GW commencement speaker Lonnie G. Bunch III encouraged graduates to use their education and skills to do good for others.
By Kristen Mitchell
The key to finding your way in the world is learning how to embrace ambiguity and change, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie G. Bunch III told the George Washington University class of 2021.
“When I was in college, I always believed that once I graduated, the clouds would part, my future would be clear in front of me, and that calm certainty would be my lot in life,” he said. “Boy, was I wrong. Trust me when I tell you that your lives will unfold in ways you can’t conceive of.”
GW’s commencement is typically held each May on the National Mall, an iconic experience unique to GW that this year and last year, had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working at the Smithsonian gives Mr. Bunch the opportunity to see the preparation every year as chairs are set up and the stage is assembled.
“Not only does it evoke fond memories of my time at GW, it always fills me with hope for the future,” said Dr. Bunch, who served as a museum studies and history professor at GW from 1990 to 2000. “I’m sorry it couldn’t be in person this year; COVID has changed so much for all of us.”
Graduates are entering the post-college world during a particularly challenging time in history, Dr. Bunch said. In addition to the worst health crisis in a century, graduates are starting the next chapter of their lives at a time when the nation is shaped by fights for racial and social justice, surging numbers of mass shootings in the United States and a looming climate crisis.
“I wish I could assure you it will get easier, that things will get better. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee of that. Moments of adversity are part of the human condition,” he said. “What matters, though, is how we respond to those moments. Adversity, like your education, can prepare you for the world, can instill empathy, can inspire action.”
Graduates can expect to face surprising challenges and opportunities, disappointment and failure and difficult choices as their lives unfold. Graduates will have to navigate this world with “a nimbleness that would have been unimaginable for your grandparents,” Dr. Bunch said.
Throughout his life, Dr. Bunch has learned the importance of having a network of friends and mentors to rely on for support and guidance. He encouraged graduates to hold those they have met at GW closely.
“The friends you made at GW and the professors that you have learned from will be with you the rest of your lives, whether in person or in spirit,” he said. “Reach out to them. Ask for help when you need it. No one is an island. Life is hard enough to navigate without doing it alone.
“Especially now, we need support and sustenance from friends, family, sometimes even strangers.”
Dr. Bunch told graduates about how when he was 13 or 14 years old, a mob of white teenagers attacked him with bats after a neighborhood baseball game in his home state of New Jersey. He fled, running until he collapsed on the front lawn of an unfamiliar home. A young blonde girl came outside and stood between Mr. Bunch and the mob, demanding they leave.
“At that moment, I learned that help comes from unlikely places and that generosity of spirit binds our humanity, irrespective of race, religion or background,” he said.
Dr. Bunch never saw that girl again, but the moment has stuck with him for decades. She inspired him by showing the power of standing up for what is right. The incident stimulated his interest in history and understanding why race mattered. It also taught him never to generalize or stereotype people—and that inspiration can be found everywhere.
“No matter how fast, how smart or how tough we are, there will be many times when we need to draw sustenance, inspiration and guidance from others,” he said. “Never be afraid to ask for help or to accept it when it’s offered.”
There is no question that the class of 2021 is entering a world marred with challenges. If the past year has taught us anything, Dr. Bunch said, it’s that the world needs more people who commit themselves to doing good.
He recalled that during his time in Chicago, he came to know Studs Terkel, a great oral historian who dedicated his life to giving voice to the voiceless and “never met a strike or picket line he didn’t like.” In his later years, he told Dr. Bunch that he couldn’t hear well, see much or stand up anymore, but asked Mr. Bunch to point him in the direction where he could do good.
“This world needs more people who live by that ethos,” Dr. Bunch said, people who “point themselves in the direction of doing good, irrespective of personal cost.”
“If you have that commitment to do good, you’ll be able to handle the adversity,” Mr. Bunch said. “You’ll be able to embrace the ambiguity and change that life is about.”
Dr. Bunch urged graduates to use their GW education and skills in a way that contributes to making America a better and kinder place that “embodies its loftiest principles and lives up to its most cherished ideals.”
“On this day of celebrating your hard-won accomplishment, I wish you a life of joy, peace, surprise, wonder and important work,” he said. “But most importantly, I wish you a life of purpose and doing good for others.”
Before Dr. Bunch’s Commencement address, university leadership gave remarks to the graduates.
Provost M. Brian Blake said that when graduates committed to pursuing higher learning at GW, they chose an education unlike any other in the world, one that challenged their view of the world, changed their way of thinking and gave them the knowledge and skills to create change and advance society.
“Tomorrow you will greet the world as a...scholar, a lifelong learner and a helping hand for communities that will benefit from the expertise you cultivated at GW,” Dr. Blake said. “New choices will await you. Today, you’ll celebrate all you’ve achieved alongside your colleagues and loved ones who supported you and helped make this moment possible.”
Dr. Blake introduced GW President Thomas LeBlanc, who recognized and thanked the families and loved ones who have supported the class of 2021 throughout their time at the university. Dr. LeBlanc noted that Sunday’s Commencement takes place in the bicentennial year of the university, a historic milestone that few universities accomplish.
Dr. LeBlanc said he finds no greater pride or joy than to see GW students discover their passions, learn and grow. He noted that students’ collective contributions to the world shine as “great forces for good,” especially through times of change and challenge.
"Our long history is a testament to the strength of our community. And today, this history continues thanks to the strength of each of you,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “While today is the end of one chapter, it is just the beginning of the next. It is just the beginning of the many years that you will spend creating a better world, driven by the pursuit of knowledge, the quest for innovation and your own ideals and desire to serve others.”
Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, chair of the Board of Trustees, recalled her years at GW Law and the meaningful and lasting relationships she built with the faculty and staff who encouraged her interests, the classmates who became lifelong friends and the alumni who inspired her to dream big.
“The world is changing rapidly, and we need leaders to help guide us to a better future. You are those leaders,” she said. “It is a great responsibility, but you are not alone. You have the support of your mentors, your friends, your families and, of course, the George Washington University Alumni Association that you join today.”
Richard Jones, J.D. ’84, president of the GW Alumni Association, told the graduates they were joining more than 300,000 alumni from 150 countries in a world that is fast-changing.
“What is change if not an incredible opportunity,” he asked, rhetorically. “And what institution could have better prepared you for this moment than GW? You didn’t have all the answers during your time at GW. You don’t have all the answers now. But GW has prepared you with the skills to seize the uncertainty of change and make your future exactly what you want it to be.”
Dr. LeBlanc introduced Nelson A. Carbonell Jr., B.S. ’85, who received an honorary Doctor of Public Service during the celebration. Mr. Carbonell served on GW’s Board of Trustees for 17 years until May 2019, with the last six years as chair who ushered in a number of transformative changes for the university.
Mr. Carbonell said that when he came to GW as an undergraduate student on a scholarship, he never could have imagined how the university, the engineering program and the friends he made in Foggy Bottom would change his life.
“Being a part of the lifelong and worldwide GW community is an honor beyond any I could deserve,” he said. “My service as chair of the board was one of the most meaningful experiences of my professional life. I only hope I can give back to GW all that GW has given me and to make my alma mater proud.”
Dr. Bunch will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, which he has asked that the university confer when it is able to hold an in-person celebration on the National Mall.
Dr. LeBlanc led the celebration’s degree conferral, telling students they are prepared to succeed and lead going forward. “May you carry your GW education—and your commitment to serve others and to have a positive impact on our world—with you every day,” he said.
The commencement celebration also included a look back at the global, national and GW moments that have shaped the class of 2021’s time at the university. It highlighted how members of the GW community got involved in efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic through assisting those in need. It spotlighted how students voted in a historic presidential election with record turnout and participated in national movements for social and racial justice like the 2017 Women’s March and Black Lives Matter protests.
The video amplified the accomplishments of GW’s student athletes and local sports teams who won championships over the last four years. It also highlighted “Only at GW” moments including a 2018 visit from French President Emmanuel Macron and the annual New Venture Competition.
The virtual event culminated with the unfurling of a congratulatory banner on the National Mall, where the classes of 2020 and 2021 will celebrate in-person at a date to be announced later.