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Words to the Wise: Changemaking Speakers Inspire, Encourage Graduating Eagles

AU's 145th commencement, which kicked off May 12, continues on Saturday with the Washington College of Law, featuring US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson

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The Class of 2023 enjoyed just six months of campus life before the pandemic ushered in 18 months of virtual learning and social distancing. Last weekend, with a hard-earned and joyous flip of the tassel, those 2,900 Eagles—lauded for their flexibility, commitment, and resilience—joined an alumni community more than 130,000 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 five 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.”
Here’s a sampling of the words of wisdom this year’s lineup of changemaking speakers shared with Eagles set to fly the nest:

School of Communication and School of Education

DC sports icon Ted Leonsis joked with 293 SOC graduates and 140 from SOE that the last time he gave a commencement address was 15 years ago, “which coincides with the last time neither the Washington Capitals nor the Washington Wizards qualified for the playoffs—and thus I find myself in the unusual position of having free time.”
Leonsis, owner of the NHL’s Capitals, NBA’s Wizards, WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and Capitol One Arena and founder, chair, principal partner, and CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, encouraged graduates to make a list of things to achieve during their lifetime—as he did after a brush with death on an airplane.
While he’s checked 90 to-dos off his list of 101, including winning a Stanley Cup and an Emmy, Leonsis said “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.
“What was true then is true today,” he continued. “Make your list.” 

School of International Service

Alice Albright, CEO of Millennium Challenge Corporation, told 751 SIS graduates that AU’s commencement was a homecoming of sorts. “I have a deep fondness for American University. I have studied in your library. I have enjoyed your gardens. And yes, I have even run laps around your track.”
Inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s call to “wage peace” at the school’s 1957 groundbreaking and by President John F. Kennedy’s “A Strategy of Peace,” delivered six years later at AU’s commencement, Albright reminded graduates that “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,” she said. “Your foundation is strong, and you will accumulate additional knowledge and practice as you go. Focus on the how and the why and less on the what, and success will surely follow.” 

Kogod School of Business and Professional Studies

Nasdaq president and CEO Adena Friedman addressed 412 Kogod graduates and 36 from Professional Studies. 
“People like to say that life is short, but I disagree. Our lives and our careers are long and winding, exhilarating and sometimes terrifying,” she said. “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. 
“What I’ve found is this,” she continued. “When you choose curiosity, when you choose relationships, when you choose abundance, what you’re really choosing is optimism. And when you choose optimism, just about anything becomes possible.” 

School of Public Affairs 

Former Maryland governor Larry Hogan kicked off his remarks by commending the 674 SPA graduates for “making the choice to focus your studies on public service, [which] is—and must continue to be—a noble calling.”
Among his advice: “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.”
Amid legislative gridlock and polarizing politics, Hogan encouraged “the future generation of public leaders here today” to help ensure “that we will be a nation that tolerates contrary views among a diverse citizenry without turning people into enemies or doubting their patriotism. Americans deserve a government that appreciates that no one of us has all the answers or all the power. So cast aside the labels, treat people with respect, think outside the box, and there will be no limit to how much you can accomplish.”

College of Arts and Science 

Before she embarks on her own new chapter, as co-artistic director of Houston Ballet, Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, encouraged the 628 CAS graduates to “bring more beauty to the world.”
“There is beauty in kindness, beauty in generosity, in honesty, effort, consideration, commitment, integrity, friendship, forgiveness, and in arts and sciences. There is beauty within each of you—and I ask that you forward and use your singular talents to share that beauty with the world, and in so doing, leave it a better place. 
“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.