2017 Commencement Address

Thursday, May 25, 2017
Arthur Ashe Stadium

Congratulations, Class of 2017!  This is your own very glorious day.  As I look around you---even into the distance of this beautiful stadium---I see the beaming faces of your friends and family.  Behind me, your professors.  We all share in this special moment;  we all take pride in your accomplishments.

I want to welcome all of you:  family, friends, our faculty and administration, SUNY and FIT trustees, honorees and distinguished guests.  I want to offer a special welcome to our colleagues from Istanbul Technical University who join us today to celebrate the 18 students who graduate as part of FIT’s dual degree program with ITU.  Each person who is here today adds to the  joy of this moment for our graduates.

You know, it inevitably falls to a college president to provide a piece of parting advice---perhaps even wisdom---as we launch you into what we call “real life.” However, yours is a class that has had more than your share of so-called “real life” already.  After all, you grew up in  the shadow of 9/11… and seemingly endless war.  You have lived through the great recession… seen outbreaks of violence… spasms of ongoing bigotry.  And just in the last two years, you were witness to an ugly, acrimonious presidential campaign that blemished our national environment… and leaves behind, even today, a distasteful fog of fear and suspicion and nihilism in a highly conflicted world.  My generation stood sentinel over this world, so what can I possibly have the audacity to tell you today?

I struggled with this  question… I did.  But  in the end, I kept coming back to those lovely lines from Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  As daunting as the world can sometimes seem, we need hope… and I do believe that when we choose our human impulse to be creative, cooperative, and compassionate---it is a choice after all---there is good reason for hope.

And if you doubt it, let me share just one story---it is a story that unfolded at Georgetown University this past year.

You see, there was a janitor there who, for nearly a decade had worked the night shift in the university library… sweeping floors, polishing windows… dusting.  To the professors and students who came in and out… who occupied the tables and study carrels…  the janitor was invisible.  Then one night… out of nowhere… one of those students, a regular at one of the tables, nodded to him as he arrived.  Another night, the student said hello.  Not long after, there was a handshake… and soon they got to talking and discovered how much they had in common.  Both, as it turns out, were immigrants---the student from India;  the janitor from Jamaica.  Both were in their twenties.  Both saw America as the land of opportunity and had avid entrepreneurial ambitions.  The student was a junior majoring in business.  The janitor dreamed of opening his own restaurant.  They bonded.

After that, every other worker on campus came vividly alive to the student.  The cafeteria dishwasher… the groundskeeper… the locker-room attendant.  “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” he said.  He realized that like his friend the janitor, each of these people had rich lives… and dreams… yet each of them was invisible to the rest of the Georgetown community. 

Humbled, but galvanized, the student decided to introduce the janitor and his many co-workers to the students.  So he did what many of you might do: he started a Facebook page and called it Unsung Heroes.  One by one, the Georgetown employees were profiled on the page---the crossing guard… the cook… the housekeeper.  “There’s a kind of wall between the students and the workers,” the student told a reporter.  “I wanted to use this opportunity to share this story to see that they’re like us. The only difference is the color of their uniform.”

His classmates swiftly rose to the occasion.

The facebook page raised $2500 for the janitor to start a catering business… students got him catering jobs… and helped him put up his own web page that advertises his special Jamaican jerk-chicken. They raised enough money to send a cafeteria cashier home to South Sudan to visit family whom he had not seen in 45 years.

The student took this project to the Clinton Global Initiative University last year and hopes to turn his Unsung Heroes into a movement on campuses nationwide.  In his effort to make a difference, this  student is not alone. I am sure that if you think about it, you can identify someone… or many someones… who made a difference in the lives of others… unsung heroes who gave you reason to hope.

Years ago, the historian Howard Zinn wrote an essay in which he said “To be hopeful in bad times is not foolishly romantic.”  We have to remember that human history is made up not only of tyranny, injustice and cruelty, but also of compassion… courage… kindness---and what we choose to emphasize will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, our capacity to act is destroyed.  If we remember the times when people behaved well… we will have the hope and the energy to act.  And small acts, he wrote, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

Class of 2017, in these past few years, you have been severely tested.  You have been asked to pursue your studies, learn new skills, complete complicated and demanding projects in the midst of an angry, anxious and unstable world… in the midst of “real life.”  And you did it!  You did it fueled by your own fierce determination, hard work… and the gifts of creativity that brought you to FIT in the first place.  With those precious gifts, each one of you, like that Georgetown student, has the power to make a difference.   

Class of 2017, the choice is yours.  I urge you to live your “real life” with an open, vigorous spirit… “in defiance of all that is bad around us”… live committed to the compassion, courage and kindness that represent the very best of us---and all of you---live with that glorious thing with feathers… live with hope.  Class of 2017, you make us proud.  I wish you good luck and Godspeed.