Here’s to the changemakers. The innovators who see a problem and do something about it. The trailblazers who know that changing the status quo for the better is worth surmounting any hurdles that arise from doing so. The pioneers who believe a better world is possible and lead us toward it.

Here’s to the visionary alumni who achieve firsts, like Lonnie Bunch, unanimously selected as the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Susan Zirinsky, the new president of CBS News. The award-winning alumni and students who chip away at seemingly intractable issues, like climate change, by tapping into the emerging market of sustainable alternatives to environmentally harmful products. The Eagles who make their mark and inspire us all to do the same.

Visionaries Encourage Grads to Serve, Dream

Six leaders from diverse backgrounds and career fields—trailblazers in law, politics, business, media, and public service—delivered lessons of hope, perseverance, and empathy to 2,300 graduates at the 137th commencement ceremonies in May.

AU welcomed Nigerian-born award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Pam Kaufman, SOC/BA ’85, president of Viacom/Nickelodeon Consumer Products; Roger Gregory, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; Roger Ferguson, president and CEO of TIAA; James L. Jones, retired general and former national security advisor; and Stacey Abrams, former Georgia House of Representatives minority leader and the first African American woman to run as a major party nominee for governor of any state.

Abrams’ address to SPA graduates landed on Time’s list of “Best Commencement Speeches of 2019.”

“Hear me clearly: do not edit your desires,” Abrams says. “Want what you want, regardless of how big the dream—you may have to get there in stages, you may stumble along the way, but the journey is worth the work.”

About acts of service, she says, “Let your purpose be your service to each other. Being adaptable makes us able; being service-oriented makes us good.”

stacey abrams speaks at commencement

Key Quotes from Keynotes

Changemakers share their insights at graduation ceremonies.

Alumna Is First Woman Leader of CBS News

Susan Zirinsky

Susan Zirinsky, SOC/BA ’74, made television history when CBS News asked her to lead the 91-year-old news division in 2019 as its first female president.

Zirinsky, who retained the title of senior executive producer, started her CBS News career as a desk assistant in 1972, two weeks after the Watergate break-in.

Her 47-year run has included stints as CBS Evening News senior producer (another first), executive producer of several award-winning documentaries, and executive producer of 48 Hours, a role she held for 23 years.

Deciding it was “time to step up to the plate,” Zirinsky is leading CBS News into a two-year stretch that she believes will have the important job of helping to “reveal America to itself.”

“It’s a calling, a public service, and I feel humbled,” Zirinsky says. “Once you’ve worked at CBS, it’s the only thing that occupies your DNA.”

She has earned Emmys, a Peabody, and the SOC Dean’s Award for 2018.

Breaking the Cycle of Food Insecurity

Annelise Straw and President Burwell

While a chef at a Michelin-starred farm-to-table restaurant near New York City, Annelise Straw, SIS/BA ’19, began questioning the moral issues around food equity.

The 2019 President’s Award winner and Rhodes Scholarship finalist started answering questions about sustainable agriculture and food production with innovative food-access research in rural Dickenson County, Virginia, her grandmother’s home.

“Why aren’t people in Central Appalachia growing their own food and hosting farmer’s markets with locally grown fresh produce? Unfortunately, the food, and the farms, and the work just aren’t there. Food procurement, socio-economic circumstances, and historical events all impact our food economies,” Straw says.

After finishing her master’s in December 2019, Straw will pursue a PhD with research focusing on food inequities. She plans to help future generations find ways to break the cycle of food insecurity.

Entrepreneur Shapes Future in Bioplastics

cameron ross

An AU alumnus and his AU Center for Innovation incubator product have transformed an environmentally friendly startup idea into a six-figure biodegradable straws company.

While at Kogod, alumnus Cameron Ross secured four distribution contracts, including agreements with Compass Coffee and Elevation Burger, since launching Celise in early 2018. He won more than $80,000 in pitch competition prize money and scholarships and will have delivered more than six million straws by the end of 2019. Celise also has been accepted into the prestigious MassChallenge startup accelerator in Houston.

The launch of Ross’s business, which utilizes a corn starch-based bioplastic, aligned well with DC’s plastic straw ban that went into effect January 1, 2019.

“I had already done the research, and then all of a sudden, boom,” Ross says. “I had never believed in it, but it’s true—you have to be in the right place at the right time.”

Alumnus Is Appointed Chief of Smithsonian

lonnie bunch at the smithsonian

Lonnie Bunch, CAS/BA ’74, CAS/MA ’76, became the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, making him the first African American to lead the 173-year-old organization in 74 years.

Bunch now manages a $1.5 billion budget, 7,000 employees, and 13 million square feet of space across nine research centers, 19 museums, and the National Zoo.

His promotion comes after more than a decade of building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, starting as its founding director in 2005 and serving beyond its 2016 opening.

“The biggest goal of history at the Smithsonian ought to be to help the American public embrace ambiguity to understand that there are no simple answers to complex questions,” Bunch told National Public Radio. “If we can help the public become comfortable with wrestling with the shades of gray, then we’ve really made a contribution.”

Floor of Bender Arena

Five Scholar-Athletes Change the Game

Five AU scholar-athletes were named Arthur Ashe Jr. sports scholars by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine. Sam Fromkin, CAS/BA ’19, founded AU’s Athlete Ally group that champions LGBTQ equality in sports. Gabriela Maldonado, CAS/BS ’19, and Justin Perez, CAS/BA ’19, were both actively involved with Special Olympics. Arianna Lopez, CAS/BS ’20, volunteers with the Capital Caring hospice network and conducts research on Alzheimer’s disease. And Matthew Rainey, SPA/BA ’19, helped form AU’s chapter of the Grassroots Project that teaches health education at public high schools.

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Charlie Wachtel

Writing Oscar Goes to 2008 Graduate

Charlie Wachtel, SOC/BA ’08, earned the 2019 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. Wachtel wrote the film—based on the memoir of the first African American police officer in the Colorado Springs police department who infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan—with writing partner David Rabinowitz. Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott also share writing credits. Wachtel lauds AU professors Claudia Myers, Matt McNevin, and Larry Engel for their influence on his writing and storytelling.

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Group of 10 female white house aides

Yes She Can, Because They Did

Two members of the AU community are among 10 female former Obama White House aides who coauthored a book about their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Vivian Graubard, Kogod/BS ’10, and Jenna Brayton, SPA adjunct instructor, helped pen Yes She Can, their advice for women pursuing careers in government service. “We wanted to inspire young women to pursue careers in public service by hearing our stories and identifying with them,” Graubard says.

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Kendi, Salinas, Liu, and Rice with Burwell

Resilience Is Key to Change

Four leaders emphasized the value of resiliency in change during a panel moderated by President Sylvia M. Burwell. “Changemakers in a Changing World: Lessons for the Next Generation” featured Antiracist Research and Policy Center director Ibram Kendi; broadcast journalist Marina Salinas; Citizen University founder Eric Liu; and former UN ambassador Susan Rice. Resilience is “vitally important,” says Rice, but cannot be taught: “It comes out of experience. Yet, it’s absolutely critical to making a change and having an impact.”

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Burwell, Kasich, and student

Kasich Highlights Everyday Heroes

John Kasich connected with AU students of all political stripes with an energetic and animated 2019 Wonk of the Year speech. He discussed his blue-collar roots, rise through Republican politics, and time as a congressman, two-term governor of Ohio, and 2016 presidential candidate. Despite his national leadership bona fides, he stressed the importance of familial and communal support. “Presidents don’t matter that much,” he says. “What affects you are the people you live around.”

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David Hogg, Jaclyn Corin, and Samantha Fuentes

Survivors Speak Out on Gun Control

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors David Hogg, Jaclyn Corin, and Samantha Fuentes discussed voting, gun control, and activism as part of the Larissa Gerstel Critical Literacy and Social Justice Symposium, co-sponsored by WCL, SOE, and the Kennedy Political Union. “The biggest danger to our generation, and every generation ... is our own futility. It’s time to put an end to that and realize that we can, as individuals, make this change,” Hogg says.

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Beverly Tatum and Sylvia Burwell

Candid Conversations on Race

Spelman College president emerita Beverly Tatum, author of the groundbreaking book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, spoke with President Sylvia M. Burwell about creating spaces to talk about race on campus and working through difficult conversations. Tatum says leaders’ defining community broadly and inclusively encourages their followers to do the same. “If I can identify with you ... I’m more likely ... to take action in solidarity with you, to interrupt unfair systems.” The event marked the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program’s 10th anniversary.

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Sarah Blahovec

Elevating People with Disabilities

One in six US voters has a disability, and fewer hold elected office. Sarah Blahovec, SIS/BA ’14, disability vote organizer for the National Council on Independent Living and a person with Crohn’s disease, created Elevate, a nonpartisan webinar series that helps people with disabilities prepare for a first run for local office. “There’s a lot of work that we as a culture need to do to address ableism and our thoughts about people with disabilities,” Blahovec says.

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