Friends and family have asked me how our commencement went. My short answer (OK, maybe not so short…) is that it was a glorious day on the National Mall—sunny, temperate, filled with moments reaffirming the cultural, linguistic, racial, and religious mosaic of our education system generally and GW specifically. Asked for details, I offer these vignettes:
- In his opening prayer, Irfaan Nooruddin of the Islamic Ministry Services speaks of the promise of scholarly instruction in “realizing our potential for individual and communal transformation.”
- Gabriel Felder, winner of this year’s student speaker competition and soon-to-be urban teacher with Teach for America, reminds his classmates to be grateful to “every mentor who pushed you to lead and not follow” and ends with a joyful “l’chaim and mazel tov!”
- Maudine Cooper, an honorary doctorate recipient who graduated from Howard University when job opportunities for African Americans were scarce, describes how an early desire to help people in a small way grew into a career devoted to helping people in a big way. “Don’t be afraid to do the right thing when it’s necessary—and sometimes when it’s not!” she advises the graduates.
- Russ Ramsey, the first in his family to attend college, a class of ’81 GW graduate, and GW baseball hall-of-famer, says that three principles—“passion, purpose, and possibilities”—have guided him as he built a successful career in investment banking and gave back to his alma mater with fifteen years of service as a trustee and chairman of the board.
- Commencement speaker José Andrés charms the crowd with reflections on his journey from Spanish immigrant in New York with a love of cooking and $50 in his pocket— just enough to get him half way to his destination before the cab driver dropped him off— to becoming a world-renowned chef. The man responsible for introducing tapas to America and on a crusade to promote healthy eating advises the graduates that “If things don’t go as expected, make the unexpected work in your favor. Change the name of the dish,” he tells his awe-struck audience.
Our GSEHD ceremonies, too, reaffirmed, through the words of our speakers and the diversity of our audience, the power of education to open a channel to the future, turn youthful enthusiasms into productive careers, and bring some unity to our increasingly fragmented society. Carrie Morgridge, a remarkable innovator and philanthropist who brought us STEMosphere in March and returned to keynote our doctoral celebration, urged us to become “transformers—not reformers.” Cora Marrett, deputy director of the National Science Foundation and our main speaker on Saturday morning, reminded us of the power of education in an era of increased inequality and encouraged us to become agents of change. David Seuratt, our student speaker, inspired his peers with reflections on his own journey and, quoting Robert F. Kennedy, reminded us that “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Sage advice from accomplished and dedicated GSEHD friends!
What next? Teachers, school leaders, and other education professionals, including our graduates, shoulder much of the responsibility for turning the words of our speakers into a reality of educational progress. Based on my interactions with our new GSEHD degree recipients, I’m confident that they’re up to the challenges, and optimistic about the future they will enable.
But a dean’s pride in his graduates isn’t enough. As I said during our ceremonies, education is the most important investment a society makes. And with so much at stake, it’s essential that we invest wisely, that we deploy our best scientific and cultural resources to the challenges we face. It is simply not enough to want things to improve—we need to apply the best available evidence in the pursuit of innovations that are most likely to succeed, and we must be willing and able to monitor performance as we go along.
This is what GSEHD is all about: connecting rigorous research to the improvement of policy and practice. I believe the students who received their diplomas last weekend are ready. They represent the very best hopes for the continued application of sound research to the analysis and resolution of our biggest educational challenges.
Congratulations to our new alumni and happy summer to all!
May 27, 2014