Kerry Washington to Graduates: Answer the Call

Alumna and actor delivers Commencement address to nearly 25,000 gathered on the National Mall.

May 19, 2013

Commencement Speaker Kerry Washington

Commencement speaker Kerry Washington, B.A. ’98, urged members of the class of 2013 to go beyond their comfort zones and live their own stories.

Commencement speaker Kerry Washington, B.A. ’98, urged members of the class of 2013 to go beyond their comfort zones and live their own stories in Sunday’s university-wide ceremony on the National Mall.

“You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that writes the story you were meant to tell,” said Ms. Washington, who also received an honorary doctor of fine arts from the university.

With a backdrop of the Washington Monument, the ceremony began with the National Anthem and an invocation from Reverend Beverly Dempsey of Western Presbyterian Church.

“Graduates, let me begin by congratulating you on your outstanding achievements,” said President Steven Knapp in welcoming remarks. “The George Washington University is very proud of you.”

Chairman of the Board of Trustees W. Russell Ramsey, B.B.A. ’81, and GW Alumni Association President Jim Core, M.A. ’96, shared personal memories of their time at GW and urged graduates to stay connected with the university.

Provost Steven Lerman recognized recipients of the GW Awards, one of the highest honors the university can bestow. This year’s winners are Joshua D’Angelo, a third-year physical therapy graduate student; Deputy General Counsel Charles K. Barber; and Edward Cherian, professor of information systems and technology management.

Student speaker Alexander Zafran, a classics major, said that “in true ancient Roman fashion,” the university is an open forum of opportunity. “Our university’s unofficial motto is ‘Something happens here’” he said. “But truth be told, everything happens here.”

Former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, M.P.A. ’86, and international education advocate Harriet Mayor Fulbright, M.F.A. ’75, were recognized for their achievements and awarded honorary doctorates in public service and humane letters, respectively.

“Great leaders are great learners,” said Adm. Allen. “Opportunity that exists when adversity arrives is the opportunity to define yourself by who you are, how you act and your behaviors.”

Ms. Fulbright told the graduates she came to the university as a mother of three young daughters. “George Washington gave me a wonderful education, and I am deeply grateful for this extraordinary honor,” she said.

Wearing her mother’s academic regalia, Ms. Washington entreated the graduates to “answer the call” that every hero in every story hears before embarking upon his or her quest.

“In every culture and in every moment of human existence, the ritual of storytelling has been a central tenet of our experience, because it is through stories that we understand ourselves and each other,” Ms. Washington said. “As we journey along with the hero of any story, we realize that we, too, are the lead characters of our own lives…The adventure ahead of you is the journey to fulfill your own purpose and potential.”

Ms. Washington told graduates about her undergraduate days at GW, when her scholarship required that she audition for every show produced by the Department of Theatre and Dance. When she was a junior, one of those productions was “Croak (The Last Frog),” a musical with environmental themes written by Professor of Theatre and Dance Leslie Jacobson.

“It was a beautiful musical….but it was not my lifetime dream role to play a frog,” Ms. Washington said, to laughter from the graduates. “I wondered if there was some way to get out of this audition. [This was] phase two of the hero’s journey, 'refusal of the call.' But I showed up for my audition because I believed in the message of the production. So I answered the call. I pushed past my comfort zone.”

Ms. Washington won the leading role, and it was an experience that ultimately transformed her thinking about how she could use her body to perform.

“The lesson isn’t how you, too, can be a frog,” she said. “The lesson is that you’re here because you too learned how to answer the call. You don’t earn a degree by doing and being and existing in the comfort zone of what you already know. Look back on the journey that brought you here. What moments challenged you most? When were you asked to step outside of your familiar territory in order to rise to the occasion of your potential? I want you to remember those moments, because they will embolden you.”

In his charge to the graduates, Dr. Knapp asked the class of 2013 to keep alive their spirit and the curiosity that has guided their studies and to nourish the respect they’ve learned for all cultures. “Always know that you have a home in the heart of this nation’s capital,” he said.

The university ceremony was one of more than a dozen events—including individual school celebrations, a doctoral hooding ceremony, senior class toast, Phi Beta Kappa induction and Interfaith Baccalaureate—held during GW’s Commencement week, May 14-19.