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Address to the NYU class of 2016
Wednesday, May 18, 2016 – Remarks as prepared
A Question of Achievement
Congratulations, NYU Class of 2016!
Thank you President Hamilton – the other most popular Hamilton in New York.
And thank you, graduates, for letting me play a small part in one of the biggest days of your lives.
I’m thrilled to be here as we mark a tremendous achievement for each and every one of you.
And I’m especially honored to speak on behalf of a special group of NYU degree recipients: The remarkable women and men with me on this platform, whose lifetime achievements are being recognized with honorary degrees.
In this group we’ve got a comedian from Long Island, a scientist from France, and a judge born in South Africa. We’ve also got the son of Alabama sharecroppers who has become a Civil Rights icon—and me, the product of Head Start and public schools, and, today, the President of the Ford Foundation.
What brings this eclectic group of individuals together on this podium?
Well, in all candor, who would pass up the honor of receiving a degree from one of America’s finest universities, in one of the world’s greatest cities?
And who would pass up the opportunity to share in this glorious day with you… This day of graduation, this day to acknowledge what you have achieved – and what you may yet achieve?
This is what brings us together, in fact: A celebration of achievement. Real, hard-won achievement – the kind that takes time and patience and character and determination.
The men and women I am humbled to share the stage with are paragons of that kind of achievement.
Their lives and careers are a testament to the enduring power of persistence, perseverance, humility, and integrity in the pursuit of excellence.
They represent achievement that goes far beyond service to themselves. Theirs is the kind of achievement that seeks to serve humanity – that pursues human dignity, justice, enlightenment.
As an actor, comedian, author, and star of film and Broadway – and a diehard fan of the Yankees, I might add – Billy Crystal has used his gifts to brighten the light in our hearts. And he has shined a light on those in need—from Comic Relief to Hurricane Sandy relief. In all his work, he has harnessed humor to heal, to provoke, to bring people together, and to speak truth to power.
Emmanuelle Charpentier is a pioneer in science. The breakthroughs she has made in editing genetic code are among the most important scientific achievements of this century, revolutionizing our ability to manipulate and understand genes. But it was not an easy road. She decided early in her career that she wanted to contribute to human understanding of medicine, and she has achieved that with long hours, incredible drive, and unbridled intensity.
Talk about drive. Margaret Marshall fought against apartheid in her native South Africa – when she was a teenager. She has said that there “was no access to justice” in the South Africa of her youth, so this warrior for justice emigrated to the United States and not only earned her law degree, but eventually rose to become chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. From that perch, she extended the cause of dignity and justice by championing LBGT rights and marriage equality.
And then there’s the extraordinary Congressman John Lewis, my hero. Congressman Lewis has devoted his life to the conviction that love will conquer hate, and that hope will conquer fear. After being savagely beaten on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, a young John Lewis got himself patched up and got back on the march. 51 years later, Congressman Lewis still marches for justice, step by step, block by block, bridge by bridge.
The four very different paths taken by my fellow honorees all head in the same direction: toward justice. They have lived lives of truth, of sacrifice, of service. And the world is better for it. Would you join me in thanking them for their service to the cause of a more just, fair and enlightened world?
But graduates, the truth is, we are not here today to be honored. We are here to honor you.
And we are here to plant a question in your souls, one that I hope will stick with you for years to come: What might you achieve that goes beyond yourself? What sacrifices will you make, what service will you render, in the cause of justice in this world?
As graduates of this extraordinary institution, you have enormous privilege. With that privilege comes a responsibility — to not just stand out, but to stand for something, whether you are writing a legal opinion, or editing a genome, or running for office, or literally doing stand up.
Stand for something.
And never stop asking yourself the question: “What might I achieve that goes beyond myself? How will my life serve the cause of justice?”
Ask this question enough and you will surely achieve something extraordinary, something worthy of your degree from this institution, something to be proud of. We cannot wait to see what it will be.
Congratulations class of 2016!