2013 Commencement Address
181st Commencement Exercises
May 22, 2013
Today we convene with ceremony and joy for a rite of passage celebrating the next infusion of talent, knowledge, commitment and energy from NYU into the world – a priceless gift from our university to the future. Ladies and gentlemen, the Class of 2013.
A graduation ceremony sets aside a day – this day – as special. We dress differently, we march, we hear speeches, and we put before you, as we do today, exemplars of what we hope you will be – individuals whose own lives and accomplishments can inspire and guide you.
Each of the persons we put before you today has accomplished much. But there is a leitmotif that runs as a common thread through their narratives and unites them. It is a theme captured by NYU's Latin motto – not much in use but there on our seal: perstare et praestare – to persevere and to excel.
And so we present to you in today's ceremony a trailblazer for women in science whose hard work shaped and reshaped an entire field of study; a scholar who at great personal risk is saving his country's patrimony from the forces of destruction; an artist who has never been afraid to challenge the conventional and pursue his own vision; a gifted lawyer who has never avoided a difficult case, including the fight for same sex marriage. And there is an 83-year old who decided to fight what she felt was an injustice – and who has taken her case all the way to the Supreme Court.
None is a story of overnight success. They persevered – kept at it – unwavering in the face of obstacles.
Last evening, we formally recognized another set of remarkable men and women: the nurses of our own Langone Hospital who on the night of Hurricane Sandy, as the waters rose and the power went out, safely evacuated over 300 fragile patients – adults just out of surgery and newborns from the intensive care unit. Our nurses, doctors and staff carried them down darkened steps, maintaining IVs and respirators and oxygen tanks. Not hesitating a moment. Never leaving their charges. Making sure each one was safe.
What underlies each of these stories is the profound notion that the key to a joyful and fulfilling life is doing one's duty, even in the face of danger or discomfort or resistance.
And so in the remarkable people who join me on the stage, and among those in our own ranks, and in those who came before us, we see our motto come to life. Perstare et praestare – to persevere and excel.
You are called to a less obvious duty – but an important one nonetheless. As you leave us, you have experienced and participated in the world you are about to enter. You have learned on one of the greatest human stages available – in a city that is a life force, an incomparable resource, and a constant source of learning. As you left our buildings, you did not pass through a gate or walk on the grass; you touched the city and entered the global village. And you have incorporated that village into your very being, your spiritual DNA.
We live in an era when the great world has grown small. What happens in distant places is experienced almost everywhere, by almost everybody, immediately and unavoidably. The central challenge of your collective lives will be developing ways to manage in this miniaturized world of immediacy a vast richness of race, of faith, of culture, of thought. If you are to avoid the kind of destructive balkanization that can shred the fabric of civility on a global scale, you will be forced to create pathways of comprehension and communication across traditional divisions.
Our university stands as a rebuke to those who say that balkanization and fragmentation are inevitable. In your years here you have lived in an NYU community and in a City that foreshadow the best of the world to come. You have developed capacities of openness and curiosity; you have forged relationships that have forced you far beyond yourselves and the comforts and limits of your backgrounds; and you have experienced the intellectual richness and the personal growth that can come only in a place that is the world in microcosm.
As you leave us, take with you not only the great talent you honed here but also the experience you had here. And, take with you what I call NYU's attitudinal endowment – the central importance of creativity, boldness, a taste for complexity, and the joy of discovering the unknown other.
We foresee your achievements, your honors, your contributions and the difference you will make. We also realize that sometimes there will be defeats and setbacks along the way. But either way, we hope that you will carry within you the indomitable spirit of NYU – and we want you to know that in those inevitable moments when the spirit flags, you can come home to NYU – return to the Square, to touch its grounds and sense the soul of the NYU community – and in so doing, recharge the spirit of NYU within you.
Know as well the importance to us of your returning again and again – the role you play in renewing and sustaining our vitality. You are the pride of our vocation. In your years here, you gave so much of mind and spirit and heart to this university, in happy times and on the hardest of days. I hope we have given you an education worthy of your talents and your aspirations.
Congratulations to you and your loved ones from the NYU family – that other family to which you now indelibly belong.