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Commencement Address at UMBC: “The Fellowship of Educated Men and Women”

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

As delivered.

Thank you for this very great honor. Thank you, President Hrabowski, UMBC faculty, staff, distinguished guests, families, friends, and of course, graduating students: It is a signal honor for me to be here. Graduates, you have worked hard to arrive at this moment. You have sacrificed a great deal to be here. I know there have been many long nights of study for all of you who committed yourselves to having “the party in the library.”

As part of my job, I make a lot of speeches, and in my nine years as Harvard’s president I’ve given talks in more than a dozen countries on five continents. But today marks a first: Other than speaking at our own graduation each spring, this is the very first commencement address I have delivered as president of Harvard.

We’ll see how it goes.

President Hrabowski, it is an honor to do so at the extraordinary institution you lead. Thank you for inviting me. When you were awarded an honorary degree at Harvard six years ago, I spoke about how you have made UMBC a shining example of innovation in STEM education—and a premier pathway for students from all economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds to achieve doctoral degrees in medicine, science, and technology.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program alone is a ladder that has lifted more than 900 minority and low-income graduates to advanced degrees in math, science, and medicine.

And I know you have nurtured many other such programs here, ensuring achievement and intellectual engagement for future teachers, public affairs students, women in technology, and explorations and explorers in the arts. You form tight-knit communities of scholars, you provide strong faculty support and mentorship, and you show the world what is possible.

Your example is so important. Higher education can be the great equalizer in this country, and there is no other intervention as strong or as enduring as a college education for helping individuals and societies to thrive. But many colleges—most colleges—have not figured out how to do as good a job as UMBC at enabling all students to reach their highest potential.

The statistics are sobering: Over the period between 1990 and 2014, the gap between Whites and Blacks in the rate of attaining a bachelor’s or higher degree widened from 13 to 18 percentage points, and the gap between Whites and Hispanics in attaining this education level widened from 18 to 26 percentage points. This should concern all of us in higher education and beyond. We need to close those gaps, and bring degrees within reach for far more students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic circumstance.

For many of you, your path here today has not been easy. Some of you have completed school while holding down part-time or even full-time jobs. A number of you have earned your degrees while helping to raise and support families. And for the more than 20 percent of you who are first-generation college graduates, your presence in caps and gowns today stands squarely and triumphantly against those concerning trends I just described.

Each and every one of you has added to the long and impressive list of accomplishments of the Class of 2016—forging new ground in everything from RNA to renewable energy; interning at Jawbone and the Jet Propulsion Lab; heading off to large and small companies, nonprofits, government agencies, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. A remarkable number of you will be undertaking advanced study in fields ranging from engineering to philosophy, from medicine to music composition—and I salute those who will represent UMBC across the globe as Fulbright awardees.

I’m especially pleased that some of you will be joining me in Cambridge next fall. Gaurav Luthria, for example, will be pursuing his Ph.D. in bioinformatics and integrative biology at Harvard with support from a very competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Gaurav, I’ll see you around the Yard. And Randi Williams will be studying alongside her fellow hackers, coders, and entrepreneurs at MIT – just down the Red Line. She’s already successfully lobbied the Maryland Assembly to support an entrepreneurship program here at UMBC.

Other colleges and universities throughout the country, including Harvard, can learn from the strategies UMBC has used to help you complete such rigorous courses of study and arrive at the moment where we find ourselves today—the moment you participate in these exercises and are proclaimed graduates.

For 15 years I have participated in a similar ceremony at Harvard, and for the last eight I have addressed Harvard’s graduating seniors as their president. There are very specific words that I deliver as their degrees are formally conferred. And these are words that my predecessors have also solemnly intoned in more or less the same way for more than 100 years. And those words go like this:

By virtue of authority delegated to me, I confer on you the first degree in Arts or in Science, and admit you to the fellowship of educated men and women.

Now, I wonder if that means I just awarded you all Harvard degrees?

But I find that a powerful phrase: “the fellowship of educated men and women.” What does that mean? What exactly anchors us all, as college graduates, in that union with one another? What sets us apart? And what responsibilities does being a member of that “fellowship” confer on us? What does it confer on you?

That fellowship is a ticket. It’s a passport. And it’s a responsibility.

First, as you and your families know well, the diploma you’ll carry home today is a ticket to greater prosperity. Over a lifetime, students who graduate from college can expect to make about 60 percent more than those who do not—a difference that averages out to well over a million dollars in wages over a working life. The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been highly uneven, and those without the ticket that you now hold, a college degree—or that you’ll hold once Freeman gets around to it—these individuals have seen income stagnate and in some cases fall backward. Your degree better prepares you to navigate the variable winds that buffet our global economy, and it equips you for not just your first job, but for your career and many careers.

Your degree is also a ticket to health. College graduates tend to lead more active lives, to exercise more, and to smoke less. It’s a ticket to home ownership, since graduates own homes more often than those who don’t go to college.

No question: The ticket into this so-called fellowship is very valuable.

But as I recently told a group of high school students I spoke to in Dallas, your college education is much more than a ticket to career success. It’s also a passport, filled with stamps that you’ve collected over your time here, as your courses, professors, and your fellow students have introduced you to places you’d never been, perspectives you’d never seen, and possibilities you’d probably never even imagined before you set foot on this campus.

And now, it is a passport to new ways of thinking and creating, to a new world of possibility. You’ve been given a chance to look at the world through different eyes, to understand your place in it, and to see how we are both the same and different from people who have inhabited other eras and other lands.

Like a real passport, a degree has stamps from places you have been and opens the door to the places you’ll travel next. As Dr. Seuss exclaimed, “Oh the places you’ll go”—if you use the passport that you have earned. After four years at Harvard, the writer John Updike observed, “I still had a lot to learn, but had been given the liberating notion that now I could teach myself.” Embrace the possibility and capacity to continue to learn—a capacity that your time here has granted to you.

Which brings me to my last point: Being educated carries with it a responsibility. I know many of you have carried responsibility to your family and to your communities with you here every day. You have felt you had to achieve and also serve as a representative for your neighborhood, your high school, your family, your teachers—for all of the people who believed in you.

But now as you join this fellowship of college graduates, you have intellectual responsibilities to our society as well. You have the responsibility to model reason and reasoned debate. To value facts, and to insist that they inform our public discourse. As early-20th-century Civil Rights leader Nannie Helen Burroughs put it, education is “democracy’s life insurance.” And never have we needed it more.

You have the responsibility to cultivate doubt—to ask the questions that enable us ultimately to build a better world. To look beyond the superficial and the immediate, and to surface the important, the enduring, the true.

As scientists, many of you have been trained to interrogate your hypotheses and relentlessly seek evidence, and you must bring that talent both to the laboratory and to public life. A dean at Harvard used to tell students that the main hallmark of an educated person was to be able to detect when someone is talking rot.

And you have the responsibility to pay it forward: to inspire others in their quest for knowledge just as you were inspired. To acknowledge the many people who invested in your journey by offering your help to others.

So many of you are already embracing that responsibility.

Cheyenne Smith, the Mock Trial powerhouse who graduates today, will spend her next year in the AmeriCorps community service program.

You’ve heard from your valedictorian, Katelyn Seale, who will attend medical school with the goal of combating health disparities and caring for the underserved.

Sayre Posey, who graduates today, will begin teaching U.S. history next Monday, following in the footsteps of alumni like Shalonda Holt, the 2007 UMBC graduate who last month was named Washington Post’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. She is living the responsibility conferred by her UMBC education every day. Education challenges us with the obligation to be the best we can be for ourselves and for others every day. It shows us what we might be and it points the way.

So, now is your time to use your new passport and travel towards that future.

Congratulations, graduates. I welcome you to the fellowship of educated citizens—citizens equipped to imagine a new world and committed to build it. Use your ticket. Stamp your passport. Live out your responsibility to our society, and our democracy, every day. And come back to rub True Grit’s nose from time to time so that you remember what you and UMBC have accomplished together. Congratulations.