Tufts University

'Make a Change'

Commencement 2009In his commencement address, Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick urges graduates to be "pragmatic idealists" and use challenging circumstances as "a platform for change."

For most of the Class of 2009, their time at Tufts ended much as it began: assembled on the Hill beneath overcast skies at a wet and windy ceremony, yet filled with hope and excitement for the future.

In August 2005, the undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering arrived for a soggy matriculation ceremony that opened with thoughts and prayers extended for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which had buffeted the Gulf Coast just two days before.

On Sunday, May 17, they gathered to receive their degrees -- this time joined by students from the university's graduate and professional schools -- under umbrellas and rain ponchos yet again. But the joy and buoyant spirits of the graduates and their loved ones were evident, in the cheers, hugs and broad smiles that were the order of the day. In all, the university-wide ceremony recognized close to 3,000 students.

"Congratulations, grad-u-wet!" cried one father, embracing a new graduate in a bear hug after the ceremony.

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The commencement speaker, Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, reminded the graduates and their loved ones that the country is now being buffeted by forces that are less tangible, but no less threatening, than Katrina.

"More and more families are working harder and still losing ground," he said. "Dreams are broken. The poor are in terrible shape and have been for some while. But the difference is that now the middle class is one pay check away, one serious illness away from being poor and deeply anxious about it.

"That is the world you are about to inhabit -- a society in many ways in anguish and an economy in crisis," Patrick said.

"And I want you to embrace it. Because crisis is a platform for change."

The theme of "change" echoed throughout Patrick's speech. He began by invoking the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, and the hope for change that has sparked in so many Americans.

Patrick continued with his own story, of his journey from poverty on the South Side of Chicago to becoming the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. He told how he had never owned a book as a child, yet his own daughter has grown up in a highly educated and cosmopolitan environment.

"One generation!" he said. "One generation and the circumstances of my life and family's life were profoundly transformed."

Patrick urged the graduates to see themselves as "pragmatic idealists" -- people who can "imagine a better tomorrow and then reach for it."

Continued Patrick, "The world needs pragmatic idealists today, in spite of the crisis around us, and maybe especially because of it--because the world you are about to inhabit is filled, in the same instant, with extravagant beauty and utter devastation, with both glamorous comforts and abject suffering."

"We need to renew our commitment to the American story," Patrick reminded the audience. "I ask you, out of this crisis, to make a change."

The university bestowed honorary degrees upon Patrick and six others, including: David W. Burke, A57, an accomplished figure in public service and television news; Leslie H. Gelb, A59, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and foreign-affairs expert: Sister Margaret A. Leonard, executive director of Project Hope; Patricia Q. Stonesifer, former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; C. Megan Urry, J77, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University and Robert A. Weinberg, founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Story written by Helene Ragovin James, Senior Writer, Office of Publications

Homepage and top photo by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.