Commencement Speeches 2017

You are invited to read below the speeches that were delivered at Commencement by Earl Lewis (pictured above), President of the Mellon Foundation and this year's commencement speaker; Ophelia Okoh '17, senior class speaker; and Olamide Adeyinka, M.B.A./M.A. IDSC '17, graduate student speaker.

Commencement Address

by Earl Lewis, President, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Social Justice Is in Our DNA

Thank you, David, for that very kind and generous introduction. I was sitting there listening to it and thought, ‘My mother would have loved it.’ Good afternoon to all of you. We gather on this grand occasion to salute the Clark University graduating class of 2017…for staying the course, overcoming challenges, setting aside failures, appropriately accepting success, and graduating. This is an outstanding achievement and I am honored to share in this moment. I would also like to extend a very heartfelt thank you to President Angel and his Leadership Team, as well as the Clark University Board of Trustees for this opportunity to receive an honorary degree from this distinguished university, especially in the company of the esteemed Linda Greenhouse and Mark Bittman.

Graduates, let me be the third one to ask you: how many of you have family, friends and teachers who backed and supported you through your higher education experience? Let’s see a show of hands. [hold for hands] Please join me in recognizing these special individuals with a round of applause… [hold for applause].

Their job is done. In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll hear a collective sigh of relief coming from loved ones in the audience. However, graduates, your job—deploying the discipline of mind that comes with the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment not only of yourself and your family, but also the greater society—is just beginning.

Today, I’d like to speak to you, not as Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, but as someone who—like many of you I hope—developed a passion for social justice at an early age. For me, this fire was ignited as I sat in some of Virginia’s first desegregated classrooms in the early 1970s. Desegregation was about equal opportunity for sure, but it was just as much about building a diverse democracy; one capable of supporting and benefitting the needs and ambitions of all its members. And that seemed right and fair to me, even while others in those very same classrooms, including some of my teachers, did not agree.

I am certain that most, if not all of you, have at some point signed a petition, protested or donated money to a cause or organization. Some of you may hold strong beliefs about the inadequacies of our political system, or the pressing nature of climate change. Others may be appalled by ongoing human rights violations or the fact that in one of the richest nations in the world, children still go to bed hungry at night and wake to failing schools. Many of you are already working in service to that which you perceive to be right and fair. And for that, I applaud you.

Unfortunately, as you go forth into the world, there will be those who will try to convince you that as you make your way up the ladder of success, you must leave behind your dedication to justice. There is, in some circles, a prevailing sentiment that you cannot do good and do well at the same time. However, I want to say, this is simply untrue.

And there are indeed Clark examples. Take, for example, Ronald Shaich, Clark University class of ’76, founder and CEO of Panera and clean food pioneer, who has opened more than 2000 restaurants while also using his success to address issues related to food insecurity. And Gary Cohen, Clark class of ‘78, founder of Health Care Without Harm, a global organization that aids hospitals and health systems in the development of strategies for addressing their environmental footprint.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I have been able to reinforce the responsibilities of the positions in which I have served with the strength of my own personal commitment. As a faculty member in History and African-American Studies, first at Berkley, then at Michigan, I taught and examined the core dynamics of events and timelines of historical significance and their continuing and interrelated impact, but I also had the opportunity to expose students to new ways of seeing, to impart the importance of recognizing commonality, as well as divergence and to encourage them to question the legitimacy of any form of tyranny.  

As Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at Emory, I had the responsibility of leading academic affairs and priority setting for the university, while also having the chance to propose and help implement a decade-long partnership between Emory and five Atlanta communities. Working together, we were able to meaningfully address disparities in pre-school education, promote foreign-language skills acquisition and help transition sports teams into hubs of academic excellence.

And over the last five years, I have had the privilege of guiding the Mellon Foundation, as we reaffirmed our commitment to the humanities, the arts, and to exemplary institutions of higher learning, which are not only training the leaders of tomorrow, but cultivating in them a thirst for path-breaking work, which ultimately benefits the whole of society.

That is why I am so delighted to be here today at Clark University, an internationally respected institution with a reputation for encouraging both faculty and students to put their passion into practice for the betterment of the world. Scholarly activism is at the core of Clark’s culture and curriculum, which through its LEEP—Liberal Education and Effective Practice—education model, facilitates the transformation of students from engaged, thoughtful learners to leaders of conscience, ready to tackle the most complex issues of the local and global community. 

Liberal arts institutions such as Clark have always played an important role in teaching students not only to imagine, but to fashion, a better world. In the 1950s and 1960s, diverse groups of liberal arts students boarded buses for the South to engage in sit-ins, marches, and voter registration. In the 1980s, students across the United States supported the antiapartheid movement by protesting for divestment from South Africa. And today, students are petitioning their Board of Directors to reduce stock holdings in fossil fuel concerns, while advocating for initiatives and programs that support environmental sustainability.

Spurred by theoretical discussion in classrooms and laboratories, students have taken on some of the most important issues of our times; and taken seriously the jobs of doing well and doing good. As a result, they have helped and are helping to change the world. However, once outside the protective walls of higher learning, which some claim nurture idealism, you will likely discover that the concept of social responsibility is viewed by some as a weekend volunteer opportunity, at best. So the question becomes, how do you begin to bridge the gap between a culture of indifference and your own personal commitment to social justice? How do you convince others that there is indeed a different kind of relationship that we should all be participating in?

Perhaps, it comes down to a fundamental shift in perspective. Now, many of you have taken genetics, and you know that all human beings share 99.9% of the same DNA. Every single one of us—99.9%. Francis Collins, the current Director of the National Institutes of Health, was a member of one of the two teams of scientists tasked with decoding the human genome. Their work has allowed us to pinpoint with great precision that modern-day human kind originated on the continent of Africa over 60,000 years ago, and migrated across the globe in a circuitous route, interbreeding with Neanderthals and other less advanced hominids along the way.

Okay, let’s pause here for a moment. Take a look around. Look to your right and to your left, and down the row. Now look at me. All of the racial and ethnic difference we are able to identify are accounted for by only one-tenth of one percent of our DNA. Said differently, that point one percent has accounted for a lot of horror and war and cruelty throughout our history. Yet, if we were to shift our focus to the 99.9% of commonality, we may be able to recognize that on some very real level—not in some metaphorical sense, but on a scientifically verified level—we are all members of the same family.

So then, would you allow your aunt in Eastern Europe to starve? Or, a cousin in Syria to remain trapped in oppression? How about your nieces and nephews in Appalachia and the inner-city who are cut off from opportunities for growth and achievement? Could we still so easily turn a blind eye to these travesties if we viewed all of humanity as our extended family? Chances are we could not. Because with family comes built-in responsibility. So when you find yourselves challenged by those who ask why they or you, for that matter, should stand up for the disadvantaged or speak out for the disenfranchised… around the corner or around the globe, tell them simply because social justice is in our DNA

Now graduates, because you are among the best and the brightest, I challenge you to go one step further. Please stand up. Come on, stand up. [hold for standing] Repeat after me:

We, the 2017 graduating class of Clark University… will do the unimagined… We will nurture and promote…our passion for social justice… and change the world… responsibly. Let’s try that again: We will change the world responsibly… One last time: We will change the world, responsibly! [lead applause]

Thank you. You may be seated.

If you remain faithful to this moment in time and faithful to your educational and individual DNA, you will have done far more than earn a degree today. Years from now, you will have used your skills, talents and intellect for the benefit of all. I am confident that you are prepared. And I am grateful to have had this opportunity to see you off on your journey. I’m excited for you. I’m excited for the world. And I extend my sincerest congratulations. Do well, graduates. And do good. Because you can. All the best.

Senior Class Speech

by Ophelia Okoh '17

Welcome to all who are here to celebrate our commencement: administration, faculty, staff, family, friends and graduating class of 2017. As I look out onto this graduating class, I anticipate that there are three types of students among us. The first type of student has been excited about graduation since the first day of the semester. We’ve entrusted them with keeping us updated with the exact number of days, hours and minutes left until graduation. On the contrary, the second type of student actually hates graduations. If it wasn’t for the fact that their family members wanted to see them walk the stage, they would probably have their diplomas mailed to them. The third type of student…is barely awake right now because the pre-celebration festivities got a little out of hand last night. If that’s you, please try to stay awake for the rest of my speech. 

Upon graduation, some of us will transition into jobs and graduate programs while the rest of us will be at a standstill. Feeling like the lives of our peers are passing us by, we will scroll through our Facebook pages wondering what our next steps are. In those moments, anxiety can easily cast doubt on our personal worth. Nevertheless, remember that your value as a productive member of society is not weighed by the perfection of your resume. Rather, your worth is weighed by your willingness to engage in true and meaningful community service. But what does it mean to participate in community service? According to Google, community service is defined as “voluntary work intended to help people in a particular area.” When I read this, I was unsatisfied with this simplistic definition of such important work, so I want to share with you what I believe community service is. In order to do this, we must start to think about the meaning of community and service.

In my native tongue of Fante, “sankofa” characterizes that: “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” While we have the privilege of becoming college graduates today, so many have been left behind by a system that marginalizes the humanity of certain individuals. With this reality in mind, Clark encourages us to forgo the ideology of the American dream to pursue a life of service to our world. Clark prepares its students to do this by providing them with educators that push past the conventional curriculum. In doing this, educators ignite a passion in students to actualize their knowledge outside of the classroom and impact the communities around them. This exact aim is what prompted me to transfer to Clark two years ago.

Within my first few weeks here, I found myself completely immersed in Clark’s culture and the various communities it offered. Whether it was meeting in Dana Commons with women of color to relieve our burdens, finishing pre-lab problems with classmates in the science library or having weekly Bible study with friends in Blackstone, each of these communities have greatly shaped my experience as a Clark student. Because community has the immense power to shape us in this way, we have no choice but to invest ourselves into the communities of others.

Recognize that these diplomas have not been given to us for the sole purpose to be hung up in our future homes or offices. These diplomas are certificates to serve. Before continuing, I want to make it clear that though our gowns may look like capes, we have not been equipped to save the world, but to serve it. Servitude requires us to humble ourselves before the communities that we will serve, not to be exalted above them.

My most memorable experience with service was participating in Serve Up New Orleans. Twenty-Three Clarkies, alongside other Worcester schools, traveled on a 27-hour bus ride with a common desire to serve a city in need. During the day, we worked on home revitalization projects while having nightly discussions about racial reconciliation and the Christian faith. On our last night, we all shared what impacted us most and like a scene from a Lifetime movie, we embraced one another in laughter and tears. As strangers, we came together for one reason and as friends we left affected by each of the locals we interacted with. When we left Clark that Friday night, we didn’t bring any expectations or many skills. Similarly, you don’t need any special talent to be in the field of service, simply discover what your natural gifts are and apply them.

I believe that community service is the intentional empowerment of individuals through servant leadership, a humbling of oneself to help build others up.

As we take our last steps on campus, I am certain that we will begin to recollect the countless experiences that we have had here at Clark. Our natural thought process will be to keep our memories of success while diluting experiences of failure; I challenge you to keep them all. Know that in its literal translation, “sankofa” means “go back and get it.” It ultimately conveys that we should build the path of our future with the learned experiences from our past. In that same light, I encourage you to go back and get it. Leave nothing behind, because these are the experiences that will guide us as we emerge as the world changers of this generation.

Graduate Student Speech

By Olamide Adeyinka, M.B.A./ M.A. IDSC '17

President Angel, distinguished guests, faculty, friends and family. I am SO humbled to be here before you representing the Graduate Class of 2017. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we could not wait for this day to come. 

When I began thinking about writing a speech for graduation, I wanted so badly to write something that would prepare us for the next phase of life, something that would leave you all excited for the future, something that would leave you inspired. I wanted to come up here and tell you, to go out there and challenge status quo and do the impossible. At the very last minute, I decided the best use of this platform was to just speak from the heart.

I grew up in a country where more than half of the population live on less than a dollar day, where many children do not have access to an education, where a terrorist group kill young girls and deprive them of their fundamental human rights, where the current economic condition of the country has left many further plagued with poverty, and where injustice and poverty is the norm. Even through it all, my father in his words and actions taught me two important lessons, perseverance and giving back; that if you just work hard enough and push further enough, if you persevere just a little bit more and never give up, it would lead you to the destination you want.  

When I first came to this University to be a graduate student, I never thought I would get to graduate with the two exact degrees that I wanted. Many people told me it could not be done. Many people told me to settle for what was available but I remembered the lessons I had learned from a young age, that no matter what, I would always persevere. I knew an education at Clark would equip me with the knowledge, skills and experiences that I have since been able to use to make a difference in the country that raised me. I knew that a combination of International Development, Social Change and Business Administration would enable me to give back to my community the way I imagined. I approached many faculty and staff to no avail. I remember finally meeting with the Dean of Graduate Studies and after I told him my request, he looked at me and said, “Do you really want to do this?” That same sense of perseverance and urge to give back came upon me and I replied, “Yes, I really very much want to do this” and well, the rest is history. I would like to thank my father for those two lessons because perseverance and the need to give back is the very reason a girl who grew up in a country like Nigeria, is standing before you today.

In this way, I want to encourage you, Class of 2017 to go out there and challenge the narrative, take this great education and bring out a confidence and a fight that can only come from within and continue to persevere and give back. Now if it is anything like what we have experienced at Graduate School, it will not be easy. In fact, it will be a lot harder and at times it will make you wish you were back in Graduate School. But, we cannot give up; we cannot stick to the norm or the narrative that has been determined for us. We must challenge ourselves, challenge convention and change our world.

With all this said, on behalf of the Class of 2017, I would like to extend our profound gratitude to the University staff for giving us all the opportunity of a lifetime and for supporting us throughout the process. In particular, I would like to appreciate the faculty of the graduate programs for their dedication to students and for the large amounts of assignments, readings and of course, group work that we endured. And finally, to our family and friends, thank you for your encouragement and your support.

Class of 2017, let us go out there and challenge fear and throw status quo out the window.  And in your own ways, I hope you give back to the communities that made you and keep persevering like never before.

Congratulations Class of 2017, we did it!