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As a frequent commencement speaker, in preparing a message to graduates, I often begin by asking myself how these students might be imagining the opportunities that lie ahead for them. Surveying the present challenges that lie behind and in front of them, I usually urge them to focus on more than a career ladder common to the profession they wish to pursue — rather, to focus on allocating some of their intellectual capital and energy to areas of improvement in the lives of those who may not have similarly enjoyed the advantages of an excellent education.
In a nation where the gaps in economic and social standing among and between groups remain stark, I remind graduates that they alone cannot ensure the health and future prosperity of their communities and the nation. They must, I emphasize, work alongside or lead others in that endeavor.
Recently, I have been struck by how numerous tragic events and social struggles have caused many college students to be less confident in the advantages they will enjoy as a result of their years of study. The numerous crises they have endured in such a short span of time have made the emphasis on their good fortunes ring hollow.
Indeed, my own apprehension about the state of the world requires that I contemplate how to be meaningfully hopeful in my task as a commencement speaker, so that I do not advance hollow claims about the future graduates will likely face. At the same time, I am disappointed with my more cautious approach, when this is precisely the moment when hopefulness can be most essential as students commence their post-graduate efforts.
Yes, these are times that give me pause, in spite of my long and varied experience. Having grown up in a time of violence and strife, I have often observed that steady improvement in the nation has been the result of the beneficial and enlightened efforts of courageous individuals who spurred others to action. It was often their vision of a better future that caused others to join in overturning unfair practices and embracing the importance of shared efforts.
The bookends to my undergraduate years were, at the beginning, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy ’40 and, at the end, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy ’48. Throughout my college years, persistent racial violence in the form of bombings and mob actions plagued our reality as Black college students.
Sitting on the lawn of Dillard University on a sunny graduation day and contemplating my lack of civil rights, I could not have been sanguine about the future. Indeed, persistent doubt that the country could move forward in a productive way was a deep concern among all of those graduating with me.
Yet, I was compelled to continue my education, seeing that pursuit as an antidote to seemingly omnipresent irrational actions. Inspired by civil rights leaders, I chose to keep my efforts focused stubbornly on a future that could be better if enough people worked together to effect change and demonstrate concern for others across our differences.
Remembering those years helps me put the current troubling events in perspective — these may not actually be the worst of times. To be sure, a pandemic, continuing political upheaval, the threat to civil rights long thought secure, poisonous public discourse, anti-intellectual policy-making, and significant economic challenges might naturally cause us to have a pessimistic outlook. Yet, over the course of time, our lives are frequently upended by uncontrolled and unforeseen events that shake our confidence in the future.
In that event, we can either falter or become even more determined to engage in action that centers on the common good. I have always chosen the latter and, in many ways, that stubborn determination to seek the good has provided me purpose and uplift for a life that I would not have traded for another.
And so, in my commencement speeches this year, I will, even in these difficult times, invoke the need for graduates to look beyond their personal ambition, to ways of incorporating in their lives actions that contribute to advancing our common well-being. Whatever the future holds for them, the challenges will be made lighter and their satisfaction greater if they are connected in an intentional way to advancing the equality and well-being of others.
Ruth J. Simmons is a graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the incoming senior adviser to the president of Harvard on engagement with historically Black colleges and universities, this year’s Convocation speaker for Harvard Graduate School of Education, and this year’s Commencement speaker for Prairie View A&M University.
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