Standing in the halls of the Smithsonian Castle, former professor Lonnie Bunch thought back to a time when a stranger protected him from a mob of White teenagers carrying baseball bats and rocks at the age of 13.
Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the first Black person to hold the title, said the incident showed him the impact of standing up for what’s right in the face of adversity and taught him to never stereotype others. Bunch said the stranger’s willingness to defend him demonstrated that there are times when everyone, no matter how strong, fast or smart, can benefit from the “sustenance, inspiration and guidance” of others.
“At that moment, I learned that help comes from unlikely places and that generosity of spirit binds our humanity, irrespective of race, religion or background,” Bunch said.
Addressing the graduating Class of 2021 as the University’s first virtual Commencement speaker, Bunch told GW’s newest alumni to use their education and empathy to contribute to making the United States a better, kinder place.
Graduates had attended the University remotely for more than a year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and GW was the only college in the District to hold their Commencement virtually. Officials plan to invite both the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 back for in-person ceremonies on the National Mall at a future date when “it is safe to do so.”
Bunch acknowledged the added burdens graduates endured over the past year because of the pandemic and the national reckoning on racial and social injustice.
“Moments of adversity are part of the human condition,” he said. “What matters, though, is how we respond to these moments. Adversity, like your education, can prepare you for the world, can instill empathy, inspire action.”
He urged graduates to seek and accept help whenever needed, especially from the friends they made and professors they learned from at GW, because no one is an “island.”
Bunch, a former museum studies and history professor between 1990 and 2000, also encouraged graduates to support each other and their communities during these hard times. He cited Studs Terkel, a famous oral historian he met during his time in Chicago, as someone who headed toward the direction of “doing good” through his advocacy for the “voiceless” in history.
“If you have that commitment to do good, you’ll be able to handle adversity, you’ll be able to embrace the ambiguity and change that life is all about.”
Bunch will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree when officials hold an in-person ceremony.
In his opening remarks, University President Thomas LeBlanc told graduates it was a “joy” to see them find their passions through “times of change and challenge.”
“Today is the end of one chapter and just the beginning of the next,” LeBlanc said. “It is just the beginning of the many years that you will spend creating a better world driven by the pursuit of knowledge, the quest for innovation and your own ideals and desire to serve others.”
Officials also conferred an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree to former Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell. Carbonell received a full scholarship to attend GW and received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1985, serving as Board chair from 2013 to 2019.
“Nelson A. Carbonell Jr. is not only an exceptional businessman and entrepreneur – he’s also a tireless advocate for the George Washington University,” LeBlanc, who was hired by a search led by Carbonell, said. “His longtime commitment to the University including his leadership for the Board of Trustees and extraordinary philanthropy, has been transformational, advancing research, academic excellence and student success.”
Carbonell said he was honored to receive the degree and “never could have imagined” when he was an undergraduate at GW the impact the University would have on him.
“I only hope I can give back to GW all that GW has given to me and to make my alma mater proud,” he said. “Today and every day, I am proud to say I am an alumnus of the George Washington University.”
The ceremony was also interwoven with clips of GW’s mascot celebrating Commencement, photos of the Class of 2021 throughout their time at GW and short messages of advice from alumni like journalists and politicians.
“I would say this – don’t be afraid to fail,” alumnus Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in one of the video clips.
Provost Brian Blake said in his remarks that the graduating class’s “incredible achievement” first began when they accepted their offer of admission to the University.
“When you decided on GW, you chose an education unlike any other in the world,” Blake said. “You chose to be a member of a diverse and vibrant community of scholars populated by students, faculty and staff contributing unique perspectives and experiences that often were unlike your own.”
Board Chair Grace Speights said as graduates leave the University and become future leaders, they will have the support of their friends, family and the GW community.
“The world is changing rapidly, and we need leaders to help guide us to a better future,” she said. “You are those leaders. It is a great responsibility, but you are not alone.”
LeBlanc closed the ceremony by conferring degrees to the class of 2021 along with the deans of GW’s 10 schools.
“Graduates, you have earned this moment,” LeBlanc said. “You are prepared to succeed and to lead. May you carry your GW education and your commitment to serve others and to have a positive impact on our world with you every day.”