Wild commencement weekend: Women’s rights, Wonder, wind take center stage

Vice President Harris, Fauci and top entertainers send off graduates with praise for enduring tough two years, challenging them to be their best.
By: | May 9, 2022
Photo courtesy of Tennessee State University

A popular theme at commencement speeches this spring has been “the unsettled world,” as Vice President Kamala Harris put it in her recent address to graduates at Tennessee State University. That has never been more apparent—both figuratively and literally—than this past weekend.

The Classes of 2022 mostly got to bask in the final glow of pomp and circumstance, although some were moved indoors or wiped out altogether by Mother Nature, before being sent out into a world of uncertainty and division. That was punctuated clearly in demonstrative words from Harris.

“It cannot be denied that your class has traveled a stony road—a pandemic that took away so much of the college experience that you once imagined,” she said. “And the world that you graduate into is unsettled. It is a world where long-established principles now rest on shaky ground.”

Harris mentioned Ukraine. And widening income gaps. And freedom to vote. And climate change. And Roe vs. Wade, and “the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies.” And fact vs. fiction. But she also talked about the opportunities that lie before them.

“I then see the challenges, but I’m here to tell you, I also see the opportunities,” she said. “The opportunities for your leadership. The future of our country and our world will be shaped by you. You bring possibility to the table. You are a generation that grew up online and survived a pandemic. You are familiar with a world that, for many of us, feels a bit strange and new. You have been engaged with this world since you were little. You have the ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been, to look at the challenges facing us and find solutions that generations before could have never imagined.”

For newly minted graduates, there was also hope in addresses across the country that students could rise up and achieve greatness, like Harris, or Old Dominion speaker Angela Bassett, who fought through a rough childhood to attend Yale University and become an Academy Award-winning actress.

Or Steve Wonder, who against all odds beat blindness to become one of the greatest musicians in history. He was given an honorary doctorate at Wayne State University and provided grads with a few references to his music—“You are the Sunshine of My Life” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You”—while tackling a number of social issues, including women’s rights.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease specialist who has been a guiding force in the center of so much turmoil around the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, also talked about “dreaming impossible dreams” at the University of Michigan’s 2020 commencement ceremonies. But, like Harris, he presented grads with a very realistic outlook on their futures.

“If you remember nothing else from what I say today, please remember this: It is our collective responsibility not to sink to a tacit acceptance of the normalization of untruths, because if we do, we bring danger to ourselves, our families and our communities,” he said. “This is how a society devolves into a way of life where voracity becomes subservient to propaganda rather than upheld as a guiding principle for creating and sustaining a just social order. You need to listen to others who care about you, but at the end of the day, go with your own gut. It can be rewarding, exciting and career- and life-altering.”

Not all students and guests got to hear those words this weekend, or did but only through virtual channels. Because of a surprising nor’easter that hit the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states, Rowan University had to cancel ceremonies altogether. But hope and faith also being go-to buzzwords, President Ali Houshmand managed to put a positive spin on the storm. “The good news is that forecasts show a clear and comfortable week ahead, so our 19 College and School ceremonies will proceed, starting Monday morning and concluding Friday evening. We will have all the more joy to share at each of the days’ Commencement programs.”

Howard University, which has faced a few storms of its own this year—from student housing to faculty pay to a president announcing he will leave the institution by 2024—had its ceremonies moved inside, eliminating the vast majority of guests that could attend. Still, those in attendance got to enjoy a stirring sendoff, led by actress Taraji P. Henson, who provided grads with a very real and very engaging look at their past few years.

“Do y’all know the saying, thank God I don’t look like what I’ve been through?” said the star of the upcoming remake of The Color Purple, half-joking. “Y’all look like you just finished four straight years of straight A’s—no long nights, no heartaches, no setbacks, like you always had dining dollars to spare, like your housing money hit on time. That’s how good you look, but I know that’s not how it’s always been. The truth is, you have been hurt. You had to overcome. You had to persevere. And you’re still here because of God’s grace … The Class of 2022 don’t look like what you’ve been through.”

Some colleges have been through it all the past few years and didn’t make it. Lincoln College in Illinois celebrated its final commencement before it will close its doors for good this Friday, undone by the pandemic and a massive cyberattack in December. “It’s both a wonderfully happy day and a terribly sad day,” president David Gerlich said, noting that its remaining students were accepted by nearly two dozen other institutions. “After 157 years, the coronavirus really knocked us in the chin. I’m happy we were able to take care of our other students.”

For Dixie State University in Utah, there was another reason for the Class of 2022 and its grads to celebrate, as the final graduating class under its current name. It will become Utah Tech University starting this fall, and with a very strong future ahead.

“While you’ve been here, enrollment has increased 44% from 8,500 to over 12,000 students,” President Richard Williams said. “You witnessed student scholarship funds double from $10 million to close to $20 million. You saw many new construction projects on campus. Over 100 new academic programs were added. While you’ve been here, you have grown but so have we. That brings us to today, with you becoming alumni of this great institution.”

Photo courtesy of High Point University

Some events went off under clear skies and with huge turnouts, like High Point University in North Carolina, which reported more than 14,000 guests for its largest-ever graduating class. KIND Snacks Founder Daniel Lubetzky had some keen words of advice for those attending.

“Here’s my core piece of advice: adopt daily habits rooted in curiosity, courage and compassion. The three C’s to excel every day in life,” he said. “The easier path is to surround yourself with those who tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. Opt instead for curiosity. Think critically about everything. Develop the courage to have uncomfortable conversations—the only kind that will help us all grow. The courage to collaborate across lines of difference. Relate to others with compassion. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Be more forgiving.”

And they head out into the world of work and perhaps, philanthropy or politics, with a somewhat cloudy outlook. But they can be ones who can be the difference-makers, to break through that storm.

“We need you,” Harris said. “We need you to run companies and make decisions about who has access to capital. We need you to serve at the highest levels of government and determine our country’s standing in the world. We need you to work in our hospitals and in our courtrooms and in our schools. We need you to shape the future of technology. We need you because your perspective—the sum total of your intellect and your lived experience—will make our country stronger.”

More from UB: The A-list speakers at 2022 spring commencements