Good morning, Class of 2023! It’s wonderful to see you all gathered here, in front of your loved ones and mentors, to celebrate a truly special milestone. To our guests, I want to say the pride you feel today is palpable. And rightly so, as the graduates in front of you have worked hard, sacrificed much and put their hearts as well as their minds into their studies. Like you, today, I’m simply bursting with pride for the Washington University in St. Louis Class of 2023.
For those of you who began your studies in 2019, do you know that we have a special bond? You may recall that we were “first years” together. That year in August, at Convocation in the Athletic Center, I officially welcomed you to the WashU family. We talked about some of the things you might be nervous about, and some of the things you had to look forward to. You were brand-new college students, and I was a brand-new chancellor. At the time, I thought I had an inkling of what we were in for. Standing here today, I think it’s safe to say that none of us knew what was about to hit us, just seven months before our world was upended by a global pandemic. But that’s not to say we weren’t prepared for it.
WashU students know all about being prepared. You knew how to prepare for your time here: study hard, get the grades, pursue extracurriculars, serve your communities and nail the tests. And you did those things, I’m sure of it. Some of you had additional work or family responsibilities, and if that applies to you, you have my deep respect. And all of those achievements did prepare you for the college experience you were likely expecting: deep conversations, ‘aha!’ moments, challenging debates, all-nighters and likeminded new teammates and friends. All of the things I promised you that evening in the Athletic Center in August 2019.
And then you got the email that changed everything; the email that my team and I were sickened to send: Campus is closed until further notice. But as “further notice” became another year of “alternate operations” … well, it’s safe to say, none of us saw that coming. In 2020 and 2021, grades plus test scores plus extracurriculars no longer added up to a traditional college experience. COVID changed the equation.
Now, all over the country, graduating classes are being praised for the resilience they developed through the pandemic. Class of 2023, I believe you came here with resilience. Resilience was written all over your applications. You had it when I addressed you at Convocation. Resilience goes hand in hand with rigor, and getting into WashU proved you were the type of person who relishes a challenge.
But I’m not going to say, “WashU graduates, go out there and knock ’em dead with your resilience.” I think we can do better than that today. So let’s do it.
WashU Class of 2023, go knock ’em dead with your creativity. The creativity you exhibited when you helped one another stave off loneliness with Zoom game nights and FaceTime coffee dates. When you responded to the Center for Humanities Life/Line poetry prompts by the hundreds. When you shared your passions with your peers through the “Beyond Boundaries” podcasts. When you competed in virtual sporting events, like our cross-country athletes did.
Go blow them away with your curiosity. The curiosity you exhibited when you broke a class enrollment record for the online course “The Pandemic: Science and Society.” When you took a moment to ask a BD employee how their family was faring. When you pivoted your research to study the novel coronavirus or the impact of the pandemic on children. When you simply showed up for class on a day when you would have rather thrown your laptop — and Zoom along with it — out your apartment window.
Go wow them with your care. The care you showed by volunteering to assist the Department of Health with contact tracing and providing child care to exhausted colleagues on the front lines. When our undergraduate students provided free online tutoring to local children struggling with school. When you served as health ambassadors to your peers, promoting mask use, physical distancing and health checks.
And finally, WashU Class of 2023, leave them in awe of your courage. You may not have had a choice in whether to face down the challenges that COVID presented, but through the struggles — and I know there were many — you exhibited the courage to lead. You didn’t just survive, you got curious, you found your creativity, and you did everything you could to help those around you thrive, because you care.
Graduates, you are more prepared for what comes next than any graduating class in recent history. Because no matter what work you do, you are destined for leadership, and as leaders, you will be asked to solve problems, large and small, every day.
Louisa May Alcott once wrote, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
If we had known, as a new chancellor and as a new incoming class in 2019, the magnitude of the storm ahead, would we have been afraid? Perhaps. But from where I stand today, I know we all can look ahead with courage, knowing that should another Category 5 storm hit someday, we can summon what’s already inside of us — creativity, curiosity, care and courage — and lean on those same qualities in our remarkable classmates and colleagues to make landfall.
I hope that today you feel nothing but excitement for your future. But in the months and years ahead, as you encounter new opportunities that you’re not sure you’re ready for, remember this: You didn’t think you were ready last time, but you accomplished much, both despite and because of the obstacles.
We can’t stop the storms of life, and each one of you will, at some point, be mightily challenged. But what made you good students — what made you WashU students, and now graduates — will always be inside you. Go forth, Class of 2023, and show them what you’re made of. Remember your resilience, and use your creativity, your curiosity, your care and your courage to change the world.
Congratulations on your accomplishments, and please come back to visit! Thank you.