Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) urged George Washington University graduates to make their presence felt in the political arena and to steadfastly advocate for their beliefs during her address to the Classes of 2020 and 2021 on Saturday at the National Mall.
“Focus on what you believe in and then fight like hell for it,” said the Massachusetts senator who attended GW from 1966 to 1968.
In an impassioned call for enhanced civic engagement—which touched on current controversies from the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Texas abortion law to struggles for racial justice and gender equality—Sen. Warren said GW graduates have “the tools and the power” to affect transformative change.
“Get in the fight. Get in the fight for opportunity, for race, gender, sexual identity, for the opportunity to survive in a world not suffocated by climate change or bled to death by wars,” she said.
“You have used the opportunity given to you. So now get in the fight to expand opportunity for someone else.”
Sen. Warren’s address headlined a long-awaited in-person Commencement ceremony, the first for the GW community since 2019. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the National Mall, but the tradition was interrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic forced ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 to be moved online.
The ceremony was a significant part of the three-day “Our Moment, Our Momentum: GW Centuries Celebration Weekend” event, which marked the end of university’s eight-month bicentennial celebration.
In her address, Sen. Warren noted that, despite a string of global crises, she is encouraged by the passion and activism of GW graduates. “I’m here today because my heart is full of hope,” she said. “Hope that rests in you.”
She recalled her childhood in Oklahoma, where her father worked as a janitor and her mother answered phones at a department store. With ambitions of being a teacher, she accepted a scholarship to GW, but left after two years. “GW was the first big door to open for me, and I loved it at GW, and I am grateful for all that I learned here,” she said. “But I didn’t read the text book on what to do with that open door.”
She described eventually earning a degree and teaching special-education in Texas. While she acknowledged her accomplishments, Sen. Warren stressed that she was keenly aware how many others did not have the same opportunities. “I never forget I was one of the lucky ones,” she said. “For so many women, the doors stayed shut and locked. Those doors kept out women, people of color, poor people. Black and brown women dealt with double helpings of discrimination and disparity.
“Opportunity was a controlled access road available to those of the right color, the right gender and the right background,” she said.
Drawing on her own failed 2020 presidential campaign, Sen. Warren implored graduates to risk setbacks and disappointments, but to continue fighting for causes they believe in.
“This is the moment you have been called to, a once-in-a generation chance to redefine opportunity in America. Now is the time to make a down payment on the America you will live in. Now is the time to set the course for generations to come,” she said.
Sen. Warren also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Public Service at the ceremony.
A Commencement ‘At Last’
Interim Provost Christopher Alan Bracey opened the ceremony by welcoming graduates and family members and acknowledging the challenges and uncertainty they faced on the path to the in-person Commencement. With many in the graduating classes already moving on to other endeavors, Professor Bracey called it a “rare privilege” to see so many returning to GW.
“We do not take this privilege lightly, and we are thrilled to be here today to celebrate your graduation and all the ways you have already started making the world a better place,” he said.
Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, also recognized that the graduates were making their marks as leaders in their lives and careers, while stressing that they will always be supported by a robust GW community.
“Leadership, especially during a time of increasing uncertainty, is a great responsibility, but you are not alone,” she said. “You have the support of your mentors, your friends, your families and, of course, our alumni community and the George Washington University Alumni Association.”
Ms. Speights introduced GW President Thomas LeBlanc, who cheered the ceremony’s return to the National Mail—"At last!"—while taking a photo of the crowd and congratulating graduates for their resilience and accomplishments. Nodding to the Bicentennial Celebration, he noted that “GW has been a force for good for 200 incredible years—a historic milestone that few universities accomplish, and one that even fewer graduating students are directly a part of.”
Dr. LeBlanc awarded the GW President’s Medal, the highest honor the university’s president can bestow, to three individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the university’s and country’s pandemic response: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Cindy Liu, a Milken Institute School of Public Health associate professor who led the development of the university’s COVID-19 testing laboratory; and Andrew Maurano, an associate clinical professor of emergency medicine who managed the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to the D.C. community. Dr. Fauci previously received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from GW in 2015.
Three graduates—Niku Nourmohammadi, Vivika Fernes and Anjalie Subramanian—assisted Dr. LeBlanc in presenting the medals.
Speaking remotely, Dr. Fauci addressed the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and called the return of the Commencement celebration to the National Mall, “a sign of progress, a decision of strength and a message of hope.”
“I extend my sincere congratulations to the George Washington University graduates who, despite extraordinary constraints and uncertainty, persevered and are being celebrated here today,” he said
In her remarks, Dr. Liu recounted her unlikely journey to the Commencement stage, recalling her childhood in a polluted Taiwanese town. She noted that she repeated 9th grade and didn’t learn English until she was 13, but pursued her education and training despite having “no leaders that looked like me.”
She told graduates, “It doesn’t matter that no one from your family has done it, that no one from your hometown and no one that looks like you have done it or even tried it. And it does not matter if everyone says it is impossible. When you find the greatest good that you can do, you do exactly that.”
Dr. Maurano accepted the medal, in part, “on the behalf of the GW Department of Emergency Medicine and the hundreds of men and women who showed up each day to join me in [personal protective equipment], ready to take on the next phase of this pandemic.”
He encouraged graduates to view the unknowns of the world not with fear and frustrations but as an opportunity—to continually gain new knowledge and “to listen to others fears, questions, frustrations and anger but not with the intent to respond but with the intent to understand.”
Christine Brown-Quinn, M.B.A. ’92, president of the GW Alumni Association, asked graduates to congratulate themselves on overcoming the extraordinary challenges brought on by the pandemic. “You are incredible,” she told them. “I am awed and humbled by what you have achieved.” She also expressed her pride in counting them as “fellow members of our global family” of more than 300,000 alumni from 150 countries around the world.
“We are stronger together and the experience and perspective you bring makes us even stronger. As an alumni community, we will always be there for you as you build your careers—as you change your careers—and navigate life, and we want you to remain active and engaged with us for years to come,” she said.
A Pair of Class Speakers
The ceremony included two class speakers—one representing each of the graduating classes.
Former classical studies major SJ Matthews, B.A. ’20, spoke for the Class of 2020—“Better late than never,” she joked—when she recalled milestones like voting for the first time in the 2016 presidential election and joining classmates just months later at the January 2017 Women’s March. “We have seen divisiveness, yes, but we have also seen extraordinary examples of humanity and reaching out to others in their hour of need,” she said.
Ms. Matthews, who currently works on Capitol Hill and is pursuing a master’s degree in legislative affairs at GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, applauded her fellow graduates for confronting trying times by giving back to their communities—from volunteering to serving as frontline workers.
“You stood up for what is right, you stood up for those who were mistreated, and you stood up for each other,” she said. “It is those choices that have defined your time as a GW student, and it is those choices that will define you as GW alumni for the rest of your lives.”
Representing the Class of 2021, Naseem Haamid, who earned a B.A. in political science and currently attends the University of District of Columbia School of Law, shared a spoken word performance honoring fellow classmates and graduates. Titled “Have We Made it to the Mountaintop?,” it included these lines:
“I profess: our generation will continue to strive for progress
The attainment of education is one step in the path towards liberation
Prophetic words have been said that the mountaintop has been seen
So let’s continue to dream the biggest dream
Because, one day, we WILL make it to the mountaintop.
If we keep climbing.”
Graduates Janis Nicholas and Damilola Arowolaju assisted Dr. LeBlanc in conferring honorary degrees on Saturday. In addition to Sen. Warren, Board of Trustees Chair Emeritus Nelson Carbonell Jr., B.S. ’85, was also awarded a Doctor of Public Service. A business entrepreneur and philanthropist who served the GW board for 17 years, including six as chair, Mr. Carbonell said he reveres the life-changing friendships he made as an engineering student at Foggy Bottom.
“I hope you will continue to keep the connection that you have with GW,” he said, “to continue to be part of this incredible, lifelong worldwide community.”
Later, the Classes of 2020 and 2021 finally realized their long-delayed moment as they stood on the Mall to have their degrees recognized in-person. Dr. LeBlanc saluted them for reaching the next stage in their educational journey.
“You have earned this moment,” he said. “I know you will continue to bring distinction to yourselves, to your communities, and to your alma mater. May you continue to carry your GW education and your commitment to serve others and to have a positive impact on our world with you every day.”