this is the part of the speech where I could stand up here and say something super cliche like “everything works out in the end” or “challenges are meant to make us stronger.”
Though I’d venture to guess these words and phrases would inevitably fall flat. What’s more — as we’ve seen this year, particularly for our most vulnerable populations — oftentimes they aren’t even true. In fact, a lot of people have died or been near death. We don’t feel stronger. Instead, some of us feel weaker, more insecure and more exposed.
That said, if I can impart any kind of hope or wisdom, it’s this: what I think most of us have learned is that words alone are not enough to get us through. Rather, it’s through community that we find strength, uncover knowledge, discover solutions and begin to thrive.
This past year, our community — both on campus and beyond — came together in ways unprecedented and unexpected. We grieved together, we adjusted together, and we rallied around one another. As alumni, many of you did the same, even from afar.
To that end, take a moment to look around you. Notice the person sitting next to you. The friends or family members in the back. Your favorite professor across the way. Even your not-so-favorite professor on the other side of the field.
These are the people who make up your community. They are likely the people who have been by your side during your most challenging moments. The people who pushed you to become better versions of yourselves. The people who will continue to support you no matter what life throws at you next. And the people who make up our distinguished Washington University community — a place where people are known “by name and by story.”
That each of you returned to celebrate this moment an entire year after your graduation is evidence alone that you feel connected to this place and this community. As difficult a year as it has been, I hope you have come away with an even stronger sense of community and the realization of our global interconnectedness and interdependence. And though you have already left this place, may you always remember that your role, identity and unique purpose in this community will remain.
In closing, as you depart once again, I challenge you to find your community. Join alongside others to pursue your passions. Continue to meet people who are different from you to gain new perspectives and insights. Work locally to engender change. Find ways to be in solidarity with people across the globe. Be a voice and an advocate for those who are marginalized. And most importantly, do all these things, not for your own self-interest, but for the betterment of others, your local community, the nation and the world.
Class of 2020, congratulations once again on this exciting milestone. Because of what you’ve been through this past year, I am confident you will thrive, paving the way for future WashU alumni who will follow in your footsteps. Please do stay in touch, and come back and visit us often. And warm wishes on wherever life takes you next.