Lesley President Jeff A. Weiss and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren told members of the Class of 2018 that changing the world requires an extensive array of talents and tendencies.
“To effect real change,” Weiss said, “… requires building bridges, not walls.” The most powerful tool of all, he added, is “the simple, probing question.”
“I challenge you to change the world, one question at a time,” he said to approximately 440 bachelor’s degree recipients and 45 master’s recipients.
While collaboration is crucial, even with those one disagrees with, Massachusetts’s senior senator said that two other traits are important, as well: persistence and a willingness to fight.
Elizabeth Warren: Persistence makes all the difference
During a rainy yet raucous afternoon ceremony, Elizabeth Warren, introduced by professors Janel Lucas and Christine Collins, touched on everything from Kanye West to corruption, and dedicated much of her address to the importance of Lesley University’s motto.
“I’m deeply honored by this award,” said Warren. “Thank you, Lesley. I am truly humbled and honored to accept this degree from Lesley University.”
Lesley’s motto, “I had perished had I not persisted,” was emblazoned in Latin on Lesley’s original coat of arms and serves as a rallying cry for our community today.
“Lesley University, what a great motto. It really is,” said Warren. “Of course, not to be confused with Mitch McConnell’s motto: Dammit, Elizabeth, sit down and stop persisting.”
The senator, widely identified by what was meant as a pejorative from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – “and, yet, she persisted” – showed generosity as well as persistence, remaining on the stage well after her address to shake hands with students.
“There will be plenty, plenty of people in your life who will try to shut you up,” said Warren, “but people who shut up seldom make a difference. So, here’s to Lesley graduates who make a difference,” she said as the crowd clapped and cheered.
Warren recalled her humble beginnings as the daughter of a janitor and a minimum-wage worker at Sears. She praised teachers for helping students reach their full potential and recalled the life-altering second-grade teacher who “opened a door in my mind” and ignited her desire to teach.
But life is full of unexpected turns, she said. Warren was the youngest of four children, the only girl, who dropped out of college at 19, throwing “a full scholarship down the drain” to get married and have children.
She recalled how she got back on track and became the first person in her family to finish college, becoming a schoolteacher, then a professor, and finally, a United States senator.
“So yes, I believe in your motto, I believe in persistence,” Warren said as the crowd cheered loudly. “I believe in persistence, and I believe in you. I believe in you and I know how much we need you.”
Warren joked that a commencement speaker’s job is to “refrain from boring the future leaders of our nation” and impart advice that sticks for at least a day or two.
“Life is full of unexpected challenges, things that pop up and make you wonder about reality. I mean, is Kanye really ok?” she quipped. “Did someone bite Beyoncé’s face? Did the president of the United States really tweet about – let’s not talk about that.”
She talked about her consumer advocacy work, going after predatory lenders and fighting “a rigged system … that was sticking it to working families.”
“The rich and powerful have hijacked our government. … High student loan debt limits opportunities for millions of young people. Our country is fractured but I believe we can piece it back together if we persist.”
Warren places her faith in the young generation, including Lesley’s new graduates.
“And so I’ll say it again because I want you to know it,” said Warren. “I believe in you. I believe in your persistence. And I believe your persistence will make all the difference. I believe your persistence will save our democracy.
“You have made it to the finish line,” said Warren. “Today, we are here to celebrate your hard work. Go Lynx nation!”
Michael Talbot: College of Art and Design student speaker
Before graduate Michael Talbot even started speaking, his peers erupted in a spontaneous chant: “Michael, Michael, Michael!”
The enthusiasm from the Class of 2018 was a testament, not only to the impact Talbot has had on fellow students, but how he has come into his own during his career at Lesley.
Talbot, a graphic design and illustration major and animation minor, moved to America from his native Jamaica in 2012. The old Talbot was “reserved, quiet, shy” but at Lesley people said of him, “Michael is a great leader. Michael knows everybody. Michael is extremely good-looking.” For a long time, however, that wasn’t the person Talbot believed himself to be.
“There has always been a constant disparity or difference between what people saw in me versus what I originally thought about myself,” said Talbot, who was introduced by Associate Dean Kristina Lamour Sansone.
The praise seemed like exaggerations to be brushed off, he said. Eventually, “I had gotten to the point where I realized the only thing preventing me from achieving these things is just me.”
In learning to accept what others saw in him, Talbot was able to embrace those qualities in himself. During his years at Lesley, Talbot noted that he learned to network (meeting at least 75 percent of his class), published several books, had his work featured on merchandise for singer Nicki Minaj and was able to officially call himself a “working freelance illustrator.”
“So, as I stand here, with one of the best-looking afros you’ll probably ever see,” he joked, “having networked and put myself out there to meet new people … I want to extend a few compliments of my own to the graduating class,” said Talbot.
He spoke his own prophecy to the crowd, much as many of them had done for him in the past:
“You will definitely make it in your various areas of interest. You’re without a doubt going to do amazing things in your life,” Talbot told them. “And keep thinking and speaking positively, and I can guarantee you, it will be your reality.”
Hanna Henshaw: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences student speaker
Student speaker Hanna Henshaw recalled that, both in and out of the classroom, the Lesley experience was full of learning opportunities and support, including nuzzles from Willow, the beloved neighborhood cat who is a popular fixture on Doble Campus.
Henshaw remarked on the trials and tribulations of college life and called on her classmates to take a moment to appreciate the privilege of a Lesley education.
“I want to recognize the path to get here was not the same for all of us,” said Henshaw, a double major in secondary education and mathematics, who was introduced by Associate Dean Diana Direiter.
“Too many areas of our society, including its institutions of higher learning, are not accessible to all people,” said Henshaw. “A person with an identity or identities that are marginalized will have a path with more obstacles than that of a privileged person. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the folks who are not here today and who would have been a part of our class if not for those obstacles. I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the graduates who are here today who have obstacles along their paths as well.”
Henshaw said her work as an admissions ambassador and a volunteer with the Community Service office was transformative.
“I encourage you all to get involved in the communities you enter next,” said Henshaw. “You never know how your involvement will benefit you.”
She urged her classmates to take their lessons learned at Lesley and continue to grow.
“Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and allow yourself to learn from others while they learn from you,” she concluded. “Reflect to let your past experience inform your future success. Congratulations to the class of 2018!”