Canada speaks on the sacrifices for change
Family, friends, fellow students, faculty and administrators gathered in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center on Sunday morning in anticipation of the 63rd annual commencement ceremony, where 832 students were awarded bachelor’s degrees, 741 were awarded master’s degrees and 97 were awarded doctoral degrees, University Registrar Mark Hewitt confirmed in an email to the Justice.
Vice Provost, Chief Information Officer and University Librarian John Unsworth, who acted as the announcer for commencement exercises, initiated the ceremony by introducing groups of individuals as they entered the Red Auerbach Arena for the ceremony. The grand marshals, president’s councilors and fellows were the first to enter. Then, the degree candidates began their procession into the arena.
The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences candidates entered first. The International Business School degree candidates then entered with a bang—quite literally, as those in front carried a gong down the aisle and struck it as the group walked. Next, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management candidates entered, followed by the Rabb for Continuing Studies candidates. The faculty then proceeded into the arena.
The undergraduate Class of 2014 finally initiated its procession, carrying its class banner proudly toward the stage. Finally, the Board of Trustees members, honorary degree recipients and members of the president’s party entered the ceremony.
Rachel Benjamin ’14 initiated the exercises with her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
After announcing the winners of several teaching awards and that the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Mick Watson, will be stepping down this summer, Chair of the Board of Trustees Perry Traquina ’78 addressed the Class of 2014. This was Traquina’s first address as the chair at a commencement ceremony.
University President Frederick Lawrence then delivered his speech to the Class of 2014. Although Lawrence said that he, as president, cannot pick favorite classes, he said to the Class of 2014 that “[y]ou will always be my first, and you always remember your first,” triggering laughs from the audience. Lawrence continued on to say that, as he started at Brandeis in January 2011, he considers himself to be a "midyear" of the Class of 2014.
Lawrence recalled experiences that the Class of 2014 shared during its time at Brandeis—like Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings, but also sweet memories such as the re-opening of the pool in the Linsey Sports Center and the party that ensued, to name a few.
Lawrence remarked on the impressive amount of community service Brandeis students have logged, topping 55,000 hours this year. He extolled the amount of good that University students have done for the community, and explained that being a student at Brandeis is “preparation” for taking on “the role of global citizen.”
Dialogue and civil discourse was Lawrence’s next talking point, as he explained, “The essence of civil discourse is to challenge without attacking, to question without threatening; it is to critique without delegitimizing another’s point of view.” He emphasized Brandeisians’ “passionate, yet respectful dialogue.” Specifically, Lawrence pointed to this year’s ’Deis Impact keynote address, at which Nelson Mandela’s grandsons Kweku Mandela-Amuah and Ndaba Mandela spoke, and organizations such as Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World, as examples of this respectful dialogue.
Lawrence went on to praise the Brandeisian “action in the face of tragedy,” and how the community has embraced staff members like Mangok Bol MS ’13.
He added that he believed all members of the Class of 2014 had, at one point or another, stood up for causes that they believe in and had gone beyond their comfort zones, saying: “The truth is there aren’t any greater risks in this society than the sheer risk of daring to be yourself.” He concluded by stating that the class would move on to do “amazing things” and emphasized that the graduates will be alumni for the rest of their lives.
Next, honorary degrees were awarded to candidates Geoffrey Canada, the president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Eric Lander, the founding director and president at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University; and Malcolm L. Sherman, who served on the Brandeis University Board of Trustees for the past 33 years, six of them as its chair, before stepping down last year.
Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, elected to miss the commencement exercises after being fired from her position on May 14. Lawrence announced Abramson’s decision at a May 15 faculty meeting. Abramson, therefore, did not receive an honorary degree at this ceremony, but remains a potential candidate for future commencement ceremonies.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born women’s rights activist who was initially selected to receive an honorary degree at the ceremony, had her invitation rescinded, as announced in an April 8 BrandeisNOW statement, after an outcry from some members of the Brandeis community regarding statements against Islam she had made previously.
Canada proceeded to deliver the commencement address. Before his prepared remarks, Canada said that “there is nothing that would’ve stopped me from addressing this commencement today.”
He discussed his own experiences and explained his hopes growing up that his generation would be better than the previous generation. He shared how he had encountered so many individuals that were “not just financially poor, but poor without spirit and without hope.
“I love the idea of America even while grappling with its imperfect reality,” he said. He continued on to explain how the world that he grew up in “needed changing.” Individuals had given up everything they had so that one day, people like Canada could get a quality education, have a nice home and even hold a comfortable occupation, he said. “People with everything to lose … lost it all for the ideals that this country stood for.”
Canada went on to describe the failings of his generation, namely that “we have also left [your generation] a mess.” He said that his generation left issues such as staggering child poverty rates and the burden of global warming, which he said that his generation had previously denied. Canada received applause when he described the problem of “special interest” in government such that “weak” gun control legislation following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings could not even pass through Congress.
Although Canada admitted that his generation made improvements in civil rights, he said that not all issues had been eliminated. Canada said that “someone will have to finish this work.” He explained that this generation would be left to do what Canada had aimed to do, which was to “make this a better country than it was left to me.”
Canada said that although he will be retiring from Harlem Children’s Zone in June after 31 years, in the future, even after not working for several years, he will be content “because I know my children will be safe,” and that this generation will finish the work his generation did not complete.
“Those kids are so smart. They were so talented. They’re the best we have. And they promised. … They graduated from Brandeis University and they promised. … I think they might be the greatest generation yet,” Canada concluded.
Next, the Rabb School for Continuing Studies, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, International Business School and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences candidates were all confirmed, one school at a time. Finally, the undergraduate Class of 2014 was confirmed, which was met with thunderous applause.
Ariana Boltax ’14 then delivered her speech as the student-selected commencement speaker. Her speech focused on the “encounter with this awe-ful responsibility of time,” and entering the world outside of Brandeis.
“If protons were just 0.2 percent more massive, atoms wouldn’t exist and neither would life. Of the five to 50,000,0000 species that have ever existed, only five to 50,000,000 are alive today. In that way, we are the one percent,” Boltax said. She described the world that graduates will go into as “most certainly full of awe.”
Boltax suggested looking at life and situations with another frame of mind or of reference, and said that Brandeis has taught the Class of 2014 that “the frame can be just as beautiful as the picture.”
Although she described what she and her classmates learned at Brandeis in overturning injustices and observing subtleties, she said that “this is no longer our house, but it will always be our home,” and added that she “can’t wait to see what we all continue to accomplish.”
Eugene Kogan Ph.D. ’13 then delivered the graduate student speech. Kogan told the story of his grandmother coming to America, and said that for millions of individuals coming to America to make a better life, “[t]he American dream was just that: it was a dream.” Kogan reminded audience members that someone at some point took a chance on each and every one of them, saying that those individuals had the “courage to believe in your dreams.” Kogan said that each graduate should, one day, take a chance on someone else, “just like someone took a chance on you.”
The ceremony concluded with the graduates being welcomed into the alumni association, a benediction given by the four interfaith chaplains and a performance of the alma mater by a cappella group VoiceMale.
Families and friends gathered outside after the ceremony to take pictures and reminisce. “I feel pretty excited. It’s sort of surreal but it feels good. It’s exciting to move on, but also sad that we won’t be coming back,” Eli Siegel ’14 said in an interview with the Justice.
Some graduates, like David Benger ’14, discussed their next steps after commencement. “I’m spending the summer TAing for the Brandeis in the Hague summer program. And then I want to work for a couple of years and do a joint Ph.D. in International Relations and a law degree. That’s the goal,” he said in an interview with the Justice.
—Kathryn Brody contributed reporting