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First Full In-Person Commencement in Two Years Welcomes Newest Graduates

Recognizing the sacrifices and challenges graduates faced over the past few years studying and learning during the pandemic served as a theme.

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CNN journalist Abby Phillip gives the keynote address at AU's 142nd commencement.

For the first time in nearly two years, American University hosted its first full in-person commencement ceremony on Sunday, December 19. 

With COVID-19 safety protocols—including masking–in place graduate after graduate filed across the Bender Arena stage as parents and families beamed with pride, applause echoed, and bagpipes skirled.  

“We celebrate a decision you made years ago in your homes here and around the world to come to American University,” AU president Sylvia M. Burwell said in welcoming attendees to the university’s 142nd commencement. “Today, we celebrate your accomplishments, and we celebrate that we are here live and in person to share this special moment.” 

AU’s past three commencements were largely virtual, although students did take part in a processional across the stage at Bender Arena in the Spring 2021 ceremony. This year’s ceremony for nearly 800 graudates from the summer and fall semesters had a morning session for CAS, Kogod, SOE, and the Office of Professional Studies, and an afternoon session for SOC, SIS, SPA, and WCL. 

Recognizing the sacrifices and challenges graduates faced over the past few years studying and learning during the pandemic served as a theme for many of the speakers, including keynote speaker and CNN host and journalist Abby Phillip. 

“To be standing before you today at American University’s very first in-person graduation ceremony since the pandemic is a distinct pleasure,” Phillip said. “Don’t get me wrong, it is not a sign that this thing is all over. ...But this day is a symbol of our perseverance as a country and as human beings. And your perseverance as graduates of this great institution.” 

Phillip detailed her own college experience, going to Harvard University with the plans of becoming a doctor. She discovered in her first biochemistry class that wouldn’t be her path and said she had to discover her personal destiny. She wanted to be a doctor because she wanted to help people, but she discovered she could fight for the good of others as a journalist. 

“I look back on each moment of failure early in my adulthood and see that every single time, something was telling me: it’s time to pick up your stuff and find a way,” she said. “That’s what led me here, to journalism and to this moment with all of you. We don’t talk enough about failure and what it looks like and what it means. Failure is fuel. It’s how we grow and how we learn. Without it we wouldn’t understand adversity, and perseverance and success would lack true significance.” 

Phillip challenged graduates to fight for the world in which they want to live in. She asked them to make the right choice between truth and what may be convenient. She said those who pushed back lies that sought to divide us based on race, gender, or class have become the heroes of our history books. 

“This is a time when we need an army of people committed to the truth, committed to our democracy, and committed to serving others,” Phillip said. “I’m here to tell you, having observed a lot of people who are decades removed from this moment in their lives, being committed to truth and service is hard. It is not easy to hold on to your values and what matters the most, especially when life happens, when power happens, when money happens.” 

Burwell’s charge to graduates echoed a similar theme—following the hero’s journey.

“Amid fears and self-doubts, the hero questions the call, but then finds mentors, powers—and sometimes even entire communities–to help in the fight ahead,” she said. “By virtue of your character and sense of responsibility, you have been called to a higher purpose. You are already in the fight for our planet’s environment, the fight for inclusion, the fight for fairness, the fight for dignity, and many others. You possess extraordinary knowledge, the most powerful weapon available, and you will gain more. You have shown the resolve necessary to stay the course.”