Life as a Learning Opportunity

Stanford dean and psychology researcher Claude M. Steele urges graduates to keep asking questions as they choose their paths
singers at commencement
A cappella singers ring out Commencement 2013, during which the university awarded 1,496 undergraduate degrees and 1,949 graduate degrees. Photo: Matthew Modoono
May 19, 2013

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A diploma does not come with an instruction manual, social psychologist Claude Steele reminded the more than 3,400 graduates assembled on Tufts’ academic quad to receive their degrees on May 19. But if they keep asking questions, reaching out to others and viewing life as a learning experience, they will be on the way to creating a meaningful life’s work. 

In a speech that drew inspiration from sources as wide-ranging as Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and the Rolling Stones, Steele advised the graduates to be passionate about their chosen paths. “Begin the journey of life by, above all, trusting what you care about and like,” he said. “Think hard, always think hard, but don’t worry too much about figuring out a precise strategy, a step-by-step plan. Instead, cultivate a faith, a specific faith that, by and large, doing the best you possibly can at what you value doing will bring you the chances, the opportunities you need.”

Complete coverage of Tufts’ 157th commencement >>

Steele, the I. James Quillen Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, was the keynote speaker for Tufts’ 157th commencement. His work on how negative stereotypes can influence academic, professional and personal performance and interactions, and how the effects of those stereotypes can be overcome, has made him a leader in his field.

The impact of Steele’s research and his commitment to the role of social science in addressing society’s problems lie at the heart of what higher education is about, said James A. Stern, E72, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. Steele’s 2011 book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, will be the common reading book for the incoming class of 2017.

The university awarded 1,496 undergraduate degrees and 1,949 graduate degrees.

Several of the graduates marched wearing the blue-and-yellow medals from this year’s Boston Marathon. The commencement exercises included a moment of silence in honor of those injured and killed during the bombing at the marathon finish line, and in solidarity with Tufts’ colleagues at Boston University and MIT. Those killed in the bombing and subsequent manhunt included a Boston University student and an MIT police officer.

Gathering together to mark commencement “is especially meaningful in light of the difficult times earlier this semester,” said Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco.

Monaco and Provost David Harris also honored two Tufts leaders who will be ending their service to the university this year: Stephen Bosworth, who is stepping down as dean of the Fletcher School, and Stern, who is retiring from the Board of Trustees. Stern was first elected to the board in 1982—the youngest trustee to ever join the board—and has been chairman since 2003.

Bosworth is a former ambassador who also served as U.S. Special Representative for North Korea during his tenure as dean. He received a thunderous ovation from the Fletcher students in attendance, who, in accordance with tradition, also responded uproariously whenever their school’s name was mentioned.

Asking for Directions

“We want to realize our dreams, be happy, successful, have the respect of others—but we can’t know for sure exactly how to do this,” said Claude M. Steele. Photo: Kelvin Ma

“We want to realize our dreams, be happy, successful, have the respect of others—but we can’t know for sure exactly how to do this,” Steele told the graduates. “We can’t know the future, and the world is constantly changing, being disrupted. So what exactly does one do to realize one’s dreams?”

From his own life, Steele shared three pieces of wisdom:

Seek advice. “When you’re lost, ask for directions. This goes for the journey of life as much as when you are physically lost,” he said. “You don’t have to obey the advice you get. But invariably, you will learn what you never knew you didn’t know. It teaches you a mindset: that life is a learning opportunity, not just a performance of being smart, or always knowing your way.”

Approach problems collaboratively. At a point in his research when he had “hit a rut,” Steele said, he began talking with, and listening to, his graduate assistants. “I opened up. I let them in. And interestingly, even when I knew a huge amount about a research problem, every single student saw or understood something about the problem better than I did. And some of the most interesting research I did came from those conversations.”

Be open-minded. “When you feel under social threat, like the threat of judgment, try to avoid defensiveness, tempting as it is,” Steele said. “Rather, lean in and let in. Make learning your go-to mindset under threat. It can set you free, allow you to never feel lost, to never feel non-authoritative and to be a great citizen of the world with a rich, exploring social range and sense of empathy and connection. It can make your entire life a far more informed, full-of-opportunity, enriched and expansive journey.”

In addition to Steele, the university bestowed honorary degrees upon environmental activist Lois Gibbs; historian Philip Lampi; psychiatrist, philanthropist and entrepreneur Raymond Sackler; nutritionist and humanitarian worker Ram Shrestha, N90; and philanthropist and business leader Aso Tavitian.

 

School of Medicine and Sackler School

“It’s what you taught us between the lines of the textbooks that got us here today,” Ameer T. Shah, M13, told the faculty. “The best way for us to repay you is to carry it forward.” Photo: Matthew Modoono

If there were a single theme in evidence at this year’s combined commencement for the Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, it was one of enduring values and timeless satisfactions destined to be carried forward by the graduates through changing times.

Harris Berman, medical school dean, referred to the altered world of governmental regulation that his school’s graduates would be entering before going on to remind them, “You chose to come into medicine to do good. Patients will confide in you and seek relief from you no matter how you are paid.”

Berman noted that this changing professional landscape will require new physicians to “do more with less” and “think creatively” at every turn. He then expressed his confidence that they were poised and ready for the challenges.

In his remarks, the dean singled out for special mention the inaugural 32-member class of Maine Track graduates waiting to receive their degrees. The program, launched four years ago, seeks to recruit and train students for eventual careers as small-town doctors around the mostly rural state, helping to alleviate physician shortages there. This year’s group was the first to graduate.

Ameer T. Shah, M13, president of the medical school class, said that for many students in the crowd, the day represented the culmination of a lifelong dream. He compared the background team that enabled the class’s collective achievement to the many people who collaborate in a giant hospital to make it work. “Most of all, we owe a debt of gratitude to our friends and family,” he said.

Shaw recalled August 18, 2009, the day the members of his class had first gathered in a school auditorium to hear Scott Epstein, M84, dean for educational affairs, tell them that their learning experience would be like sticking their mouths in front of a fire hose. Seeming to confirm the analogy, Shaw said the class had absorbed a total of 306 lectures in its first year.

A fair share of the learning was much more personal and intense. Describing a technique he settled on when being grilled by attending physicians in later years, Shaw related how he “stood very still, didn’t say anything and hoped the attending had forgotten the question.” The move was an effort to escape a process so familiar among medical students that they had a shorthand term for it: “PIMPing,” for being “put in my place” by superiors.

“Still,” he told his professors, some of whom were assembled on the stage behind him, “it’s what you taught us between the lines of the textbooks that got us here today. The best way for us to repay you is to carry it forward.”

Naomi Rosenberg, dean of the Sackler School, began by citing her unalloyed pleasure at being in place to witness the annual occasion, with its music, its emotion and its rows of black-capped graduates. “For me, commencement is one of the most gratifying, thrilling days in the academic calendar,” she said. “There’s nothing I enjoy more.”

In her remarks she cited constraints that Sackler graduates would face that were akin to those on the medical side, with reduced governmental spending on research generally expected in the coming years. Lower NIH funding could be taken as a fact of life, Rosenberg granted, before adding, “Don’t let this deter you. You are ready for whatever next step you choose, so think broadly and follow your passion.”

Sana Mujahid, who received her doctorate in cell, molecular and developmental biology, gave the Sackler student address. She opened by relating an encounter she’d had with a senior scientist at a recent event. When Mujahid told the scientist that she was set to graduate in the spring, the older woman replied sagely, “It is just beginning.”

Mujahid described her own life in science as a continuum stretching back to her grade school days, observing cells through a microscope. Family love and support, teachers’ guidance and, more recently, the devotion of Sackler faculty members were all factors that had led her to this moment, she said. “Maybe it behooves us to carry these same things forward,” she added.

School of Dental Medicine

Student class president Kevin James Burke, D13, noted that every single member of the class passed their national board exams on the first try. Photo: Emily Zilm

At Tufts School of Dental Medicine’s 145th commencement ceremony, Dean Huw Thomas commended the graduates for their academic achievements as well as their commitment to resolving “complex public health issues.”

That dedication, he said, was symbolized by their choice to make a class gift to Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a shelter for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth. In addition to the donation, more than 50 dental students have provided free dental services at the Boston shelter. “You bring honor not only to yourselves, but to the school,” Thomas told the newest dental alumni. “Don’t forget you are members of a proud family. Come back home once in a while.”

Robert Kasberg, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, echoed the theme of public service, noting that finding “creative and meaningful ways to serve the underserved” is a core value of a Tufts dental education.

Class president Kevin James Burke remarked on his classmates’ cooperative spirit. “In a competitive culture that values survival of the fittest, our class epitomized teamwork,” he said, adding that 100 percent of the class passed their national board exams on the first try as a result of study groups and collaboration. The class also had an unprecedented 100 percent participation in the class gift. “I am nothing special alone,” he said. “Together, we are exceptional.”

At the ceremony, 199 students were awarded Doctor of Dental Medicine degrees, and 16 students received Master of Science degrees.

Vangel Zissi, D62, DG67, A02P, director of continuing education and clinical professor of endodontics, received the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service. Guilherme Bonecker Valverde, assistant professor of prosthodontics and operative dentistry, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching, and Kanchan Ganda, professor of public health and community service, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching. James Michael Hall, assistant professor of oral pathology, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science Teaching. Zissi also received emeritus status for more than 50 years of service to the school.

Friedman School

Graduates of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy cheer during the main commencement ceremony. Photo: Ian MacLellan

Robin Kanarek, interim dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, pointed out at the school’s 32nd commencement that the very first nutrition school convocation at Tufts was held in Alumnae Lounge on the Medford/Somerville campus, a location that could easily accommodate the 10 graduates, the faculty and all their family and friends. This year Cohen Auditorium was filled to capacity with hundreds cheering on the 105 new graduates.

The school’s commencement speaker, Ram Shrestha, N90, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree at the all-university commencement ceremony earlier in the day. Shrestha served for more than two decades as executive director of the Nepali Technical Assistance Group, a nonprofit he founded in 1995 to improve maternal and infant health in his native Nepal. He came up with innovative ways to motivate an army of female community health volunteers to distribute vitamin A supplements across the country. By 2007, 95 percent of all young Nepali children were receiving vitamin A supplements twice each year, and the rate of deficiency-related eye disease and infant mortality had plummeted.

He told the graduates to be open to all possibilities, explaining he knew early on that he wanted his career to benefit others, but thought it would be through hard work in the field he had studied as an undergraduate: chemistry. “I could picture myself in a lab discovering some miracle that would be helpful to people,” he said. Then a chance opportunity to teach Nepali to a group of Peace Corps volunteers changed his path. “I learned how a simple intervention can improve the poor health conditions in a village. . . . I learned that illiterate people have knowledge and that often it is disregarded by people like us who have formal education.”

After pursuing applications to 15 public health and nutrition programs over a year and a half (“Sometimes the path you choose will be covered in deep mud that you have to slog through to achieve your goal,” he warned), Shrestha enrolled at the Friedman School.

When he eventually returned to Nepal, he had the chance to set up vitamin A implementation at the national level, using an existing network of community health volunteers. He made the volunteers’ efforts noticeable by issuing green tote bags emblazoned with the program’s logo and making sure that when he visited individual volunteers, he had a government official or other funding agency official in tow. Soon the volunteers had the respect and support of their communities.

“I was so deeply absorbed in developing and testing innovative ideas that I didn’t realize when we had reached all 75 districts in Nepal,” he said. “I still can’t recall what other events, other than vitamin A programming, happened in Nepal at that time.”

“Be patient and flexible,” he said. “You will get there if you keep your eye on your goal.”

In her address to the class, Rebecca Boulos, one of 13 Friedman School graduates who received doctorates, told the parable of the starfish thrower. In it, a man on a beach comes across a man throwing a starfish back into the sea to save it from the sun. When the first man points out that there are so many starfish on the beach that he couldn’t possibly make a difference, the second man replies, “It made a difference for that one.”

“There are going to be times when those close to you seem not to understand or believe in what you’re doing. There will be times when you yourself lose faith in the path you’ve chosen,” Boulos said. “Remember that when our efforts are motivated by love, passion and belief, they are never small. When we are active citizens in our communities, our work is worth it even if only one person or one community or one starfish—or one cow or one tomato—has benefited.”

Fletcher School

Fletcher graduates are among the most enthusiastic at graduation. Photo: Kelvin Ma

During the Fletcher School’s 80th commencement ceremony, 362 graduates received degrees, including 205 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy and 12 Ph.D.s.

Fletcher Class Day on Saturday, May 18, was held at Fletcher Field. Dean Stephen Bosworth, who is retiring from Tufts after leading Fletcher since 2001, was the Class Day speaker.

Class Day also featured remarks by Paulo Bilyk, F92, chief investment officer of Rio Bravo Investments in Brazil and a member of the Fletcher Board, and award presentations, including the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy to Gloria Berbena, public affairs officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

At the Fletcher School commencement ceremony on May 19, the 22nd James L. Paddock Award for Excellence in Teaching was presented to Carolyn Gideon, assistant professor of international communication and technology policy and director of the Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs at the school. The recipient of the Paddock award is chosen annually by Fletcher students.

Gideon related how moving it was for her to work with students who have had such varied and challenging backgrounds. Through their inspiring lessons in community and courage, Gideon said that her students have become her “greatest source of hope for the world.” She left students with a quote from A.A. Milne: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

 

“Fletcher is woven into the fabric of our lives,” Bosworth, who was named dean emeritus, told the graduates later at the school’s commencement ceremony. “It will be hard to leave, but leave we must.”

 

School of Veterinary Medicine

Students turn their tassels to indicate they are now official graduates. Photo: Andy Cunningham

Reflecting the diversity of programs offered at the Cummings School, one graduate received a master’s in comparative biomedical sciences, two received doctoral degrees in biomedical sciences, 13 received master’s degrees in animals and public policy, seven received master’s degrees in conservation medicine, and 85 received Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degrees. Of the D.V.M. candidates, four also received master’s degrees in public health, three received a master of science in laboratory animal medicine, and two received a master of science in comparative biomedical sciences.

The career tracks among graduates vary, too. Some will follow the traditional route of working at small and large animal clinics and hospitals. Others plan to use their degrees in the fields of public health, wildlife and conversation medicine, research and pathology.

Cummings School Dean Deborah T. Kochevar, Tufts Provost David R. Harris and John H. de Jong, A78, V85, a university trustee and member of the Board of Advisors to the veterinary school, greeted the graduates and their family members. The student speaker was Falon Gray, and the faculty address was given by Raymond Kudej, an associate professor of clinical sciences and small animal surgeon.

Assistant Professor Sandra L. Ayres and Professor Sam R. Telford III received Zoetis Animal Health Awards for distinguished teaching and research excellence, respectively. Clinical Assistant Professor Orla M. Mahony received this year’s Artemis Award, which was established by Trustee Emeritus Alfred Tauber, A69, M73, to recognize clinical excellence.

David Schwarz, D07P, owner of the Ashland Animal Hospital, received the Henry E. Childers Award, which is given to part-time instructors who have made extraordinary contributions to educating veterinary students. Schwarz is also the president of the State of Massachusetts Animal Response Team.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu. Additional reporting by Julie Flaherty, Jacqueline Mitchell and Bruce Morgan.