"Be active. Be involved. Be heard."
In his commencement address, cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong urged members of the Class of 2006 to be active citizens.
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Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.21.06] Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor who won the Tour de France seven times and retired from competitive bicycle racing last year, told the Tufts Class of 2006 he could identify with people who are starting a new chapter in their lives.
At Tufts' 150th commencement ceremony, held on May 21, Armstrong looked out at the nearly 2,400 graduates and said, "We have a lot in common. You are graduating today and heading out into the world and will find new challenges and new difficulties and new horizons, and I am the same way. I have done professional sports for 20 years…and now I have graduated to another level in my life in which I'll also face new challenges."
Armstrong, who was making his first commencement speech, spoke at the all-university graduation ceremony held on the Hill. He talked about how he chose to become an active citizen and encouraged the new graduates to do the same: "My education has been on the road. My education has been through illness. My education has been on a death bed. I realize that the only way to live life and to lead life is actively and as active citizens." Through the Lance Armstrong Foundation, he has provided inspiration, hope and practical tools for cancer patients and has awarded more than $14.6 million in research grants since 1997.
Calling Armstrong "an inspirational hero," Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow presented him with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Bacow also awarded honorary doctorates to four other distinguished leaders:
Bacow told the graduates and their families that the occasion was one of "profound joy." He welcomed Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone as well as Tufts trustee and alumnus Jonathan M. Tisch, whose recent gift established the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Following Armstrong's speech, individual schools held their own events and smaller ceremonies.
Armstrong said, "The story that gets told often…is the story of the victories and the story of the yellow jersey and the story of the top step on the podium. What gets lost sometimes is the story of cancer survival and fighting for your life and ultimately coming back."
Armstrong described the choice that confronted him when he completed his chemotherapy in December 1996. As he was leaving the hospital, his doctor took him aside and said, "I want to talk to you about something. I want to talk to you about the obligation of the cured."
What Armstrong came to understand was that this obligation had nothing to do with his own medical treatment or cure but with his obligation to others: "It was about how you walk out of the hospital…which side do you walk out on? Do you walk out on the side as a private citizen who never shares his story, never gets involved, but hopes he lives and goes on and leads a normal life? Totally acceptable.
"Or do you go out the other side of the building? And from the minute you walk out, you stand up and say I'm a cancer survivor and I'm proud of it. It changed my life forever and I'm going to tell that story as long as I have to.… I chose active citizenship. And I challenge you all to choose that as well."
Earlier, Armstrong teased the audience by announcing he had some news to report, saying he had decided to race in an eighth Tour de France. To wild cheers, he opened his gown and revealed he was wearing a bicycle jersey emblazoned with "Tufts" and jokingly claimed there was a team of students ready to race with him in six weeks.
Armstrong also talked about the now-familiar yellow bracelets available through his organization that say "LIVESTRONG" and that have raised millions of dollars for cancer programs. Two years ago, he said, Nike offered to donate five million of the yellow bands to his foundation. "I wish you could have been in the room when we all sat around and joked about what we were going to do with 4.9 million yellow bands." More than 55 million yellow bands have been sold to date.
"I think what this tells me is that people want to be active," he said. Armstrong suggested that if even a fraction of the people who bought the bracelets were to band together, real change could occur: "That's the power of the people and that's the reality of where we are – mobilizing an army, being active citizens.
"I challenge you to find your own obligation of the cured…somehow find it within you what it means and be active, be involved, be heard, be aggressive, be smart."
Story by Marjorie Howard
Photos by Tufts University Photo
This story originally ran on May. 21, 2006.