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Fall 2018 Commencement Highlights

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President's Charge to Graduates


President Sylvia M. Burwell addresses American University's class of 2018 at the fall commencement ceremony in Bender Arena.

Graduate Speaker Address


American University Graduate Student Speaker Sade Tuckett delivered a Commencement Address for the Fall 2018 graduates on December 16 in Bender Arena.

Asalaamu alaikum. Peace, and welcome distinguished guests, friends, and family of the phenomenal class of 2018. I am proud to stand before you all this afternoon. The road to this graduation has come with plenty of obstacles, and each of us has faced considerable "lows" along the way. Today is the day we celebrate making it through these challenges.

As a recent graduate of Spelman College, a small, traditionally all women's, historically black college, I experienced my own challenges transitioning to a large Predominantly White Institution. My first semester here, I entered classrooms where almost no one looked like me... and where almost everyone didn't quite understand how to interact with me --- another human being.

In too many of my classes I had to read from texts that specifically excluded authors and narratives of people of color, globally. These people, my people, were neither reflected in the classroom nor in its content. That same semester, there were explicitly racist incidents on campus that tried to tell me and people who looked like me that we didn't belong here. In response, I encouraged my professor at the time, Chuck Call, to change the syllabus to include more critical, and racially diverse voices into his syllabus. Thankfully, he did just that. Yet, despite heartening moments like this, I was still out of place. I was caught in this space of both learning the work, and correcting the work. I was feeling the weight of being a Black woman in academia more than I had in the past four years. I felt burnt out, misunderstood, and pessimistic about the changing state of affairs in our country.

I often asked myself "why?" Why am I doing this? Do I even deserve to be here? An unspoken truth, but a common fact is that, like many students in this era, I became depressed and anxious about my future. And it reflected in my grades.

During my second semester at AU, I failed my first and second course ever. I was academically dismissed from the school, losing my scholarship, and possibly my 5-year contract as a diplomat with the State Department. I was forced to move back home to NY and sleep on my family's couch. I thought "surely this is my lowest low."

In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. The worst thing I could imagine had happened, and I was freed from my own crushing expectations of myself... to deliver on the countless investments and the sacrifices my family made for me. To be a model student, regardless of inhospitable learning environments. To prove that I belonged at a school that already admitted me... So that freedom gave me the room to soul-search, find out what taking care of myself actually looked and felt like. I went to therapy, I biked and painted, I began to revisit my passions, and, again, I asked myself "why?" Why did I want to go to AU and study peace and conflict resolution in the first place?

The answer was simple, and something many of us want to do: I want to use my strengths to help people. Specifically, I want to build bridges of mutual understanding between people who hold historic and often justified grievances. Whether it be people of different cultures, faiths, economic status, or personal beliefs.

And as an Afro-Caribbean, Muslim woman from the Bronx, NY I want to do this while representing an important part of the American identity. And though there are many routes to achieving this goal, I knew that attending American University was mine.

So, with the help of a few staff and faculty, I made a case for myself to the School of International Service. In that, I told them why I deserved to attend this university. I drew on the tools that summer gave me, of practicing prayer, kindness to myself, deepening my friendships and reflecting on my strengths. I listed my goals, and the steps I had taken toward these goals, and the reasons, given my personal and social circumstances, that I was previously unable to thrive and the reasons that I would thrive given a second chance. So... here I am today.

Coming back, I became the change I wanted to see here. I served as an on-campus dialogue facilitator to educate students on whiteness and anti-racism and to help campus climate. I worked at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion to coordinate the center's peer education program. And during that time, I met some of the most driven, intelligent, and kind people I've ever met. I found a new world inside of my own school that I, at one point, refused to believe existed.

That same semester, for the first time ever, I earned an overall 4.0 GPA. I earned back my scholarship. And I was notified that in January 2019, I would be accepted into the Foreign Service. Now I was in the same position to help people, to build these bridges of understanding, and represent my country, but more equipped this time.

And after two or more years here, you are more equipped than when you started. Whether you were working full time, taking classes while becoming a new parent, battling health issues, family and financial difficulties, or all of the above. We have and continue to fight in the face of adversity.

So, I tell you this to say, embrace your lows. Fight your way through them. Trust your struggle. If need be, make a case for yourself. Remind others of who you are, and remind yourself in the process. Believe that you will make it through... job rejections, a tough long-distance friendship, or even the never-ending news cycle. Take this time to refocus, trust yourself, and find your "why?"

Undergraduate Speaker Address


American University Undergraduate Student Speaker Heaven Sensky delivered a Commencement Address for the Fall 2018 graduates on December 16 in Bender Arena.

Thank you, President Burwell, distinguished faculty, staff, alumni, guests, and students. Congratulations to the class of 2018! It is an honor to be here with you today.

For those of you I don’t know, my name is Heaven Sensky. I am a first generation college student, and I felt like I was on top of the world to attend American University post high-school graduation. But that mountain I thought I had climbed to get into college grew a thousands of feet taller after I started.

In hindsight, the reality of getting to AU on that sweltering August day in 2015 felt like the greatest challenge, and 18 year old me was ready to take on the world. I had no true understanding that the journey through a private University as a low-income student would only get much, much harder and getting in would prove to be the easiest part.

My first semester at AU, I sat in each class with up on my laptop, because I had a tremendously difficult time understanding the academic language presented in my classes. I had no idea how to use blackboard, and despite earning a 3.6 in the end, I was convinced I was failing for most of the semester. I slept less than 4 hours a night, I ate nothing but peanut butter because I was afraid of switching from home grown farm food to processed campus food, and I desperately tried to fit in with my world floor mates who spent most of their time exploring DC on a metrocard that I couldn’t load.

The most difficult part of my newfound life was perpetually feeling like an outsider on campus, and going home to find that I no longer belonged there either. I found that my family structure and the entrapment of rural poverty was complex, and the result of a cycle that my loved ones may never truly escape. I faced the notion that not everyone had the capacity to leave like I did, and for me to leave meant that someone else, likely someone that I loved, would have their ticket out taken away. I had once believed that we could all be free, and that with my education I could pave the way to stability for all of them. College taught me that perhaps that isn’t true and success for me will always feel a lot like selfish betrayal.

I spent my first semester at AU, pretending to be something I was not, ashamed of my roots and terrified that identifying with them would trap me. But as soon as I started to tell my story, I found the utmost of kindness from my peers, and the ultimate resource in my professors and staff mentors here at American. Owning my roots, and my story, gave me the capacity to acknowledge that resilience was my greatest asset, and despite my roots causing me the most turmoil, they likewise granted me the most fulfillment. It was then that I began to feel safe here, and confident that I could get through four years.

Beyond a world class degree in Public affairs, my education at American University has given me the language I needed to articulate and understand my experience, and with it; that of others. I have studied the intricacies of the healthcare system, questioned the precipice of institutional poverty, and I have come to know the realities of race in the criminal justice system. I have questioned everything I have ever known, and every implicit bias that pops into my head. Most of all, I have gained the tools to find credible information, and to continue holding myself accountable as I navigate a world that has proven itself to be largely bias, unfair, and lacking inclusivity.

Despite all of this, I am fearful. Of the realities of the harsh world we live in...but more than that, I am fearful that the ability to articulate the causes and symptoms of intergenerational poverty, systematic teen pregnancy, mass incarceration and the spread of harmful, false information is limited to those who have access to a college education.

And so while my experience at AU has transformed who I am, and has given me the tools to pave the way for others, I encourage you, my fellow classmates, to stay true to what you have learned here about yourselves and the world. The measure of success for us is not what we can do for ourselves, but the impact we can make in this world.

Don’t let AU be the last place you talk about race and poverty. Don’t let college be the last time you question your identity, and the things you have been taught in the past. Don’t slack on finding credible sources to seek all information you are receiving and disbursing. And don’t let AU be the last place you engage in the civil discourse we have had in our classes.

I tell my story every chance I can get, not only for those who may not understand my identity, but for those who are still hiding who they are, fearful of what may become of them if they embrace what felt like a sure way to end up working hard labor until death only to barely get by.

So, Class of 2018, pay it forward, and hold yourself accountable. Invest in the value of your education, and spread it around to others. Thank you.

Commencement Speaker Address


Helene Gayle received an honorary doctorate from American University and delivered the Commencement Address for the Fall 2018 graduates on December 16 in Bender Arena.

Thank you, Provost Clark and the Board of Trustees, for this honor.

President Burwell, Sylvia, you are an exceptional leader, public servant and a great friend.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing this, but during our time at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other things Sylvia and I would get up most mornings and hit the gym together. Somehow solving the world’s problems seemed so much easier than doing bench presses and squats! Ah, those were the good old days!!! But I guess that strengthened both of us for the inevitable life challenges we’ve faced over the years. So lesson number one—find a good friend and work out with them.  It prepares you for life and a lifelong friendship. (PAUSE)

Distinguished faculty, proud family and friends, and graduates of the class of 2018…

I am thrilled to be your commencement speaker, and even more excited to be sharing in this moment with you as a fellow member of your class.

This university has become famous for turning what used to be a somewhat derogatory term, “wonk,” into a badge of honor. In a political climate where some individuals and groups are promoting, and even glorifying, an aversion to knowledge and facts, this commitment to research over speculation, and evidence over ideology, is essential. So, I am proud to be here celebrating with you all today.

But, I’m sure my pride is nothing compared to what your parents, grandparents, and friends are feeling right now. So, let’s hear it for your cheerleaders and champions.


As was mentioned, about a year ago I became the head of The Chicago Community Trust—a foundation dedicated to the city of Chicago and its surrounding communities.  After over 30 years of focusing on issues of health and economic inequity globally, I felt it was time to tackle these challenges locally. I was in large part motivated by seeing my country become more and more divided and unequal, and felt it was time I did something to try to make a difference at home. So, as a Buffalo native who left home decades ago vowing never to live in a city with severe winters, I headed off to Chicago.

By a show of hands, how many of you are from Chicago? (WAIT FOR RESPONSE)

Then, I’m sure you all know Chicago is an amazing city…but it’s also a starkly divided and unequal one.  Not unlike many urban cities, the history of racial segregation has led to a true tale of two cities, one white and one African American and Latino. Separate and unequal.

But what is inspiring about Chicago is that people—everyday citizens—are taking action in creative ways.  One of those people is an artist named Tonika Johnson. She has used her photography as a way of both exposing those stark divisions and also bridging them.

Chicago is a city of fairly evenly divided north-south and east-west grids. Tonika asked herself: what if we took a map of Chicago and folded it in half, lining up communities on the North Side with communities on the South Side?

She called her project “The Folded Map.”

In one piece, she shows the world of difference that exists between identical addresses on opposite sides of town—6720 North Ashland and 6720 South Ashland. The former is a quaint, well-kempt home with a well-tended and blooming front garden; the latter is a worn-down, two-story building with metal-guarded windows and rust-stained bricks.

But more than the homes, she used her art to put people side by side…in conversation with fellow Chicagoans they might never have encountered in their daily lives. She took the city’s historical divides as an entry point for bringing people together, for building insights and empathy.

Why am I sharing this? Because when I reflect on the significance of Tonika’s project—and what it means for all of us regardless of where we live—it occurs to me that the divide between the addresses, lives, and experiences she documented isn’t a divide of blocks or miles or incomes. It’s a divide of justice----that core principle of fairness and equity.

And in that sense, Chicago is no different than the rest of the world.  And you, class of 2018, have a chance to bridge that divide. 

That work begins with a realization.

Though this moment may seem like a classic commencement—I want you graduates to take a moment to appreciate an important truth: Today is a miracle. (PAUSE)

And I don’t mean this pejoratively—as in, “It’s a miracle you made it to graduation!” That, I’m sure, was never in doubt.  Okay, maybe there are a few out there saying— “No, seriously, it’s kind of a miraculous.” 

But for the rest of you, it may appear to be the opposite of a miracle. 

It’s a perfectly logical sequence of events. This is the payoff you’ve earned—and those who’ve come before you have helped you earn—after many years of hard work.

But there is a miracle to be seen in how your planning and efforts has led to this day. Because the truth is, for many people—in Chicago, in our country, and in our world—hard work is not enough to span the divide between the future they dream about and the future they can actually achieve.

Inputs—of effort, of determination, of time and toil—do not always lead to outcomes. 

The size of that divide is, in my view, a measure of injustice. 

The richest nation in the world…with 40 million of her citizens living in poverty. Injustice.

More healthcare spending per capita than any other nation in the world, with infant mortality rates the highest in the developed world and our people living shorter, sicker lives than others in rich countries…injustice.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and imprisons its residents at a rate nearly five times the average for other rich nations. That’s not justice, it’s injustice.

Twenty five percent of children in America live in poverty. 

On just about any measure of poverty or inequity we come in at the bottom of the list of rich nations.

These gaps don’t simply manifest in lost lives, and diminished lives. They also manifest in hopelessness, despair, cynicism. Because in a nation as rich as the United States, extreme poverty and inequity is a political choice, not a monetary one. This hopelessness, despair and cynicism expose fault lines in our society that lead to an ever more divided society.

That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news. 

Our world has seen and endured troubling times before. And no matter which page of history you turn to, you can always find examples of energetic, idealistic, competent individuals like you who found ways, both great and small, to bring about positive change.

In 1981, the year I graduated from medical school, the first cases of HIV/AIDS were documented in the U.S. I didn’t know it then, but fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS would soon become a center point of my career for over two decades—first at the Centers for Disease Control and then at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Since its discovery, HIV/AIDS has infected over 77 million people and claimed 35 million lives around the globe. But in 2004, the number of people killed each year from HIV/AIDS stopped climbing. Today, that number has been cut in half, thanks to the steadfast, multi-decade effort of global health workers, from the laboratory bench to the bedside of the ill.

Later, when I was the CEO of CARE, I had the privilege of being part of a worldwide legion of warriors dedicated to ending global poverty. And while this goal has not been fully met, we have made remarkable progress: extreme global poverty has also been reduced by 50% over the last thirty years.

I share these examples merely to illustrate that when we are persistent and we work together, we can, in fact, make a difference. We can make it more likely that inputs lead to outcomes. We can begin to bridge the divide. We can restore justice.

The work isn’t easy. And it isn’t quick. Our problems didn’t come into being overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight. 

As we continue building toward a more perfect union, we shouldn’t be discouraged just because everything isn’t finished. It is the work of each generation to take what the generation before has left us and move it forward. And each new generation is better equipped than the last to address our biggest challenges.

Look at the Parkland student activists to see what I am talking about. Most of these young people can’t even vote yet, but they are taking adults and our democracy to task to solve the life-threatening issue of gun violence in our country.

Look at this year’s midterm elections, when young-adult turnout was 10% higher than the 2014 midterms. That is still only a third of eligible voters between 18 and 29. But that is a start and the trend line is going in the right direction.

Look at the 34 AU alumni who ran for office this year… and the 24 of them who won.

Look at the choices you make: buying products from companies that represent your values and working for organizations whose missions you believe in.

Given all of this, I have no doubt you all will successfully carry the baton forward. You have already started.

Together, you have taken on some of the tough issues like the racial divisions that have manifested themselves on this very campus.  Not content to live in a bubble, you have engaged actively in the issues affecting our nation and our world like immigration and the environment. You were ranked first in the nation for your political activism!  

So, all I’m asking you to do today—and for the rest of your lives—is continue this work. Keep going. Don’t stop.

And as you do, one final piece of advice: remember your purpose, that passion that gives you a sense of meaning. Because it’s easy to get too focused on the goal and forget the purpose. I once heard a wildlife biologist describe the importance of keeping a soft focus when tracking animals. The idea is that when we zero in too closely on what we are seeking, we can miss something even better that appears in our periphery.

My career is an example of the fact that you never know where you are going to end up, and why it’s important to embrace the unpredictable. I never would have predicted when I started my working career as a doctor that I would have ended up where I am today. 

Medicine and public health happened to be my chosen field. But my purpose, as I saw it, was much broader: to work for social justice, to be an agent of change, to counter forces of inequality and unfairness in the world.

I often joke that when I went to college, in the lingo of the day, I wanted to major in “liberating all oppressed people.” That was my mission. That was—and still is—my North Star. It has guided me throughout my entire career. Every time I find myself at a crossroads facing a new, and often scary, opportunity for professional growth and change, I look to this guiding light for clarity—and it never leads me astray.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard came from the legendary preacher Howard Thurman. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I’ve found that in working to liberate others, you are simultaneously working to liberate yourself. For as Dr. King once said, we are all “tied together in the single garment of destiny.”

So, my wish for you is, ultimately, my wish for the world: that your lives represent and deliver justice. That you are able to fold the map, and to bridge the divides that separate us, and to help fill in the chasm of injustice so that more people can experience outcomes that are equal to their efforts and have the opportunity to realize their full potential.

And whenever you get fearful of the task that lies before you, I want you to remember the words of a woman who, 63 years ago this month, took a heroic stand against racism by refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. Rosa Parks said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Each of you is prepared to leave your mark on the world. So, have no fear. This is your moment—go make the most of your miracle. Congratulations!

Commencement Speaker

Helene D. Gayle president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust

Before assuming leadership of the Trust in October 2017, Dr. Gayle was CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative (now, a nonprofit that builds partnerships for social impact.

For almost a decade, she was president and CEO of CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization. An expert on global development, humanitarian and health issues, Dr. Gayle spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), working primarily on HIV/AIDS. She also worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.

Dr. Gayle serves on public company and nonprofit boards including The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, the Rockefeller Foundation, Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, New America and the ONE Campaign. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Public Health Association, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Named one of Forbes' " 100 Most Powerful Women" and one of NonProfit Times' "Power and Influence Top 50," she has authored numerous articles on global and domestic public health issues, poverty alleviation, gender equality and social justice.

Dr. Gayle was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. She earned a B.A. in psychology at Barnard College, an M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and an M.P.H. at Johns Hopkins University. She has received 15 honorary degrees and holds faculty appointments at the University of Washington and Emory University.

She received an honorary Doctor of Science degree at the fall commencement ceremony (10 a.m., Sunday, December 16).