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Congratulations, Class of 2020!

This year, it was my honor and privilege to deliver the commencement address to the graduating students who completed their degrees during a quarter unlike any before. Below is a video of this year’s virtual ceremony and the full text of my remarks.

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Hello Class of 2020! In times this extraordinary, it takes an extraordinary class to succeed as you have. It is my great honor to say to ALL of you, congratulations on a truly historic achievement.

It is no doubt bittersweet that we are physically so far apart on this special day. I promise you that you WILL have the opportunity to walk across the stage in Husky Stadium one day, and when that day comes, you’ll be reminded why we hold the record for the loudest college stadium. The cheers will be deafening! But today, while we can’t be together in person, the connections that unite us close the distance. To all of you, across the US and more than 40 countries, in this moment, we are together as Huskies.

We are connected by the shared experience of enduring this pandemic together. Almost overnight, all of us became experts at learning, teaching, entertaining and being there for each other through the magic of the internet.

We are connected by the anxiety, uncertainty, and yes, grief, that COVID-19 has brought to our nation and our world. If you are mourning a loved one lost to the virus, we mourn with you. If you are anxious, know that we are in this together.

We are connected by our pride in your accomplishments and our belief that not only despite, but because of the hardships you’ve overcome, your future is bright. And by the way, as hard as this last quarter has been, it’s not the only chapter in your academic career. It took you years to get here; and long before anyone had heard of “COVID-19,” you showed the world what strength and determination look like. I speak for all of your faculty, instructors, coaches and advisers when I say how proud we are to see you cross this threshold, knowing that you will take a piece of the University of Washington with you wherever you go.

You are an historic class, graduating at one of the most significant inflection points our nation has ever known. Almost a century ago, as the world was still climbing out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reflected on the ebb and flow of history. As he put it, “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

I’ve been reflecting on that ebb and flow as well. These recent weeks have revealed – not for the first time, but with terrible clarity – the pervasive and systemic inequities in our society, from who has to go into work during a pandemic, to who has adequate health care or sick leave, inequality permeates the system for low income or people of color. The most brutal expression of that inequality manifests in the killing of Black men and women. And I join you in mourning for their lives. And I join in the conviction to make sure that their lives matter, that Black Lives Matter.

Today you collect your hard-earned degrees and take them into a world that is facing challenges unlike any we have seen for generations. You are one of those “generations of whom much is expected.” It’s hard. It’s not fair. But, you’ve made it anyways, and as a UW graduate in one of the most difficult years in modern history, you’ve proven to all you have what it takes to deal with any challenge that life can throw at you, and the lessons you’ve learned will serve you well throughout your lives.

I experienced family tragedy in my early 20’s and going through life knowing early on that I could survive and learn and grow from one the hardest things that life will ever throw to anyone of my privilege – and I know I am privileged — stiffens my resolve to get things done, to be part of creating change — through actions and strategies that balance the very real urgency of the moment, with the knowledge that we’ve had enough shows of burning treetops, we’ve got to dig up roots that go down to the very inception of this country, a country I love and that took me and my family in as political refugees. But a country that’s hurting and that you can, that we can, help to heal and make better. And those of you that can, don’t forget to vote!

You are graduating into an extremely difficult AND fortuitous time.

As a clinical/community psychologist I studied “crisis theory,” which tells us that the opportunity for the greatest change arises precisely during periods of turmoil, when equilibrium is thrown off kilter. As hard as this moment is, it can also serve a purpose. I hope it gives you the focus and courage to demand and create change in our society. And that it strengthens your resolve into something so unshakeable, so undeniable, that the world will be forced to reckon with it.

You have the power to build a future that honors the values of equity that we strive for at our University and that addresses the systemic issues of our society. Among you are future teachers, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, artists, policy makers, health care providers, journalists and leaders in careers that haven’t been invented yet. As you enter into the next phases of your life, perhaps more education, a job, marriage or parenthood or all of those, you will make mistakes and experience setbacks. But, through it all, you will have a little extra steel in your spine because of what you have endured this year, and I have full confidence that you will use that strength for immense good.

When you hit a speed bump in the years ahead, remember what you did here. You equipped yourself with the knowledge and skills to succeed. You solved problems and recovered from disappointment. You worked hard and learned the value of being kind to others and yourself. You served your communities and helped your families. You learned how to ask questions and seek out the answers. When it was hard, when it was frustrating, you persevered. Today, we celebrate the culmination of everything you invested in yourself.

But of course, you had some help. Moms and dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, friends, spouses or children, and all of you who offered support along the way, you helped make this day possible. We are counting on you to give your graduate the hugs and high fives that we would like to be giving them today! You have been there for your students in so many ways, long before they became Huskies. In the last few months, you’ve been there for them in ways you never expected. Thank you for making it possible for our students to keep up with their course work. Thank you for helping many of them make the difficult transition from life on campus to life at home.

Many families have faced financial hardship, or had to juggle child care while working from home. Others have kept us healthy, safe and fed through their roles as essential workers. Almost no one has endured the last few months without challenges, but whatever you were dealing with, you did what it took to make sure your graduate crossed the finish line. Thank you.

Graduates, we are grateful for all that you have brought to the University of Washington. Your resilience in these final months of your academic career will be an inspiring legacy at your University. And your achievements and aspirations fill me with hope, in a moment when hope is one of the things we need the most.

Whatever your journey holds, please always lead with your values. The world is ripe for reshaping – mold it into a new and better world, defined by compassion, service to others and equity for all. The University of Washington is proud to claim you as alumni. We celebrate your achievement today, and we look forward to the indelible mark you will make on the world tomorrow and for the rest of your lives.

Congratulations Class of 2020!