Growing up in St. Louis, Sterling K. Brown seemed destined for a job in corporate America. But a voice inside told him otherwise.
“The whole time everyone around me thought I was making all the right choices for my life, my still-small voice would say to me every time I did a play, ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’” recounted Brown during his Commencement address to the Class of 2023 at Washington University in St. Louis. “I had to hear the message several times before I actually took it seriously. It took some time before the internal voice of ‘knowing’ outweighed the external voices of expectancy.”
And viewers are richer for it. Best known for his critically acclaimed role in the television drama “This is Us,” Brown has won three Emmys, has been included in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world and has starred in the hit films “Black Panther,” “Frozen 2” and “Marshall,” as well as numerous television shows and theatrical productions. His next movie, “Biosphere,” in which he stars as one of the last two men on Earth, opens in July. Yet Brown, like many of the new graduates, wonders what’s next.
“I’ve been there,” Brown said. “And the only reassuring thing I can tell you after having been out of school for over 20 years now is, I’m still there! I ask myself the same daggum question every day: What am I going to do now?”
Brown spoke before some 3,500 graduates and their families and friends at the university’s 162nd Commencement May 15 at historic Francis Olympic Field. The ceremony opened with a bit of verse from Andrew E. Newman, a vice chair of the Board of Trustees (“Keep learning. Don’t sit back with your WashU degree/Because this poem, it was written by Chat GPT.”) and closed with words of admiration from Chancellor Andrew D. Martin, who marveled at this class’s courage. (“You may not have had a choice in whether to face down the challenges that COVID presented, but through the struggles — and I know there were many — you exhibited the courage to lead. You didn’t just survive, you got curious, you found your creativity and you did everything you could to help those around you thrive, because you care.”)
In between, Martin conferred honorary degrees on Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop; Alphonso Jackson, the nation’s 13th secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Paul Michael Lützeler, the Rosa May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Washington University; and Anthony S. Fauci, MD, recently retired director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Throughout more than 40 years of service at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Fauci saved countless lives through his research, particularly in addressing the pressing public health crises of our time — HIV/AIDS and COVID-19,” Newman told graduates and their guests, who offered Fauci a standing ovation.
Brown, who received an honorary degree as well, beamed as he was hooded by Grand Marshal John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences.
“I’m a doctor now,” he exclaimed to the cheering crowd.
During his speech, Brown said the ceremony was not his first time at WashU. He grew up five miles west of campus, in Olivette, and attended high school at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School. As part of the Inroads St. Louis internship program, Brown attended classes on the Danforth Campus. Later, he partied here with new friends.
“I can say from personal experience … y’all know how to have a good time,” Brown said.
Brown’s mother, Aralean Brown, encouraged Brown to apply to WashU, but he instead chose Stanford — as he joked, “The WashU of the West.” He credits college with opening his eyes to new ways of living and believing and urged the Class of 2023 to continue their quest of self-discovery.
“Now, I’m sure many of you have already begun this journey of exploration while here at WashU,” Brown said. “Many of you have already left your homes to discover St. Louis, and even those of you who stayed in the Midwest have inevitably met people from many different walks of life. You are actively bearing witness to how many different paths lead to the same destination.
“And while your time here has now come to an end, I wish to gently encourage you to never stop acquainting yourself with the unknown. And whatever fear that may accompany that initial foray into the wilderness, replace it with curiosity, and it becomes infinitely less daunting. It is my experience that you will find what you are looking for, be it help or hindrance. Seek after the light and while you may not always know where you are going, your path will always be illuminated.”
Brown acknowledged that paving that new path may feel isolating, but said it is freeing as well.
“Represent your home well, but you can’t live your life to please them, especially if it is at odds with that knowing which is internal,” Brown said. “So, what’s next? We continue to mine the depths of the soul, as we explore the vastness of the universe. We replace fear with curiosity, knowing that growth requires discomfort. And we step away from home, knowing that you will always be welcomed back.”
Visit here to read a transcript of Brown’s prepared remarks.
Read Chancellor Andrew Martin’s message to the Class of 2023.
Read undergraduate student speaker Samm Kaiser’s address.
Read graduate student speaker Nicholas Armstrong’s address.