A decade of Commencement wisdom

As Washington University in St. Louis prepares for its 162nd Commencement, take a look back at the wise words shared in past years by some of America’s most powerful and inspiring voices.

‘Look up’

Mae Jemison, MD, the first woman of color in space, is greeted by Chancellor Andrew D. Martin as she gets up to address the Class of 2022. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“Whenever you start to feel down, look up from your device, go outside, look up at the sky, and acknowledge that you are part of this universe and you have as much right to be here as any speck of stardust. Look up.

I had the opportunity to look out at the Earth, and I saw this thin shimmering layer of blue light as our atmosphere and it confirmed something that I always believed in — in the Earth, with its incredible beauty and these vistas, sights, sounds and smells that are so comforting.”

— Astronaut Mae Jemison, May 20, 2022

‘You are the authors of your next chapter’

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA great and social justice advocate, delivers the 2021 Commencement address on Francis Olympic Field. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“Shakespeare wrote, ‘What’s past is prologue.’ Yes, the past is done — but it’s not over. History — whether it’s the world’s or your own — can be a roadmap for not only where you want to go, but for who you want to be next.

Your past is prologue, but you are the authors of your next chapter and can be whoever and whatever you choose. I hope your story will include a few pages in which you went out into the world and demanded justice, demanded fair play, demanded equality for all people. Now, that’s a successful life. And that life’s a story we’d all want to read.”

— NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, May 20, 2021

‘On the precipice of hope’

Julie L. Gerberding, MD, delivers the Commencement address
Julie L. Gerberding, MD, the first female director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivers the Commencement address to returning 2020 graduates on May 30, 2021. (Photo: Danny Reise/Washington University)

“As I face the Class of 2020, I feel like I am standing on the precipice of hope. You are graduates of one of our finest universities — and succeeded in achieving your academic goals despite a disruptive pandemic. You’ve already stepped up to address important societal issues in the campus community and beyond.

Each of you is a power of one — capable of deploying your talent and energy to the cause. But collectively, you are a powerhouse for generating ideas and advocacy that will catalyze meaningful change in our world. Please fight for that change. Be bold. Persist in pursuing your passion. And above all, cherish the community of friends who brought you back to WashU today.”

— Infections disease expert Julie L. Gerberding to the Class of 2020, May 30, 2021

Bring truth to light

Michael R. Bloomberg, the 108th mayor of New York City, shakes the hand of Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton at the 2019 Commencement address in Brookings Quadrangle. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

“Truth will prevail where pains are taken to bring it to light. And with truth comes strength.

The pains that every generation has taken to bring truth to light are why secession didn’t succeed in 1794 or 1861. The pains taken by abolitionists, and suffragettes, and civil rights marchers, and marriage equality advocates brought America’s core truth to light: that all people are created equal.

Today, the necessity of taking pains to bring truth to light is greater than ever because the tools for spreading lies are more powerful than ever.”

— Entrepreneur and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, May 17, 2019

‘Facing failure is just as important as cataloging success’

Anne-Marie Slaughter addresses the Class of 2018 at the 157th Commencement at Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“In the work of renewal, facing failure is just as important as cataloging success. We cannot celebrate the great achievements of our past without acknowledging the injustice, exclusion, violence and inhumanity that have made a mockery of our ideals for so many among us.

We cannot renovate our national house without understanding that many of the materials used to build it are dangerous and even deadly to the present occupants. Much of the decoration that our predecessors found lovely is now ugly in our eyes. We must learn to see and accept the whole truth, not just the parts we like.

But neither can we move forward propelled only by anger and fear. Just as we must see the parts of our past that we wish to preserve, we must be able to imagine a future that we wish to achieve; a future of equality for all Americans, regardless of gender, color, creed, race, sexual orientation or national origin.”

— Foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter, May 18, 2018

‘The difference between a life and an existence’

Anna Quindlen, best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and social critic, greets honorary degree recipient Fr. Gary Braun at the 156th annual Commencement ceremony. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“It is audacious to invent and it is audacious to dare and it is audacious to care and to live that caring conspicuously. Playing it safe is a slog. Taking a chance is getting on a skateboard. When you come up with a checklist — job, check; spouse, check; home, check — don’t forget to ask yourself, ‘Are these the things I really want or is each of them what I assume I ought to want?’ The difference between those two is the difference between a life and an existence.”

— Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen, May 19, 2017

‘Get in the way’

Rep. John Lewis shakes the hand of student speaker Ashley Macrander in 2016. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“The action of Rosa Parks and the words and leadership of Dr. King inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way. I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble. As graduates of this great university, you have received a great education. You must leave here and go out and get in the way. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up and find a way to get in the way.”

— U.S. Rep. John Lewis, May 20, 2016

‘Be curious, not cool.’

Filmmaker Ken Burns (left) receives an honorary degree from Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton in 2015. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“Be curious, not cool.

Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all.

Listen to jazz. A lot. It is our music.

Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all — not the car, not the TV, not the computer or the smartphone.

Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of the country — they just make the country worth defending.

Be about the ‘unum,’ not the ‘pluribus.’”

—  Filmmaker Ken Burns, May 15, 2015

‘Refuse to give up’

Three-time World Series winner and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa gives the thumbs up to the class of 2014. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“I think I was invited here because a lot of you experienced that historic World Series comeback in 2011, and you wonder how we did it. Yeah, we had talent. We did it with frame of mind more than anything. Our team came together in a respectful, trusting, caring way. Our guts were outstanding. We refused to give in, refused to give up. That’s exactly the message that you need to take forward.”

— Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, May 16, 2014

‘Failure is never final’

Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator, told the Class of 2013 to push through their mistakes. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“I now realize that courage is not giving the big speech. Courage is not running into a burning building. The courage is when tragedies’ trumpets sound in your life, that you still could hold on to that quiet little voice that tells you to keep going anyway.

Courage is when you wake up in the morning with the weight of shame upon your chest with having made a mistake or done something wrong or being discouraged or feeling the grip of unshakable depression, that you still get out of that bed anyway and keep on going.

These are the moments, I tell you right now, when you’re broken that will give you your most valuable lessons if you don’t stop. Failure is never final if you don’t give up.”

— Then-Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, May 17, 2013

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.