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AU’s Class of 2024 Flies the Nest

David Rubenstein, Caroline Aaron, Kwame Alexander, and more shared words of wisdom and encouragement during AU’s 147th commencement.

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Graduates face the stage during AU's 147th commencement ceremony. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Four years after they were introduced to college life through a Zoom screen amid the pandemic, 3,000 resilient and jubilant Eagles collected their diplomas in person before a packed Bender Arena during AU’s 147th commencement, May 10–11.

“Despite challenges, you persisted. You came together as a community to support one another and move forward together,” Sylvia Burwell said during her final commencement as AU’s 15th president. “You showed the world that this AU community is unstoppable. You showed all of us what it means to be changemakers.”

AU President Sylvia Burwell. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Lindsay Smith, CAS/BS ’24, was among the changemaking Class of 2024. Over each of two summers, she took 15 credits to finish AU’s three-year Public Health Scholars Program. While at AU, she was also a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and president of the AU’s Public Health Association.

“Today’s a very special day,” Smith said while surrounded by her support system. “I’ve always wanted to graduate college, even before I went to high school. This is just a big celebration of all my hard work.”

Supporters of an AU graduate wear matching t-shirts. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Here are the highlights from last weekend’s festivities.

Kogod School of Business and Professional Studies

David Rubenstein, right, is joined on stage by the Oriole Bird, Kogod dean David Marchick, and Clawed Z. Eagle. Photo by Jeff Watts.

David M. Rubenstein, owner of the Baltimore Orioles and cofounder and cochairman of the Carlyle Group, shared nine principles for a happy and successful life with graduates. Among the lessons: find a career you love, remember to say “thank you,” and look for ways to lead.

“Followers do not make a difference typically, but a leader does,” said Rubenstein. “And the pleasure of being a leader is that you can make things happen that would not have otherwise happened. You can help make your organization, your community, or your country better.”

That includes in business. Rubenstein shared a story about a pharmaceutical start-up that he twice passed on investing in that failed to produce a product for years. Eventually, the firm’s persistence paid off, Rubenstein said.

“In the end, the company finally did produce a single product—just one. A product that saved many lives—maybe mine and maybe yours. The company was Moderna, and its product was the MRNA vaccine against COVID.”

School of Public Affairs

SPA grads at AU's 147th commencement. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Michael S. Barr, vice chair for supervision of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, delivered a hopeful message to graduates preparing to enter careers in public service.

“Sometimes it’s easy to look at the government or a large corporation or even the nonprofit sector and see some large, distant kind of entity,” Barr said. “But the government is made up of individual human beings. You, your friends, your colleagues, your predecessors here at AU, and the people who will come after you. Those individuals make a big difference.”

While government is big and change can be slow, individual efforts snowball into results.

“The world is a much better place than it was 50 or 100 years ago, in large part thanks to people like you who’ve gone into public policy,” Barr said. “I’ve seen many things get better over the course of my professional lifetime. I can see it now in the work that we do at the Federal Reserve. And most importantly, I can see it in each of you.”

School of International Service

Two SIS graduates shake hands outside of the SIS Building. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Thirty-five years ago, British A. Robinson wasn’t satisfied in banking, so two years after her own college graduation, she quit her job and joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

While working as a social worker for two years in Alabama, she found her purpose. From there, the coordinator for Prosper Africa, a US presidential national security initiative aimed at strengthening the strategic and economic partnership with African countries, worked for the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and later the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

“That first experience as a Jesuit volunteer gave me my why—to serve humanity by changing the system from within,” Robinson said. “Once I found my why, I found my way—or rather, my way found me.”

Robinson told SIS graduates that to find their own purpose, they must dedicate themselves to getting their hands dirty—even when no one else is watching.

“The work is what matters. America’s leaders may be visionary, and we’ve seen that, or they may turn inward, and we’ve seen that, too,” Robinson said. “But the work—actual service—is where America’s leadership is earned and where it is exercised.”

College of Arts and Sciences

Photo of CAS graduates ahead of commencement. Photo by Jeff Watts.

The summer before she was set to begin classes at American University, Caroline Aaron, CAS/BA ’74, received a letter in the mail.

In her final year of high school in Richmond, Virginia, Aaron let her grades slip. The letter indicated that her acceptance had been rescinded, her deposit returned. The next weekend, Aaron’s mother drove her to DC to meet with the dean of admissions.

“Education is a privilege,” he told the actress, author, and playwright best known for playing Shirley Maisel in Amazon’s award-winning series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “Your brain is a tool, and if you don’t use it, it rusts.”

Then, he gave her a second chance. Aaron made the most of that opportunity. She got plugged into the theater community and eventually moved to New York City after graduation. There, she developed a close relationship with her first agent, who turned out to be the daughter of that AU administrator who gave her a second chance.

“My journey brought me full circle to speak to you today,” Aaron told the audience. “Find your angels. They are all around.”

School of Communication and School of Education

An AU School of Education graduate lifts their head to the sky. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Kwame Alexander, a poet, educator, and New York Times bestselling author of 40 books, shared lessons learned navigating the open and closed doors of his life.

It took years before Alexander’s first novel, The Crossover, was published. He rewrote the book 11 times, and it was rejected 23 times before he received a yes. The book was then awarded the Newberry Medal for most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Then, Disney+ turned the story into a TV show, which was nominated for two Emmy Awards.

As he celebrated that news, Disney executives decided to cancel the show—a few days before it won an Emmy for outstanding teen show.

“No matter how many yeses you manifest, the nos are still there to keep you honest—to keep you working, to keep you motivated,” Alexander said. “The nos are a part of our lives—a big part. It is the way the universe works, but here’s the cool thing: once all the nos come to the party and they’re tired and they go home, you know what’s left.”

AU’s 147th commencement continues Saturday, May 18, with the Washington College of Law, featuring civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill, former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.