Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., didn’t give up on her dream of becoming a teacher when she dropped out of GW after two years.
She went on to finish her undergraduate career in Houston, saying she was “one of the lucky ones” for having the opportunity to attend GW and later earning a law degree. Standing in front of roughly 5,000 graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 and their 15,000 guests at GW’s postponed, in-person Commencement Saturday, she called on graduates to “dream big” and “fight hard” for their passions.
“Get in the fight for opportunity – race, gender, sexual identity – opportunity to survive in a world not suffocated by climate change or bled to death by wars,” she said.
After administrators postponed Commencement on the National Mall for two consecutive years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the classes of 2020 and 2021 traveled back to Foggy Bottom this weekend for a joint ceremony coinciding with the culmination of GW’s Bicentennial celebrations. Administrators conferred degrees upon the two classes, who finished their coursework remotely, at earlier virtual ceremonies.
Warren said when she unpacked her suitcases and moved into what is now known as Thurston Hall in 1966, women could not own property, start a business or sign a contract without their husbands’ permission.
She said fighting for a cause can be difficult but graduates would “never be sorry” for doing so, referencing her presidential run in 2020 that she said she has never regretted.
“Now I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “That’s a lot to carry. And after all, some of you are barely sober this morning.”
She said her heart was full of hope for what the graduates of the classes of 2020 and 2021 can accomplish as they move to the next phase of their lives.
“So here’s some simple advice as you enter your next chapter,” she said. “Focus on what you believe in, and then fight like hell for it.”
University President Thomas LeBlanc awarded the President’s Medal – the highest honor GW’s president can award — to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In pre-recorded remarks, Fauci congratulated the two classes for their creativity, adaptability and resilience in managing their education during a global pandemic that “contorted” many lives for 20 months. He said he was delighted the celebration took place on the National Mall, as it symbolized a sign of progress and provided a message of hope for the graduates, who persevered through “extraordinary” constraints and uncertainty.
“Please be assured our commitment and continued efforts will help us achieve a successful end to this unprecedented public health emergency,” he said.
LeBlanc also awarded the medal to two professors who helped lead GW’s pandemic response.
Andrew Maurano, an associate clinical professor of emergency medicine who led the Medical Faculty Associates and COVID-19 response teams, and Cindy Liu, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health who spearheaded the on-campus COVID-19 testing laboratory, were recognized on stage and spoke briefly to the graduates.
Liu said she was proud of the Campus COVID Support Team’s efforts in setting up testing labs and training staff to work and to test the GW community in fewer than ten weeks. Officials have administered more than 200,000 tests processed through the lab since it opened in August 2020, according to GW’s online dashboard.
“It doesn’t matter that everyone says that it is impossible,” Liu said. “When you find the greatest good that you can do, you do exactly that. You do just that.”
Maurano thanked the University for frequently approving the emergency medicine department’s requests to develop more testing centers, health spaces and teams to manage the pandemic in the community. He asked the graduates to look at the possible unknowns in the world as an opportunity to learn something new everyday and to listen to questions of fear and anger for better understanding.
“Your ability to understand those in your community will foster a community of tolerance,” he said. “And it is only with understanding and tolerance that you will be able to adapt and innovate, and take on the challenges and the unknowns that lie ahead.”
Interim Provost Chris Bracey said GW’s education prepares future leaders through a challenging academic experience and encouraging “impactful” research. Graduates improved study habits, completed impressive internships and grew their confidence, he said.
He said it was a “rare” privilege to address the graduated classes together after a long absence from the University.
“We do not take this privilege lightly, and we are thrilled to be here today to celebrate your graduation and all the ways you have already started in making the world a better place,” Bracey said.
University President Thomas LeBlanc said it was a joy to watch the classes of 2020 and 2021 “discover their passions” and grow during their time at GW.
“Especially through times of change and challenge, your contributions to our world shine as great forces for good,” LeBlanc said. “Thanks to you, GW has been a force for good for 200 years.”
Board Chair Grace Speights said graduates will have the support of their friends, family and the GW alumni community as they go forward with their careers and lives outside of GW.
“No matter what path you have taken, you walk as a leader, armed with the tools to succeed in whatever you do,” Speights said. “You walk the path as a leader who has committed to being a lifelong leader, eager to continue building your knowledge and your specialities, and hopefully to begin learning brand new things as well.”