Actor Hank Azaria—and a few of his famous friends—urge 2016 Tufts graduates to follow their own pole star
Embrace “who you really are” and follow your instincts, no matter how unconventional, was the advice the actor, producer and comedian Hank Azaria, A87, offered to this year’s 3,601 graduates during Tufts University’s 160th commencement on May 22.
It’s a credo that launched Azaria’s own award-winning career. “I didn’t realize it, but when I was your guys’ age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting and flawed and not practical. It wasn’t until I embraced the person that I really was that my work as an actor got really interesting. Just please be honest with yourself about what you think and how you feel . . . what you like and dislike, what angers you or scares you or saddens you or inspires you or delights you. Those feelings are called your instincts, and you ignore them at your own peril.”
The recipient of five Emmys and a Screen Actors Guild Award, Azaria is perhaps most known for voicing memorable characters on the Emmy-winning animated television series The Simpsons, including Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy and Carl Carlson, some of whom also “spoke” to graduates on Sunday.
His commencement address was characteristically funny and personal, and interwoven with commentary from characters as diverse as his mother and the flamboyant Cuban houseboy Agador Spartacus that he played in The Birdcage.
But his message was also serious: be true to yourself.
He recalled how his all-consuming passion for theater (he was a frequent performer at the Balch Arena Theater) left him two credits shy of earning his degree on schedule in 1985. That academics were not his first priority drew laughter, no doubt from academically weary graduates, when he quipped that instead of giving a formal commencement address, he’d “just take questions for the next 15 minutes.”
“But I actually did prepare a speech today . . . I’m very excited, because this is the first time ever that I’ve been standing on the Tufts campus holding a writing assignment that I can actually say I completed on time.”
He credited Tufts with giving him room to be himself. “I discovered acting and my love of theater more than I ever knew,” relating how he spent all his time in drama classes and “hanging out with kindred spirits.” That singular focus also meant “not really caring about whether I was given an A or an F, or pass or fail. I studied what interested me and what I enjoyed.”
The “kind and ever-compassionate administration” allowed him to walk with the Class of 1985, when he received an empty diploma box. He did complete his Tufts degree in 1987, while living and looking for work in Los Angeles.
Still, he says that taking his own “unconventional and weird path” was right for him. “Completing my drama major two years late made me realize that even though I had taken my own weird and atypical and borderline bizarre path, I could follow that road and get to the same place that the world wanted me to get to, even if I didn’t do it in a quote-unquote 'conventional’ fashion. I could now put a diploma in that empty box. I don’t think it registered on me at the time, but the notion that I could do things my way, even if that was, uh, a way that no one had ever done before or would ever care to do again, it was valid and unique and ultimately viable.
“Tufts accepted me as the willful person that I was and allowed me to be that headstrong fellow for four years without ever robbing me of my individuality.”
In closing, he extended pearls of wisdom from a few of the Simpson characters he’s voiced for more than two decades.
Apu, the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart, drew a huge laugh when he noted, “Tufts students and myself, we have very much in common. We both worship an elephant.”
Comic Book Guy had this parting advice: “Life is like the Star Wars movies. Some of it is great, some of it sucks, but you have no choice but to sit through all of it.”
The other honorary degree recipients were Janet Echelman, the internationally acclaimed artist; H. Jack Geiger, the former Tufts School of Medicine faculty member who created the model for the nation’s public health clinics; Martin Granoff, A91P, entrepreneur, business leader and university trustee emeritus who has been instrumental in shaping the arts and cultural landscape of the Tufts campus; Sonia Manzano, the actress and writer who played Maria on Sesame Street for more than 40 years; and Margot Stern Strom, president emerita and senior scholar of Facing History and Ourselves.
After the main commencement ceremony ended on the academic quad, graduates moved to other sites for the diploma-awarding ceremonies for the individual schools.
School of Medicine and Sackler School
Dean Harris Berman termed it “an extraordinary time” to be entering the world of medicine. After thanking those friends and family members in attendance for their years of guidance and support, he reminded graduates of the basic truth—that they had chosen a career in medicine “to do good.” Their training and experience now had them poised to deliver on that promise and improve their patients’ health. “That is the real reward,” he suggested. “Savor it.”
Jared Wortzman, medical class president, began his remarks by telling the audience that “medical school is really hard,” a fact tempered by the close bonds and kinship of classmates. “We’re used to the support of others,” he said. “It’s all about the community.” Wortzman cited the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 as having been a formative experience for the class. “Our class came together at that moment,” he remembered, with classmates offering free housing and meals on social media for the many people affected by the tragedy and talking about the ethical questions raised by the possible need to treat the perpetrators.
He went on to cite the intense workload of third year, to appreciative laughter from his classmates, before apologizing to the wider audience for all the phone calls, birthdays and other special family events that everyone had been forced to miss as a consequence of the demands of their medical training. Wortzman ended on a light note. “Despite my mother having introduced me as ‘My son, the doctor’ since I was first admitted to medical school, after today we are all, in fact, doctors.”
Sackler School Dean Naomi Rosenberg had a sense of her school’s collective effort and accomplishment on her mind as she surveyed the audience. “We celebrate these wonderful graduates who have worked so hard, and also our faculty and staff who have given so much to help them reach this day,” she said. “You are entering a world that is more than ready for you,” she assured the graduates, “and you are ready for these challenges.”
Kevin Goncalves gave the Sackler student address. He spoke of how he had arrived at Tufts with expertise in the basic science involved in his studies, but then learned a great deal more from the exploratory culture of the place. “Science is not stationary,” he pointed out. “Great science involves knowing how to ask questions. A finding in our lab was not met with applause, but with the question, What’s next?”
With that spirit instilled in them, Goncalves told his classmates, “I am confident that together we will be part of revolutionizing science.”
“The world will be able to feed itself by 2050. It ain’t going to be easy, it won’t happen everywhere, but I think the path is very clear,” he said to the 115 degree recipients. “But whether the people in the world are going to be nutritionally secure and sound by 2050 is largely up to you.”
Sanchez is director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The 2002 World Food Prize laureate and 2004 MacArthur Fellow has written groundbreaking books on tropical soil science and hunger and is widely recognized for changing the way technology is used to increase food production.
His message was a positive one. “Crop yields are going up; food production is going up,” he said. “A culture of sustainability is permeating our minds.”
It’s also the case that “we are seeing the slow shift from ‘climate change is a bunch of baloney’ to ‘yes, we better do something about it,’ ” he said.
He noted a meeting of the minds between people working in food, nutrition, health and environment. And it is not just academics who are rolling up their sleeves, he said. “We’re beginning to see the private sector really seriously involved in this issue in many ways.”
This “is a fantastic time” to be a nutrition professional, he said. “Get in there and do your thing.”
In his charge to the graduates, Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the school, said that small actions and choices, sewn together, drive the world. “Small choices about what to buy at the grocery store; small choices by industry that lead to healthier, more sustainable food systems; small choices by governments that empower women and livelihoods; small actions that lead to breakfast for a low-income child, improving their attention and learning on that day; small actions that lead to the acceptance of differences, the celebration of diversity and social justice.”
Katherine Docimo, N16, who gave the class address, said she would cherish the supportive and collaborative culture she found among Friedman School students. Naming student initiatives including the Friedman Justice League, NEWtrition, Jumbo’s Kitchen and Dig In! Nutrition Education, she said: “Can you imagine? Most Friedman students elect to do what are essentially group projects in their free time.”
She herself saw extraordinary collaboration while serving as a co-editor of the Friedman Sprout, counting 52 classmates who contributed to the online student newspaper over the past two years.
She said they will continue to work together on questions such as how to feed a growing population in a time of climate change and how to help people live healthy lives in a world where obesity and malnutrition co-exist. “There is no way to solve these problems without science, agriculture and policy,” she said. “We just graduated, and it turns out that real life is a huge group project.”
At the ceremony, two long-time faculty were recognized with emeritus status: Miriam Nelson, N85, N87, A12P, A14P, who was the founding director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity and Obesity Prevention and co-founder of ChildObesity180, and James Tillotson, a professor of food policy since 1989 whose very popular courses included global food business and health claims in the food industry.
School of Dental Medicine
Thomas also commended the school’s faculty for its “commitment to this process of imparting the high standards we expect of Tufts graduates.”
Finally, he thanked the class for the time they spent at the School of Dental Medicine, reminding them that during their four years together, students enrich the lives of faculty and staff “as much as we hope we’ve done for you.”
Addressing the class that entered the dental school the same year he became its associate dean for admissions and student affairs, Robert Kasberg said, “I’ll always hold your class in a special place in my heart. We all adjusted to a wonderful, yet complex university together.”
After acknowledging the graduates’ parents with a round of applause, Kasberg praised the class for their 20-plus years of schooling and the hard work and ambition that got them through it. But he also urged them to think about the teachers, mentors and coaches who guided them along the way. “Think about at least one person who encouraged you when you needed encouragement, who picked you up when you needed it. If you can, reach out to them and share your success with them.”
Class president Christopher Robert Paolino cited a 75-year-long study that found that social relationships—not money, fame or prestige—are the primary determinant of happiness. Dentists are lucky, he said, because maintaining good relationships is also good business practice. “We chose this path to help others,” he said. “Dentists don’t make money, we earn it.”
After welcoming people to the ceremony in more than half a dozen languages, Risha De Leon, president of the school’s international class—foreign-trained dentists seeking the education and experience required to practice in the United States—marveled at the “endless opportunities” available to the new graduates. Of particular note, she said, was the role women now play in the field. Up from just 3 percent in the 1970s, more than half of all dentists today are women.
“But let us not stop there,” she said, noting that women are still underrepresented in leadership positions in dental academia as well as business ownership. She also pointed to another thing new graduates have to think about—student debt. “Let us all be proactive in looking at the policies and regulations so that we may do what we are trained to do.”
At the ceremony, 195 students were awarded Doctor of Dental Medicine degrees, and 19 students received Master of Science degrees.
Michael Thompson, a professor of general dentistry, received the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service, and Guilherme Bönecker Valverde, an assistant professor of prosthodontics, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching. Joanne Falzone, a clinical professor of comprehensive care, and Marcelo Suzuki, an associate professor of prosthodontics, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching. Paul Kwan, a research assistant professor of integrated physiology and pathobiology in the School of Medicine, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science Teaching.
At the opening of the sometimes boisterous celebration, Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, struck a serious note, acknowledging that the graduates face a world wracked by poverty, environmental threats, violence, political disputes and looming pandemics. “What gives me enormous hope is that stack of boxes,” he said, gesturing to the diplomas behind him, “because I know all of you will address those challenges.”
Julie Schaffner, a visiting associate professor of development economics, picked up on the theme by offering six suggestions for leading change. “Be yourself—but work at being your better self,” said Schaffner, who spoke as the recipient of the James L. Paddock Teaching Award. She urged those in the audience to define the change that they wish to achieve specifically, invite participation by others who can help, take risks, use “nudges” to stay on track, and encourage others to change as well.
Schaffner is the only Fletcher professor to receive the Paddock Award twice, a tribute to her personal warmth—she invites students to her home for Thanksgiving dinner each year—and her skill in explaining her subject and its relevance to real-world problems. Her speech, delivered without notes, made it clear why students admire her—even those who, as class speaker Maša Ɖikanović put it, would “rather read about genocide” than do the math required in her econometrics course.
Ɖikanović, a native of Montenegro who speaks three languages and studied human rights, praised the community of friends who inspired and supported each other through their years at Fletcher, with their “currency of coffee, cookies and hugs” and light-hearted traditions like wearing red pants on Thursdays.
The second class speaker, Leland Lazarus, also reminded graduates of the value of their personal connections and urged them not to get so caught up in academic or professional achievement that they lose sight of other aspects of their lives. Lazarus, a Panamanian-American who speaks Mandarin Chinese and is entering the U.S. Foreign Service, recalled how his father had to pull him away from work on his Fletcher capstone project during a school break so that he could visit his dying grandmother. “I fear if we live from deadline to deadline, we might forget to live between them,” Lazarus said. He advised his fellow graduates to “prioritize the personal.”
Also at the Sunday ceremonies, retiring faculty member Alan Henrikson, the Lee A. Dirks professor of diplomatic history, was honored with a faculty emeritus certificate.
At Fletcher Class Day, on Saturday, May 21, keynote speaker Arianna Huffington urged students to take time to recharge, which she argued is essential to good leadership. Huffington, who is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, was awarded the Dean’s Medal for extraordinary accomplishment. Susan Livingston, F81, offered the alumni greeting.
Class Day also featured the presentation of awards, including the Robert B. Stewart Prize for Outstanding First-Year Student, which went to Ashley Doliber. The recipients of the Edmund A. Gullion Prize for Outstanding Second-Year Student were Matthew Cancian, Alexandra Edelstein and Aditya Sarkar, and the Leo Gross Prize for Outstanding Student of International Law was awarded to Frederik von Bothmer. Christof Kurz received the Peter Ackerman Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation. Rockford Weitz, F03, F08, who is the entrepreneurship coach at Fletcher and director of the school’s Maritime Studies Program, was named the inaugural recipient of the Fletcher First Ten Award. The award honors a recent alumnus’s success beyond the classroom and contributions to the global Fletcher community.
At the ceremony, two faculty were recognized with emeritus status: Nick Dodman, professor and head of the Animal Behavior Clinic, and Linda Ross, an associate professor of clinical sciences.
Faculty award winners were Lilian Cornejo, a clinical assistant professor, who received the Artemis Award for Clinical Excellence; Perry Bain, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences, who received the Zoetis Distinguished Veterinary Teacher Award; Andrew Hoffman, professor of clinical sciences and director of the Regenerative Medicine Laboratory, who received the Zoetis Award for Veterinary Research Excellence; and Victoria Wirsig-Embree, who received the Henry Childers Award, given to a part-time instructor who has made extraordinary contributions to educating veterinary students.
Frank Romano, co-president of the class, gave the student speech. Amy Sato, clinical associate professor of clinical sciences, gave the faculty address. Romano and class co-president Anya Price announced the class gift.
Adam Arzt, president of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, administered the Veterinarian’s Oath.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional reporting by Julie Flaherty, Jacqueline Mitchell, Bruce Morgan and Heather Stephenson.