To the Class of 2021, allow me to be the first to officially congratulate you on such an enormous accomplishment. As chancellor and as an alumnus of this great institution, I’m pleased to welcome you into the Washington University alumni community — a long line of thinkers, innovators, inventors, educators, leaders and servants 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 doesn’t end here. Rather, it remains with you no matter where your path takes you, and it remains here with us as we seek to prepare the next class and the next generation.
Speaking of paths, I want to take a moment to reflect on the path we’ve taken together and what that path might look like moving forward. Over the past year or so, we’ve talked a lot about the word “normal” and even used phrases such as “a new normal.” Indeed, it has been challenging to exist in a world that feels nothing but normal. We continue to live through a deadly and historic pandemic. Meanwhile, we have faced numerous tragedies on our ongoing quest for equity for all people, especially people of color.
As we talk about these topics, I have found that there are people in the world who want to “return to normal.” I’ll admit that I myself have longed for semblances of normal in a world that just feels very complicated.
While certainly there are some things we must return to — in-person coursework, relationship building, and community for example — I’m here to tell you today that there isn’t going to be a “return to normal.”
…. And in some respects, that’s a good thing! You see, if we were to return to normal, many of us would know less about finding joy in simple things, or taking appreciation in an under-scheduled calendar. If we were to return to normal, we wouldn’t be as aware of our interconnectedness as global citizens or the needs of our international community. We wouldn’t be as far along on the path toward racial equity. And we wouldn’t be any further along in scientific breakthroughs.
Here at Washington University, we don’t want to be normal — and we don’t want to return to normal either. Instead, we want to be distinctive, cutting-edge, innovative, thought-provoking, and equity-forward.
Likewise, we admitted you as students because we saw similar qualities in you. Subsequently, your time as students was far from normal — nor should it have been even under different circumstances!
During your tenure, some of you studied abroad. Participated in athletics. Conducted life-changing research. Met friends with different life experiences. Explored a new city. Discovered a new hobby. Delved into a new subject matter. Stretched yourselves outside your comfort zone in order to learn and to grow.
All of these experiences were designed to push the boundaries of your preconceived understandings of normal, and once again, that’s a good thing!
As you leave this place and embark on your next chapter, I hope you will continue to embody this same notion. I challenge you not to be normal. Instead, be extraordinary. Push for change. Make a difference in your field and in your community. And emulate our WashU mission wherever your future takes you.
As Maya Angelou once said, “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Class of 2021, congratulations once again on this exciting new milestone and on the next step of your WashU journey. I am extremely grateful to each of you and the many ways you have shown your flexibility, resilience and collective strength, as well as a willingness to be abnormal during this most unprecedented time. Because of what you’ve been through this past year, I am confident you will thrive as you achieve great things and pave the way for future WashU alumni who will follow in your footsteps.
Please stay in touch and come back and visit us often. And warm wishes on wherever life takes you next. Thank you and congratulations!