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Congratulations, CAS Class of 2019! Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Calls Graduates to Act, Change the World

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at podium at graduation

Award-winning writer and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received an honorary degree and delivered an inspirational address to the College of Arts and Sciences at the 137th commencement ceremony at American University on May 11, 2019.

In all, 506 students earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in fields from economics to literature, history to neuroscience, arts management to public health. The student speaker this year was Charlie Everett, a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar and president of AU PRIDE, the largest LGBTQ organization on campus. Everett was introduced by College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Starr, who congratulated the class of 2019 on all their accomplishments, from cutting-edge research on the LIGO Collaboration’s Nobel Prize-winning detection of gravitational waves, to prestigious internships at the World Bank and Smithsonian Institution, to winning Fulbright, Hollings, Gilman, Killam, NSF Graduate Fellowship, and Critical Language Scholarship competitions.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Commencement Address

"Real human impact is never about quantity" Adichie said. "It's always about quality."

Read. Every Day.

Adichie spoke about education, writing, empathy, and the importance of doing something—no matter how small—for others. “As you prepare to soar away on your Eagle wings today, as you graduate with your hard-earned degrees, please don’t think of today as the day you stop being a student,” she said. “Be a student for the rest of your life. And the best way to do this is to read, every day.”

Reading is still the best way to understand our world, Adichie told the graduates. “Reading makes empathy possible. When we read, we become alive in bodies that are not our own. And if there is anything we need sorely and greatly today, it is empathy. We can never know exactly what is like to be another person, but we can approximate it by inhabiting the stories of other people.”

Author, Speaker, Thinker

Adichie is the author of Purple Hibiscus; Half of a Yellow Sun; and Americanah, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013. She is also the author of the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. Her work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times, and Zoetrope.

Adichie’s 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” has over 17 million views, making it one of the most viewed talks of all time, and is required viewing in the first-year AUx curriculum. Her 2012 talk We Should All Be Feminists has a started a worldwide conversation about feminism, and was published as a book in 2014. Adichie was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Great Leaders.

The Wisdom of Clichés: Do Something

Adichie spoke about two clichés that graduates often hear: Life is short, and Go and change the world. Both sayings really mean to Do Something,” Adichie explained. She asked graduates to be skeptical but never cynical—to remain open to new ideas and experiences.

“The world is full of unnecessary suffering. Washington, DC, is full of unnecessary suffering,” Adichie said, leaning into a call for action. “Vote for a candidate volunteer whose policies will reduce suffering, tutor a child, mentor a younger person, volunteer, stand up for someone, speak up.”

Adichie ended with another call to action. “So, yes, graduating class of 2019, so many of you so accomplished—soaring Eagles—change the world! Or, to renew that cliché by paraphrasing a wise saying: Be ashamed to die until you have done one act that benefits humanity. And humanity can be one person.”