Speeches & Writings

Civic duty and COVID-19: An address to Gephardt Institute Civic Scholars

Good afternoon, and thanks for inviting me to join you today as you celebrate another year as Civic Scholars. I first want to congratulate you on finishing up this unprecedented spring semester with your heads held high. This was no small feat, and I know many of you are feeling uncertainty during this time. Please know how much we’ve missed you on campus, how much we’ve been thinking about you, and how truly grateful we are for your acts of leadership, service, and civic duty.

That phrase “civic duty” seems especially appropriate today, doesn’t it? Because, you and I are keenly aware that we are currently living in an historic moment — a moment that will someday be written in our children’s and grandchildren’s history books. To that end, we must remember that the decisions we are making and actions we are taking right now — the acts of sacrifice for the sake of the well-being and safety of the world’s most vulnerable populations — will be forever remembered and recorded.

Not only that, but as Civic Scholars you understand that our personal sacrifices and acts of citizenship and service are part of something immensely bigger than ourselves. By making these sacrifices, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, we are participating in an act of global inclusion, global citizenship, and civic duty. As you know, these are some of the hallmarks and values we hold dearly here at Washington University and the values you hold individually as Civic Scholars.

We must also remember that this aspect of our Washington University ethos is not at all new, and the role you play in civic leadership and progress unites you with those members of the Washington University community who came before — ever since our founding in 1853.

During this current context especially, we remember times like the flu pandemic of 1918, when Chancellor Frederic Aldin Hall announced suspension of all classes and gatherings in October. At that time, administrative activity continued, and the approximately 300 professors on what was then called the Hilltop Campus along with the Medical Campus continued to work in their offices. Graham Chapel became a Red Cross shop, where students made influenza masks.

During times like these, we also remember the role Washington University played during World War II, when members of the community joined in the work of the Red Cross surgical dressings unit, which occupied quarters on campus. When members of Student Council initiated the Fourth War Loan Drive to solicit students to purchase war bonds and stamps. When the Department of Civil Engineering offered courses in aerial mapping specifically geared toward servicemen and women. When the university welcomed 28 Japanese-American students with open arms, giving them full freedom to participate in campus and educational life without exclusion or bias.

During times like these, we also remember the role Washington University played locally and regionally when the safety and well-being of our community was under threat during the Great Flood of 1993. From faculty, staff, and students filling sandbags to serving at shelters, packing supplies, answering hotlines, and raising money; the Brown School lending public health and social work support; and the Washington University Medical Center making 50 apartments available for displaced families — WashU showed up in a big way.

Today, we are carrying this ethos of civic duty forward as we do our part to flatten the curve, slow the spread of COVID-19, and deliver world-renowned education, research, and patient care for the sake of our community, the nation, and the world.

As Civic Scholars, you have been living this Washington University ethos ever since you set foot on this campus, and likely well before that as you learned about civic duty, public service, and played integral leadership roles in your neighborhoods, communities, and schools. You were built for moments like these, and I’m so incredibly honored to call you members of our Washington University community as you continue to model our values and our mission to improve lives wherever you go — whether you just graduated and are moving onto your next chapter, or whether you are a second or third year moving into the next phase of your academic journey here at WashU.

Congratulations, once again, on another year under your belt — and a challenging one at that — and best of luck on your summer plans and projects. Once again, I’m grateful and honored that you represent Washington University with your gifts and talents, and I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you next.