Tufts University

Baccalaureate Address:
President Lawrence S. Bacow

May 16, 2009

Commencement 2009

Faculty, guests, parents and family members, but most of all, to the Class of 2009, welcome.

"In the blink of an eye." Four years passed, in the blink of an eye. So many of you are sitting here wondering, "Where has the time gone?" It seems like yesterday that your families were driving you to campus, moving all of your stuff into your dorms as you greeted your new roommates and hall mates for the first time. After the Matriculation ceremony, tearful and emotional goodbyes followed as you began this extraordinary journey we call college.

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Well, here we are four years later, and while the time may have passed in the blink of an eye, history repeats itself. Once again, your families are here to support you, but this time moving your stuff out, not moving it in. Those strangers whom you greeted as your roommates and hall mates have now morphed into your lifelong friends. And the tears that will be shed in the next few days will not be your parents’ as they say goodbye, but yours as you bid farewell to your classmates and this campus that you have called home for the past four years.

No doubt you leave here with many good memories of friendships made, intellectual pathways explored, roads traveled far and wide, goals achieved, passions discovered, and maturity found. At times like this I like to recall the story told by Mark Twain of the college graduate on his commencement day. "What did you learn during your four years away at school," the graduate was asked. "Not much," he replied, "but my parents seem to have learned a lot while I was gone."

One of the many joys of my job is that I have the privilege of watching you grow during your four years on this Hill. Adele and I have truly enjoyed the time that we have shared with you. Like you, we also have our special memories of these past four years. They include:

  • Making our operatic debut last year with the Tufts Opera Ensemble in Dido and Aeneas;
  • Serving hot chocolate to many of you sledding down our lawn this past winter;
  • Enjoying an evening of great food and even better conversation with the ladies of 21 Teele Street;
  • Training with the marathon team and greeting each member as they crossed the finish line in Boston;
  • Watching the Women's Field Hockey Team's epic battle with Bowdoin in the finals of the NCAA tournament while I was lying sick in bed with thanks to JumboCast;
  • Observing Adele give cooking lessons to the members of the Tufts Jewish Women's Collaborative at Gifford House, and then getting to eat the fruits of their labors;
  • Joining you in welcoming Tony Blair, Madeline Albright, Queen Noor, Tom Brokaw, Chris Matthews, Michael Pollan and other extraordinary visitors to campus;
  • Sharing the historic presidential election night with all of you at the Campus Center, and then witnessing the spontaneous patriotic demonstration that occurred right outside our home;
  • A new highlight, from this very Baccalaureate ceremony -- hearing Anjali Nirmalan's extraordinary Wendell Phillips speech.
  • Senior dinners, the Red Sox World Series victory, a visit to the Tufts-in-Madrid Program, Julia Torgovitskaya's Senior Recital -- I could go on.
Commencement 2009

Wendell Phillips speaker Anjali Nirmalan reacts in surprise as President Bacow praises, as one of the highlights of his time with the Class of 2009, the 'extraordinary' Wendell Phillips speech she has just delivered.

The past four years have been special for all of us, but today is really not about reflecting on the past. It is about looking to the future.

Many of you have expressed extreme anxiety about what awaits you as you venture into the "real world." A good part of this anxiety is common to every graduating class. College is a bubble. All you have to do to find friends is to stick your head outside your door. Something interesting is always going on somewhere on campus. You have had an easy answer to the question, "What are you doing these days?" Your response, "I am a Tufts student." All of this changes after tomorrow, especially for those of you who are not continuing on straight to graduate school.

For those of you who are seeking a job, the real world can seem terrifying, especially right now. Jobs are scarce in this economy. You are going to have to be aggressive in finding work, and may even have to settle for something that you may think is beneath you just to pay the rent. Believe me: I understand this phenomenon on a deeply personal level. My first job following graduation from MIT involved helping to paint an old warehouse. At various times in my life I have also worked as a dishwasher, busboy, and my favorite, sales associate at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store.

I hope that those of you who have to hustle to find a job will recognize that there is dignity in honest work. My late mother used to say that at some point in our lives, each of us should have to work in a job that requires us to do physical labor and to serve the public. Once you have done so, you will come to appreciate all those who have served you in the past and you will see those who serve you in the future in a new light. We owe each of these people our abiding respect and our gratitude.

In some ways, you are lucky to be encountering economic turbulence at the start of your careers. Far better to live through these times and learn from them now than to have your first experience with adversity come when you already have families, mortgages, and greater responsibilities and obligations.

In preparing these remarks, I wondered what advice I might give you as you are to embark upon life post-Tufts. Academics are fond of recycling material, and as I thought more about it, I realized that the advice I give to members of our marathon team the night before the big race might actually be helpful to you as well. So here goes.

First, be careful not to go out too fast. The first five miles of the Boston marathon course are all downhill. At the start of the race, your adrenaline is pumping and everyone wants to take off and run as fast as they can. But if you go out too fast, you will pay for it later on. Most of life is not a sprint, but a marathon. We all know people who were popular and accomplished in high school, but who fell flat in college. Similarly, there are those who excelled in college, but in fact had difficulty making it in the real world. People who go out too fast in life are often cursed with having a brilliant past. It's far more important for you to have a bright future. Focus on your long-term goals and you will do well in life.

Second, pain is not linear. The ache you feel in your hip at mile five is not necessarily going to be twice as bad at mile 10, or three times as bad at mile 15. In life, it is inevitable that you will experience aches and pains and setbacks throughout your career. Some of these setbacks will be personal; some may be professional. Your ultimate success and happiness is far more likely to be determined by how you deal with the challenges that you will confront in life than by how you handle the opportunities that will inevitably come your way. Some of the most successful people in history are those who failed early. Abraham Lincoln was a one-term Congressman who failed in his bid for the Senate. Albert Einstein had to take a job in the Swiss patent office because he could not land an academic job. The current CEO of JP Morgan Chase, Tufts graduate Jamie Dimon, actually lost his job at Citigroup when he was in his early forties. Life will throw you curve balls. Better learn how to hit them early in your career.

Third, running a marathon is far more a mental act than it is a physical exercise. You need to be mentally tough to train properly, mentally disciplined to not go out too fast, and mentally focused to make it through the pain that comes at the end of the race. Similarly, in life your success professionally and personally will be determined by your ability to make the most of the gifts that you have been given, to remain focused and disciplined in all that you do. For most of you, success to this point has come relatively easily. But if you hope to achieve true greatness, you will need to learn to push yourself harder than you thought possible. Talk to people who have achieved great success whether it is in science or engineering, the arts, the public arena, or in business and most will tell you that if they knew how hard it was going to be at the start, they never would have tried. Grit and determination will take you much farther in this world than talent alone.

Fourth, to run the marathon successfully you need to properly hydrate and be conscious of your nutritional intake throughout the race. If you don't, you are likely to crash or hit the wall at mile 21. Similarly, in life it is important to constantly nourish both the mind and the soul. This is not the end of your education, but the commencement of the rest of it. Read voraciously, learn from all those around you, and take time from your daily routine to address your spiritual and emotional needs. For if you don't, you are also likely to hit the wall. And I can tell you from having seen many people do it in both the marathon and in life, it is not pretty.

Winston Churchill once said, "We earn a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give." There is much truth in this saying. Be rich in the things that matter – the love and respect of your family, your colleagues and your friends. Try to leave the world a better place than you found it, and never forget that there are no prizes awarded to the richest person in the cemetery. All the money in the world is worth little if you have no one to love and no one who loves you.

Your most important asset throughout your life will not be your Tufts education, but rather, your good name. Never do anything to tarnish it. You will be confronted many times throughout life by temptation. If I would offer you any advice it is to always do the right thing. Figuring out the right thing to do is usually not that difficult. Doing it, however, is often excruciatingly hard. If you want others to treat you honestly, be honest with them. If you want others to respect you, you must show them respect. Always try to model the behavior you hope to see in the rest of the world.

There is a wonderful story told about the great Rabbi Hillel for whom the organization on our campus is named. He was confronted by a skeptic who demanded that Hillel teach him the entire Torah – the Bible – while standing on one foot. Hillel said no problem. Here was his response: "What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary." Class of 2009, we hope during your time at Tufts that you have learned this most important lesson – how to treat others. Now it is up to you to reflect upon and write your own commentary.

To the parents and families assembled, thank you for sharing these remarkable young people with us for these past four years. I hope we are returning them to you a bit wiser, more worldly, more interesting, and mature. I think you will agree with me that amazing things can happen when you combine fabulous genes with a great education. You should be very proud of your sons and daughters. I assure you, we share in your pride.

And to the Class of 2009, I speak on behalf of all of the faculty and staff of Tufts when I say that it has been our privilege to share these four years with you. You have challenged us, inspired us, and taught us as well. We have great expectations for each of you and will follow your lives and careers with interest. No matter where you go or what you do, we will always proudly claim you as our students. Please stay in touch. Good luck to you all and God-speed.

Photo by Alonso Nichols, University Photography

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.