Honorary degree recipients told graduates on the National Mall Sunday afternoon to have confidence as they leave college and inherit a society that can often seem mismanaged and war-torn.
An announced crowd of 22,000 students and family members gathered in front of the Capitol during Commencement to hear words of wisdom and receive degrees. This year each honorary degree recipient was allotted several more minutes to address graduates – to compensate for the lack of a keynote speaker. There was also one student speaker.
The five recipients were CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer, President of the National Academy of Sciences Ralph Cicerone, former D.C. mayoral candidate and chairman of the city council Linda Cropp, President of the Institute of Medicine Harvey Fineberg and president of the non-profit organization Trust for America’s Health and former senator Lowell Weicker, Jr.
Blitzer said he has experienced many horrible tragedies first-hand – most recently the Virginia Tech shootings – which exemplify the fragile state of modern society.
“The world remains a very dangerous place indeed. The challenges and dangers we face out there are very real,” Blitzer said. “They require a new generation of smart and compassionate and energetic, committed, idealistic young people. You, the Class of 2007, are that generation.”
He added that graduates should never take “no” for an answer when pursuing their life goals.
“You keep pushing and pushing and pushing, and that door will eventually open,” Blitzer said.
Fineberg said that graduates should accept any unfortunate events in the past and be optimistic about how to change society in the future.
“If old enemies from your parents’ and grandparents’ generations have receded, new ones have taken their place,” Feinberg said. “Your parents’ generation has left you graduates with a lot to work on.”
Iraq War veteran and graduating senior Catherine O’Connor addressed graduates as the ceremony’s student speaker. She also touched on how graduates have a responsibility to affect world events.
“I hope we will all continue to courageously embrace this new and permanent reality,” O’Connor said. “That we move from being passive observers of the world to being in a position to truly change it.”
In the middle of the speeches, rain began to drizzle on the Mall and many audience members opened their umbrellas. Degree recipient Linda Cropp, noticing the rain, said that the unpredictable weather was a lot like life.
“There will be constant changes,” she said. “Be prepared and keep going.”
She added that graduates should all consider giving a part of their lives to public service.
“There is great satisfaction in public service,” Cropp said. “And while your bank accounts do not become richer, your lives become enriched.”
Cicerone, an honorary degree recipient, also encouraged students to enter into public service. “We will watch for your contributions to public life in the towns where you live and on the public scene.”
In his charge to the graduates, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg acknowledged the controversy surrounding his initial plans to deliver the keynote address at Commencement.
“I’ve got (my keynote address) here,” Trachtenberg said as he unfurled a large scroll with giant text. “And if you’ll permit me, I’ll read it out.”
Trachtenberg added that changing his lifestyle in the coming months will be difficult, but he plans to share the experience with the graduates.
“This is an adventure we can share,” he said. “You are entering your second act. I’m entering my third or fourth. May you do so with confidence and inspiration.”
Though most speakers encouraged graduates to be influential in changing society, Weicker said that parents and older guests have a vested interest in current situations.
“Before we send the kids out to fight in our battles, how about we forget the whole matter of age and look on the conditions of humanity as everybody’s business,” he said.