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School of Public Affairs 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony

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Dean's Address


SPA Dean Vicky M. Wilkins delivered the Commencement Address for the Spring 2018 graduates on May 13 in Bender Arena.

Undergraduate Speaker Address


Undergraduate Student Speaker Mary Margaret Koch delivered a Commencement Address for the Spring 2018 graduates

Thank you Dean Wilkins, Provost Bass, and President Burwell.

If you have ever volunteered for a campaign, chances are you have been asked to talk to voters. In the days leading up to Election Day, campaigns turn to volunteers to canvass and make phone calls to get out the vote.

Going door-to-door and encouraging people to vote on Election Day was my first direct exposure to politics. And, as I reflect on my time at SPA, I have come to realize that college and canvassing are actually a lot alike.

Don’t get what I mean? Let me start from the beginning.

Hi there! I’m Mary-Margaret, and I’m with the American University School of Public Affairs. You may have heard that Graduation is currently . . . you know . . . happening. I’m just stopping by to see if you have a plan for how you’re going to walk across this stage and receive your diploma. This ceremony is really important to the people who have supported you and helped get you to where you are today, so it’s crucial that you’re ready when it’s your turn to walk across the stage. Can we count on you to receive your diploma today?

Much like a canvass, we arrived our first year in a new environment where we may not have known anyone. For a lot of us, DC was a completely new city. This is the place we had dreamed of living, but our only knowledge of what it was like to actually live here came from the likes of Selina Myer, Jed Bartlet, and Olivia Pope. We had a lot to learn about this town. Although we may not like to admit it, we were nervous to meet our classmates and professors. Our hearts beat a little faster on that first day of class, like they do when you walk up a driveway to talk to your first voter.

After the first house and talking with that first voter, we quickly learn that there’s a lot we don’t know about our candidate, our community, and the people who live here. The same was true as we adjusted to life at AU.

But as the weeks passed by, we learned to stand on the right side of the Metro escalators. We realized that here, DMV stands for D.C., Maryland, Virginia - not the Department of Motor Vehicles. We made friends on campus, got in the groove of classes, and maybe even joined a club or two. After the first few houses, like the first few semesters, things didn’t seem to be quite so scary after all. Dare I say, we may even have thought we knew what we were doing.

Things felt natural.

But then, disaster. You walk up to a house. You ring the doorbell. You give your spiel. Only this time the door slams in your face. How could this be? Everything seemed to be going smoothly. That is how we felt when we failed a test, got rejected from a job, or maybe even saw our candidate lose an election. We walk away from that house, and all we want to do is quit. But it’s what we do in these moments that define us and determine our character.

It would be easy to give up, walk back to your car, and drive away. But you don’t. Not the Class of 2018. You might not go up to the next house right away. You likely will need to vent to the people you’re canvassing with first. But you get back out there.

You move on to the next house and ring that next doorbell. And even though it’s hard, house by house and door by door, things start to seem a little less hopeless. You finish that walk packet. You contact those voters, and you make sure they have a plan for Election Day.

Classmates, we graduate today into a world more certain and more uncertain than ever before. Certain because of the organizing happening across the country. Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and countless other movements are sweeping across communities. Conversations and concrete actions that once seemed impossible are possible. Society is moving forward.

Yet at the same time, we can’t be certain where the power and energy of this organizing will take us. As easy as it is for us to ring the doorbell, it’s just as easy for someone to slam the door.

But when that door slams, we will know what to do. We will recall the skills our professors taught us in the classroom. We will remember those life lessons our peers taught us across campus. We will rely on the resilience this city has instilled in us.

And so, for that reason, no matter what doors lie ahead of us, let me borrow a phrase of President Obama’s and say that:

I’m still fired up.

I’m still ready to go.

So American University class of 2018, let’s go. Let’s walk up this next driveway not fearing failure.

Let’s work tirelessly to make tomorrow better than today.

And as one final ask from this canvasser, remember to vote.

Graduate Speaker Address


SPA Graduate Student Speaker Kristen Stevens delivered an address for graduates.

Commencement Speaker Address


Robert Costa delivered the SPA Commencement Address for the Spring 2018 graduates on May 13 in Bender Arena.

Good morning. My sincere thanks to President Burwell, Dean Williams, distinguished faculty and guests for inviting me to join you this morning. It is something very special to be with you today.

Please allow me to also express a special thanks to the School of Public Affairs graduates, their families and friends. I am honored to be with you to celebrate your academic accomplishments and graduation from American University.

A few minutes ago, I turned off my phone. However, as a Washington Post reporter, I must ask the audience to please wave your hands if President Trump fires a cabinet secretary during my talk.

On a personal note, I grew up in a family of four children and both my mother and my father are practicing lawyers. To my parents chagrin, not one of their four children has gone to law school. Believe me, my parents share in my excitement that I will receive an honorary juris doctor degree from American University.

You are a unique and special group of graduates. You are about to join a distinguished group of SPA alumni from around the world. You made the serious commitment to study public affairs, participate in challenging internships and draw on the scholarship and expertise of the SPA faculty. Your research and studies took you deep into state and federal politics, the challenging issues of poverty, social media policy, criminal justice, climate change and the environment.

Your commitment to studying, mastering and impacting public affairs does not end with your graduation. This country needs talented, intelligent young men and women working to solve our nation's problems. You are well prepared. Accept the high expectations people will have for you today and tomorrow.

Now, after all your hard work we are here for your special day. The official title for today is Commencement. My dictionary app says that Commencement is defined as the beginning of something.

And what is that "something." This is the question facing every graduate as they step out into a complex and changing world. It is a question that each person must answer on numerous personal and professional fronts, often in conflict with each other.

As we think about that "something" I am not here to forecast, lecture or make a statement of how wonderful or terrible our world is today. My goal is very simple.

I will very briefly share and discuss three concepts for you to consider as you prepare for your new beginning. I hope this will set a framework for your exploration and consideration of your "something."

The first point is to Assume Nothing; The second is to find your passion and the third is to never become discouraged.

Why do I start with Assume nothing? Because I am a reporter and I must keep this axiom front and center throughout the day.

If the last 24 months have not confirmed the validity of "assume nothing" then nothing will. Just a few examples, Trump's election; a 48 year old Speaker of the House retiring; the Eagles winning the Super Bowl; the Me Too movement addressing a national disgrace and now today, a possible summit with North Korea on the horizon. The experts never forecast any of the events I just mentioned.

How many of today's political, legal and cultural assumptions will be shattered over the next 24 months? Your guess is as good as mine. More importantly, starting tomorrow, your will work to create positive change that will make the future better in so many ways. You have the brains and backbone to destroy the negative assumptions hurting our country.

By assuming nothing, you will be forced to take reasonable risks and make tough decisions when you believe you are on the right course. If your job involves having the public review your work be prepared for plenty of feedback. Do not expect the world to quickly embrace your theory or observations. The First Amendment gives and takes.

A personal example from three years ago. In February 2015, four months before he formally announced his candidacy, I wrote a front page article for the Post on Trump's potential candidacy. It was met with laughs and ridicule from many quarters. Never happen, impossible, I must be joking. I received unsolicited feedback to make sure I understood this was impossible. The Post stood by my story. The rest is history.

Getting one story right is not a career. In a 24 hour news cycle it is quickly forgotten. But it is very important to get the story right and finished on time. This is the standard for my jobs at the Washington Post, NBC and PBS. The public rightly expects nothing less.

The "Never Assume" rule includes your career. The days of a clearly defined career path are long gone. Be ready for change. I was very fortunate to have the late Gwen Ifill as a mentor. She gave me the chance to be on her award winning show Washington Week. I was nervous and afraid of making mistakes. She provided support, insights and guidance. In every project she undertook, she was the paragon journalist and a wonderful person. Her tragic untimely death in November 2016 was a shock. Never did I expect or believe that five months later I would be selected as moderator for Washington Week on PBS. I will never fill her shoes, however her commitment to journalistic excellence is my guiding star.

Second point, find your passion. There is a big difference between an interest in an activity and a true passion. I have always had a great interest in baseball. Still do. By third grade, however, it was clear baseball was not a realistic career choice. Politics and journalism provide for me an opportunity to learn new things each day and fully participate in the great process of how America is governed. From my high school debating days forward, I knew politics and journalism were my passion. I was fortunate to have found my "something."

Do not fear making a difficult decision and a public commitment. Embrace your passion and fasten your seat belt. It is a long race and you will have your good days and your unexpected disasters. Winston Churchill said it best. "Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

If your "something" involves having people and/or institutions make real change. You are probably looking at a lifetime commitment. Not the easiest course to take, however in the long term it will be the most fulfilling. Always be practical and keep in mind the words of Mark Twain. "I like progress, it is change I don't like." Funny, but still true today in so many fields.

You are exceptionally well prepared to be change leaders from your studies at SPA and career experiences. You have the academic knowledge and public affairs acumen to make real and impactful positive change in the world. Focus and commitment is the key. Your passion to address child hunger or political gerrymandering can make a real difference. Think both short and long term. Learn from setbacks. Never be afraid to listen to different voices from groups outside your comfort zone. It may be that similar to Mark Twain they are really just afraid of change.

Third and final point. Never become discouraged. Every hero or heroine has faced insurmountable obstacles and found a way to succeed. You may remember that the post-Civil War 15th Amendment made it illegal for the federal or state government to deny a male United States citizen the right to vote. For many hard to understand reasons, the right to vote did not apply to women. Brave women did not give up. They saw injustice and worked to change the law.

My paternal great grandmother served in France during the First World War as a nurse on the front lines. She graduated first in her nursing class. She returned to the United States in 1919 after three years of honorable service and could not vote. In 2020, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The intrepid women who started and sustained the voting rights movement in the 1830's did not live to see its passage. They never gave up hope and passed the torch to the next generation of women to continue the good fight. My great grandmother proudly voted in 1920.

And now, today the responsibility of leadership has been placed on your shoulders. You must decide how to use your talents to fulfill your passion and personal "something." The issues facing our country are too important for you to ever get discouraged.

Remember Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.'s forever timely advice. "Life's most persistent and urgent question is...what are you doing for others?" He set the example of all of us and now we must face up to his challenge.

Enjoy your special day and as you depart from American University and say good-bye to friends and faculty mentors, don't be sad that it is over. Smile that it happened.

Thank you.

Commencement Speaker

Robert Costa

Moderator, Washington Week and National Political Reporter, The Washington Post

Receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree

Robert Costa is the Moderator of Washington Week, the Peabody Award-winning weekly news analysis series on PBS. Costa is also a full-time national political reporter for The Washington Post, where he covers Congress and the White House and regularly travels the country to meet with voters and elected officials.

At Washington Week, Costa oversees the weekly roundtable discussion of journalists on the program, which broadcasts live each Friday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS stations nationwide and on digital content platforms. In addition to his moderating duties, Costa files social media reports during the week on behalf of Washington Week, expanding its digital footprint and engaging with viewers.

Costa joined Washington Week in April 2017 with nearly a decade of reporting experience that began with granular coverage of movement politics and Congress and later the battle over health-care policy and the 2010 mid-term elections.

Prior to joining The Washington Post in January 2014, Costa was a reporter and then Washington Editor for National Review, directing a team of reporters and where his reporting on the 2013 U.S. federal government shutdown earned acclaim.

Costa earned a master's degree in 2009 from the University of Cambridge, where he studied Winston Churchill and was an active member of the Cambridge Union debating society. A year earlier, he earned a bachelor's degree in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame, where he is on the advisory committee of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy. He served as a member of Notre Dame's board of trustees from 2014 to 2017.

The 2018 Student Award recipients in front of the Quad.

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