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Words to the Wise


Illustra­tion by
Jaylene Arnold

Chimamanda Negozi Adichie, Pam Kaufman, and Roger Gregory
Chimamanda Negozi Adichie, Pam Kaufman, and Roger Gregory

With a flip of the tassel, 2,311 Eagles flew the nest in May, joining the ranks of AU alumni—a community “of passionate doers and dreamers, scholars and servant-leaders, activists and artists” more than 130,000 strong, said President Sylvia Burwell. 

Traditionally held on Mother’s Day weekend, the 137th commencement festivities kicked off on Saturday, May 11, in Bender Arena. The following weekend, 500 students from the Washington College of Law collected their diplomas. The processions were led by kilt-clad Scottish bagpipers—a cherished AU tradition that began in 1979. 

“When you came to campus, you joined the Class of 2019 from communities across the nation and places around the globe. You brought your stories from home, the lessons you learned growing up, the impressive individual talent that leaped off the pages of your applications. And most importantly, you brought your dreams and aspirations,” Burwell said. “You weaved those threads of you into the fabric of this AU family. And you made us all better because of it.

“Today, we celebrate your aspirations and achievements, the late nights of hard work, the early morning classes, and every moment you pushed yourself beyond your limits to achieve excellence.” 

Burwell wasn’t the only one showering graduates with accolades and advice. From an author to a politician, a CEO to a general, here’s a look at the six commencement speakers who offered words of wisdom to AU’s Class of 2019.  

"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 it is like to be another person, but we can approximate it by inhabiting the stories of other people.”

Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Americanah, addressed 600 graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences on May 11. Her 2012 TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” has been viewed 5 million times and inspired an essay by the same name.

"When you graduate and start pursuing a job and there is a person you want to meet with, stay on them. Do not be afraid to ask them to have a cup of coffee or talk on the phone. And when you get that time, ask questions and be explicit about what you want. Because you never know what can happen.”

On May 11, Pam Kaufman, SOC/BA ’85, welcomed 321 alumni to the School of Communication family. As president of Viacom/Nickelodeon Consumer Products, Kaufman leads worldwide licensing and merchandising for a multibillion-dollar portfolio of brands that includes SpongeBob SquarePants—who made a special appearance during the ceremony.

"The world will judge you, but you need to focus on your potential. . . . You have to have faith. The path isn’t always going to be clear.”

The Honorable Roger Gregory, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, addressed 500 graduates of the Washington College of Law on May 19. Gregory’s federal judicial service began with a recess appointment from President Bill Clinton in 2000; he was nominated to the same position by President George W. Bush a year later.

Stacey Abrams, Roger Ferguson Jr., and General James Jones

"You must be truth seekers, and that requires a willingness to understand truths other than your own. The truest road to good decision-making is the acknowledgement that the other guy might have a point. Even if it’s not yours.”

After serving for 11 years—seven as minority leader—in the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams rose to national prominence in 2018 when she became the first black woman nominated to run for governor by a major party in any state. The lawyer and author, who notched another first in February, becoming the only African American woman to deliver the State of the Union response, spoke before 444 School of Public Affairs graduates on May 11.

"You know that the real purpose of business is to solve problems and make people’s lives better. To make products and deliver services that meet human needs. You also know that businesses create jobs and help to build thriving communities. You know that capitalism, despite its faults, is the only economic system that’s been wildly successful in raising millions of people out of poverty and creating flourishing societies. . . . I challenge you now to make sure that all Americans know what you know.”

Roger Ferguson Jr., president and CEO of TIAA, the leading provider of retirement services for employees in academic, government, medical, cultural, and other nonprofit fields, addressed 421 graduates of the Kogod School of Business on May 12. Ferguson formerly served as vice chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System.

"Something I admire about this generation is your keenness of purpose. More than any other generation, this one values purpose in a career. This is admirable. This is laudable. This can also, at times, be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Let your purpose be your service to each other. What we face next we must face together and we must do it for one another. Being adaptable makes us able; being service-oriented makes us good.”

General James Jones’s military career spanned 40 years and several continents, from the jungles of Vietnam to the halls of the Pentagon, where he served as the 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2003. Jones—former national security advisor to President Barack Obama—took to the podium on May 12, before 525 School of International Service grads collected their diplomas.