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Words to the Wise


Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

Jackson, Kent, and Leonsis

The Class of 2023 enjoyed just six months of campus life before the pandemic ushered in 18 months of virtual learning and social distancing. In May, with a hard-earned and joyous flip of the tassel, 3,400 Eagles—lauded for their flexibility, determination, and resilience—joined an alumni community 145,000 strong during American University’s 145th commencement. 
“We celebrate a decision that you all made years ago to pursue higher education. It’s one of the many times that this group said, ‘challenge accepted,’” President Sylvia Burwell said after the familiar skirl of bagpipes—a cherished AU tradition that began in 1979—kicked off each of the six ceremonies. “We celebrate all you have brought to this university—your incredible energy, your intellect, your passion—and what you will take away and the changemakers you will be.” 
This year’s speakers—who spanned the Supreme Court to the basketball court, the state house to the stage—offered words of encouragement and lessons in perseverance with Eagles set to fly the nest. Here’s a sampling of their remarks to AU’s Class of 2023.

“You are enough. . . . You are prepared to roll with the punches and make the most of what you have, and with patience, determination, grit, and creativity, you’ll find a way. . . . There are many ways to excel in the legal profession, and you do not need to become someone you are not. You do you. Lean in to your personal strengths and use them to get where you want to go.”  
—Ketanji Brown Jackson, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Black woman to serve on the high court, who addressed graduates of the Washington College of Law, joined by her longtime friend Dean Roger Fairfax 

“You are our future. We are all counting on you to save our world through your beauty, your humility, intelligence, perseverance, inquisitiveness, ambition, fairness, and your understanding of the big and little picture. Believe in the power of we, and believe that you can always be better, do better. Commit to a life of learning, never be afraid of challenge, and create in each of your lives a culture of values that defines what is most important to you.”
—Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, in her remarks to graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences

“Real accomplishments are falling in love, getting married to a lifetime partner, raising great children, having grandchildren, taking care of your family, giving back to your community, being loved—not needed—and finding the higher calling in all your pursuits. . . . Focus on real accomplishments, using the foundation you have built here at American University, to find true happiness.” 
—Ted Leonsis, CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment and owner of Capital One Arena and Washington’s Capitals, Mystics, Wizards, during the School of Communication and School of Education ceremony

Albright, Friedman, and Hogan

“Waging peace . . . is about doing the small things each and every day that make a difference. . . . So just get started. Experiment. Don’t shy away from trying different paths, as they are not always linear, and always maintain a healthy dose of restlessness to make a difference. Your foundation is strong, and you will accumulate additional knowledge and practice as you go.”
— Alice Albright, CEO of Millennium Challenge Corporation, in her remarks to graduates of the School of International Service 

“People like to say that life is short, but I disagree. Our lives and our careers are long and winding, exhilarating and sometimes terrifying. You will face endless choices. Some will be big, some small. Sometimes it won’t be clear which are which until much later. Our lives are the sum of these choices—of how we choose to show up for ourselves, for the people we care about, and for the world.”
—Adena Friedman, Nasdaq president and CEO, who addressed graduates of the Kogod School of Business and Professional Studies

“Don’t listen to the naysayers who tell you that you can’t achieve something. If I had listened to them, I would never have been elected governor as a Republican in the bluest state in America. . . . Americans deserve a government that appreciates that no one of us has all the answers or all the power. Cast aside the labels, treat people with respect, think outside the box, and there will be no limit to how much you can accomplish.”
—Larry Hogan, former Maryland governor, during the School of Public Affairs ceremony