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Harvard Law School professor emerita and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren (D-Mass.) urged the Law School’s 2021 graduating class to “have courage” as they considered their long careers ahead in a speech at the school’s virtual Class Day ceremony Wednesday.
Warren told graduates she hoped they would take the time and have the bravery to explore purposeful careers, instead of following a pre-planned, comfortable future.
“I want to talk about my hope that you will be carried to an unexpected place,” Warren said. “A place where you will find work that you love, work that gives you purpose, and just possibly, work that makes the world a better place.”
Warren joined the Law School as Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law in 1995 and taught there until her successful run for U.S. Senate in 2012. In February 2019, Warren officially announced her candidacy for president, eventually earning the third-most delegates in the Democratic primary.
Over the past four years, Warren argued, individuals have “witnessed something” they “never imagined” they would see, citing generations-long racism, a “badly broken” criminal justice system, income inequality, and “growing corporate power.”
“It’s a grim list to talk about on graduation day,” she said. “But this list is why the world needs you.”
Many graduates, Warren said, would likely follow an “already set” path, such as joining a prominent law firm or business. She added that “in all likelihood,” these individuals would “prosper.”
“But graduations are about dreaming big,” she added. “So let me suggest something different, something that requires courage — step off the path.”
Despite taking “pleasure” in the successes of nearly all of her students, Warren said that the ones she was most proud of were those who had the courage to “take risks” and “try something that is truly consequential.”
Warren described a law degree — “particularly” a Harvard law degree — as “a powerful tool,” and remarked that how a graduate chooses to use that tool “matters.”
“You may choose to use it quite profitably, helping clients who are already rich and powerful, get richer and more powerful,” Warren said. “But my own advice is to respectfully ask you to consider other paths where the need is great. I ask you to consider other paths, precisely because you have so much to offer.”
Deviating from the well-trodden path, Warren told the graduates — many of whom already have “jobs lined up” and have prepared for “predictable and secure” futures — is where “courage comes in.”
“I urge you to consider leaving that behind. I urge you to consider a life that is open to public service, open to taking on the troubles that are bearing down on us, open to tackling the crises that are still in the making and we don’t even see yet,” Warren said. “It takes courage — real courage — to step off the path that you have laid out for yourself.”
Using her own life as an example, Warren said taking that leap of faith by entering politics meant she has been able to receive far more.
“I gave up the classroom and the students, and climbed into the political pit for which I was unprepared,” Warren said. “But no matter how many times I wondered how I had gotten myself into this, every single day, no matter what, I’ve awakened in the morning thinking about what I will get to do today. Not ‘have’ to do — ‘get’ to do.”
Her conviction that her career path and work was purposeful, Warren said, was “true” on both the days she has “won” and “lost.”
“Because every day, I’ve known that the work I do matters. Creating more opportunity for other people matters, fighting to right wrongs and demand accountability on behalf of other people matters,” Warren said. “Combating climate change matters, tearing down systemic racism matters — battling to save our democracy matters.”
Warren — admitting that she has not “solved every problem” she encountered and “made mistakes” — said that despite the challenges of the job, she has “stayed after it every day, persistently.” Her decision, Warren added, was “worth it, every single day.”
Though dedicating one’s life and career to serving others took “courage,” Warren said that pursuing a career that helped those who needed it most would gift graduates with “a richer life.”
“When the day comes five or 10 or 20 years from now, when you’re getting together with your classmates, or when that moment comes late at night that steals upon you and you wonder about how you spent your professional life, I guarantee that you will smile a deep-down smile over the parts of your life that you have spent in service to others,” Warren said.
Above making their families and communities proud, Warren urged graduates to both “have” and “choose” courage to make themselves proud.
“I know you can,” Warren concluded. “And I wish you well.”
—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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