Brown University President Ruth Simmons opened her keynote address to the class of 2002 Sunday by responding to criticism from students that she was chosen as the Commencement speaker, rather than a well-known political figure.
Simmons said she was “apprehensive about coming to the podium” after reading critical student comments in The Hatchet, but after she saw the “magic of the surroundings and exuberance of the graduates,” she “just felt fine.”
Simmons, who began attending graduate school at GW in 1968 but finished her doctorate in romance languages and literatures at Harvard, told students to take advantage of GW’s diversity and education in all its forms.
She urged graduates to thank their parents, whom she said made students do their homework and “refused to accept your decision to backpack around Europe before college.”
“With what they’ve spent to send you here, they could have put another wing on the house or bought a couple of BMWs,” Simmons said, drawing laughter from the audience.
She told the class of 2002 that they may always associate their college years with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, events Simmons said “left us bereft, angry, confused and afraid.”
Simmons explained how learning from each other’s differences could prevent such tragedies.
“Today we can see it is not difference itself that is the problem, for difference as old as the ages is one of our enduring and rich natural resources,” she said. “It is the consequence of not understanding and managing that difference.”
Simmons encouraged students to examine “how diversity is affecting your life,” and “be watchful and open-minded” of educational opportunities.
“I’ve learned from great scholars, met many of the leading figures of our time,” she said. “But I learned the most in my life from a woman with an eighth-grade education.”
Simmons said she learned from her mother, who cleaned homes for a living, to “treat even those who hate you with kindness.”
She related a story about having a debate she with a group of people about apartheid in South Africa. Simmons said while most students in the group said they opposed apartheid, one white South African girl, who was otherwise soft-spoken, said “it’s our country, too.”
“Today I cannot recall the names of those who shared my views, but the voice of that one white girl still haunts me,” Simmons said. “Some of the most salient moments of learning take place in the presence of difference.”
Simmons said she wishes she would have spoken to the girl longer, because “she wouldn’t have changed my mind, but I would have learned more.”
Simmons spoke at Washington University in St. Louis May 10 but said she had a longer, more serious message about ethics and the need to develop an ethical sense. She said she thought her message about diversity applied better to GW because of its proximity to the events of Sept. 11 and the international makeup of the campus.