Drew Weissman ’81 encourages the Class of 2023 to “embrace the spirit of perseverance”
At its 72nd Commencement Ceremony, Brandeis welcomed a number of accomplished members of the community and outside guests to give remarks to the graduating Class of 2023.
After years of hard work, lifelong friendships, and unforgettable experiences, the class of 2023 graduated on May 21 in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.
In addition to speeches from various community members, physician Drew Weissman ’81 GSAS MA ’81 P’15 delivered the commencement address. Weissman and biochemist Katalin Karikó received honorary Doctor of Science degrees for their research on the role of messenger RNA in vaccinations and therapeutics. The two worked together to develop their theory despite heavy doubt within their field. Their research ultimately provided the foundation for Moderna’s and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines, which saved countless lives.
In his address, Weissman reflected on how his scientific inquiry blossomed during his undergraduate years at Brandeis. The curiosity instilled in him during that formative time led him to discover the transformative qualities of mRNA. When he and Karikó were met with skepticism in their field, they persevered, leading to groundbreaking progress in vaccinations against COVID-19 and other diseases. He encouraged the graduates to “embrace the spirit of perseverance and never lose sight of the values this institution has instilled in you.”
Weissman also warned against the dangers of misinformation and urged the graduates to keep engaging with people who are against progress, no matter how frustrating it may be. “It is all your responsibilities to lead with compassion and hold those that don’t accountable. As leaders, I Invite you to embrace the remarkable potential of science in whatever you choose to do,” he said.
Along with maintaining a basic science literacy, the graduates should strive to be “a force for good,” said Weissman. A problem he is particularly passionate about addressing is global disparities in healthcare that prevent access to basic public health.
"Science does not occur in a vacuum. Progress does not happen in isolation,” continued Weissman. “Scientific discovery and human progress is a shared endeavor that thrives on the exchange of ideas, diverse perspectives, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”
He concluded by affirming his faith in the graduates: “Each one of you has the potential to make a profound impact, shape the future, and leave an indelible mark on the world.”
Although the graduates will inevitably face challenges as future leaders, they are capable of overcoming obstacles and succeeding in their goals, a sentiment echoed by undergraduate speaker, Nathalie Vieux-Gresham GSAS ’23 MS ’23. She approached the podium to her graduating peers as they cheered in support. Vieux-Gresham recalled the “Light the Night” tradition, in which first-year students write a single-word affirmation on an electric tea candle that represents what they wish to emulate during their studies.
“My word was confidence,” Vieux-Gresham said. She admitted that she still had her candle, and its light reminds her of the graduates’ “resilient, bright, and always shining community.”
Vieux-Gresham explained how she gained this confidence by taking organic chemistry as a first-year.
“The class was hard, nothing stuck, and the truth is I almost failed,” Vieux-Gresham remembered. “My professor, however, didn’t just tell me to study more. She sat with me, got to know me, saw my potential, and continued to encourage me every step of the way.”
Vieux-Gresham referred to it as a humbling experience, but she said that her professor’s confidence in her enabled her to later defend her master’s thesis in neuroscience.
“We constantly encourage each other to move forward and navigate challenges and hardships one day at a time. We help each other with inclusivity, warmth, and care; and no matter what you do or where you go, you will find a friend in anyone.” Vieux-Gresham fondly recalled how her walk between the Usdan Student Center and the Shapiro Campus Center would take her half an hour to complete because of the number of friends she stopped to speak with.
“We are all so unique and different, but community and confidence unite us,” Vieux-Gresham added. She explained how her original definition of confidence during Light the Night was a wish to feel confident in herself, her decisions, and her success, but now, it has evolved into a confidence in all of the Brandeis graduates and community. No matter how they define success, she believes that each student will find it.
“The Brandeis community has been and will always be the shining light that has guided us through uncertainty and has impacted each other, those around us, our communities beyond Brandeis, and eventually the world,” she concluded, receiving an enthusiastic standing ovation for her speech.
Director of Hillel and Senior Chaplain Rabbi Seth Winberg also delivered a speech, in which he encouraged the graduating class to reflect on their education from the University and start thinking about how they can apply it to the world ahead of them. He expressed his high hopes for the class to use their knowledge and experience to improve life for everyone in the U.S. and internationally.
Quinn Lucian Bonnyman ’23 sang the national anthem, accompanied by the live instrumentalists who played throughout the event.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Lisa Kranc ’75 was another featured speaker. She acknowledged the extensive transition that the graduates are facing as they leave the University and continue to the next chapters of their careers.
“There’s some bittersweetness in having to leave a campus that has been your home and place of creativity, stimulation, education, and friendship,” Kranc said.
Like Winberg, she encouraged the graduates to use their new education to benefit the world: “Go out, improve humanity, improve our planet, make a difference, for as we all know, that’s what Brandeis [alumni] do,” Kranc assured.
She established that while the graduates will always have a place within the campus, they are also joining a new community of over 60,000 Brandeis alumni in the United States and around the world. The University’s Alumni Association offers graduates a means to stay connected and involved with the community through events and free career services. Kranc suggested the graduates consider partaking in these events or even becoming a contact at the Hiatt Career Center. She also mentioned that the graduates can come back to campus to join the University’s upcoming 75th-anniversary celebration festivities.
President Ron Liebowitz then offered his congratulations to the graduates and acknowledged the hardships they overcame, starting with the spring semester of their first year when classes went online due to COVID-19. “You adapted and persevered with an openness to new ways of learning and a willingness to go with the flow without knowing when things would return to normal,” Liebowitz commended. “You found ways to come together as a tight-knit community and to support one another, despite harsh restrictions.”
Liebowitz also acknowledged the community’s ability to support one another following the shuttle accident on Nov. 19. The accident injured 27 — both riders and the driver — and one student tragically died. The student was later identified as Vanessa Mark, an “active and cherished member of the Brandeis community” according to President Liebowitz.
He added that Mark exemplified what it means to be Brandeisian, because she was “intellectually curious, creative, and giving of her time to help others.” The attendees participated in a moment of silence to honor Mark’s memory.
“Alongside the deep sense of sadness, there has been much love, kindness, and generosity of spirit shown by the community,” Liebowitz said. “So many of you helped your classmates, students, and colleagues by offering your time, or an ear to listen in comfort.” With these examples, Liebowitz said that the graduating class personifies the University’s values, also recognizing their volunteerism and willingness to understand new perspectives.
He also talked about how the class can use these traits to change the world, expanding on issues that need the graduates’ — and the University’s — attention, such as poverty, forms of hate, gun violence, environmental changes, and divisions within national and international politics. Liebowitz expressed that he has no doubts that the graduating class can make real advancements in fixing these problems. Not only have the graduates learned to “think critically and act compassionately,” but their generation also has an “unprecedented” desire to address the world’s challenges, according to Liebowtiz.
“[The community] will be watching with great and abiding interest as you engage the world with the same curiosity and care for others you displayed while on campus. You are Brandeisians which means you follow in the footsteps of so many who have made a difference in our world.”
Liebowitz also presented honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees to Harvard University law professor Annette Gordon-Reed and real estate developer Donald Soffer ’54 for their respective humanitarian and philanthropic efforts.
Gordon-Reed is a published author and scholar who has won numerous book prizes for her pieces about Black history which uplift marginalized stories. She delivered the commencement address at the graduate ceremony later that day.
In 1967, Soffer developed Florida’s swampland into what is now known as Aventura, a city that hosts major business centers and strong philanthropic support for higher education. Liebowitz recognized Soffer’s focus on the University, updates to campus facilities, science fellowships, and his role on the board since 1974.
The final remarks came from President of the University’s Alumni Association Lewis H. Brooks ’80, P’16. He fondly reminisced about his four years at the University, stating that the friends he made during that time are still people who he is close to today.
“I love this place,” Brooks said, “and I kept coming back after graduation. I enjoy being here.”
Brooks thanked the University for giving him his fulfilling career and introducing him to new cultures, people, and cuisine. With his experience in mind, he suggested that the new alumni should attend the Alumni Association’s events to stay connected and to wear their “swag” from the University, because it’s impossible to know where and when they will encounter another Brandeis alum.
“You have no idea what possibilities Brandeis will present to you,” Brooks said. For instance, nearly 40 years ago he met a senior in Usdan who he married two years later. In 2012, they moved their daughter onto campus to be a part of the class of 2016. “Thank you, Brandeis,” he said.
“There are over 62,000 Brandeis alumni, our house is a very big house with alums from 1952 to 2023. You can and should reach out … you will never know what doors it will open.” Brooks also suggested the graduates remain in contact with current and prospective students. “I hope you stay connected and keep Brandeis in your hearts and minds forever, and I hope you can say ‘Thank you, Brandeis,’” Brooks concluded. The ceremony wrapped up with a performance of the University’s alma mater, and the graduates received their diplomas. Prof. Jennifer Cleary (THA) was the announcer.
Bidding the University a bittersweet farewell, the graduates threw their caps into the air and filed out of Gosman as new Brandeis alumni.