With degrees in hand, graduates on the National Mall are on track to fix the troubled nation they have inherited from previous generations, longtime anchor of NBC Nightly News and college dropout Brian Williams told the Class of 2012 Sunday.
At a time when young Americans are "hearing the generation just in front of you tell pollsters for the first time that they don’t think they are leaving a better world for you,” Williams told the 7,000 graduates they will need to chart the course for an uncertain global future – a charge he believes they are ready to tackle head on.
“You don’t actually have to build a rocket or go into space, but please take us somewhere. Please keep us moving, push us, lift us up, make us better,” Williams said.
Williams, who has covered the biggest national and international news stories for the past two decades, told students about the “army of young people” he has encountered who are making a mark on the world. Young American volunteers can be the force of change that mean one village in Malawi has running water while another does not, he said.
He reminded students about the night of May 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, and said they should be proud of GW’s patriotism.
“It was mostly GW students, as far as I can tell, who climbed those light poles and showed up at the White House,” Williams said, with booms of applause from the audience. “It was a good feeling. We had done something, and with that mission, too, there was no guarantee of success.”
Williams, who left Brookdale Community College in New Jersey to attend Catholic University and later GW in 1980, said one of his greatest regrets was not graduating from college.
His final day of college, Williams said, came after a “particularly tough stretch.” He was stressed, running low on cash and living in a flood-prone basement apartment.
“I like to say to people that I was in a big hurry and I needed to go make a living, and I never looked back. As this is the last college that I attended, I can tell you, I look back every day,” Williams said.
University President Steven Knapp echoed Williams’ call for graduates to confront the world’s challenges, reminding students they have a home at GW.
“We depend on you to repair what earlier generations have broken, to build what we have left unbuilt, to learn what we have not yet learned, to heal what we have so far left unhealed,” Knapp said in his charge to the Class of 2012.
Senior Noreen Kassam, who was selected as the University-wide student speaker, urged her peers to do their best to help others receive the opportunities they had.
Joining the network of alumni, Kassam said, gives the recent graduates the chance to “pay it forward” by doing whatever they could to give others the same chances they were given.
“Our futures lie not just with us, but with the generations after us,” Kassam said. “I would tell you to take what you have learned and go change the world, but I know that in your own ways, so many of you already have.”
Kassam added that she expects her peers to be successful whatever they choose to do with their lives, but encouraged them to always try to “build a culture of excellence”.
“I hope you do well,” Kassam said, “but more, importantly I hope you do good.”
Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, earned an honorary degree in public service alongside Clarice Smith, who earned an honorary degree in fine arts. Slim told graduates to rethink how they measure successes.
“Success is not being recognized by others, it is not about an external opinion,” Slim said. “It is the harmony between our soul and our emotion.”
The billionaire, who runs Mexico’s largest telecommunications firm, is also the founder of Latin America’s largest philanthropic institutions, the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Telmex Foundation.
During Slim’s remarks, a few hundred protesters gathered behind the stage, shouting and blowing airhorns to disrupt his speech, organized by the human rights organization Two Countries One Voice.
Board of Trustees Chairman Russell Ramsey stepped up to the stage to foster a strong network of alumni by staying connected to the University without waiting to be asked.
Ramsey, an alumnus, said he is still grateful for the opportunities given to him by GW, even two decades after his own graduation.
“This connection is one that has shaped who you are and who you will be for the rest of your lives,” Ramsey said.
Columbian College of the Arts and Sciences graduate Kwasi Agyeman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history, said he was inspired by Williams because the renowned journalist followed his dreams without completing college.
“It gives hope to us because at the end, he was like, ‘You have a college degree and I don’t even have a college degree,’ and I think that’s what caught me, as that’s one thing that he regrets the most," Agyeman said. "We look up to him, but he doesn’t have a college degree."