Standing Together

Television and film writer Kenya Barris tells graduates to remain true to themselves in a time of turmoil

The Class of 2017 occupies a unique place in American history, television and film writer Kenya Barris told the graduating students at Tufts’ 161st Commencement on May 21. But they will surely rise to meet their challenges by remaining true to themselves and to what they have learned during their time at the university, he said.

“As the graduating class of 2017, you have the uniquely proprietary burden of actually being the first graduating class to truly ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” he said, to applause. “I can’t honestly think of a time since the Vietnam War that a graduating class has had more on its shoulders than you all.”

Complete coverage, including more photo galleries, of Tufts University’s 2017 Commencement>>

The university awarded 1,492 undergraduate degrees and 2,152 graduate degrees on a perfect New England spring day on the academic quad. The university also bestowed emeritus status on four long-time Tufts teachers and deans who are retiring: Naomi Rosenberg, dean of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences; Margery Davies, associate dean for faculty affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences; Jean Herbert, associate dean in the School of Arts and Sciences; and Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor and former provost.

Gittleman, who joined the faculty in 1964 and served as provost from 1981 to 2002, was a professor of German, and was adored by generations of Tufts undergraduates for his captivating courses on subjects ranging from Eastern European Jewish literature to American baseball history. “I say that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and the giant in this case is Sol,” said Provost David Harris, in marking Gittleman’s retirement.

In introducing Barris, university President Anthony P. Monaco described him as an artist in the tradition of television and film pioneers Norman Lear and Spike Lee, who are able to address some of the most pressing issues in our society with empathy, compassion and humor.

“The only actual way we were going to make a difference was for us to stop complaining, stop name-calling and to actually start having conversations with each other and stand together to make a difference,” said Kenya Barris. Photo: Alonso Nichols“The only actual way we were going to make a difference was for us to stop complaining, stop name-calling and to actually start having conversations with each other and stand together to make a difference,” said Kenya Barris. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Barris is the creator, director and executive producer of the award-winning ABC comedy series Black-ish. The semi-autobiographical story centers on an African-American advertising executive and his physician wife, who are raising their children in a predominantly white, upper-middle class environment. And like the main character in the show, Barris himself grew up in far tougher circumstances. That disconnect, played out amid the country’s precarious racial climate, makes up the heart of the show.

“I looked around, and even though we had a black president, we were seemingly talking about race less than ever,” said Barris, describing the genesis of Black-ish, which made its way to TV and critical and popular success only after Barris had pitched 19 other failed pilots. “I guess we thought racism and all our other problems were solved. But it wasn’t. We just weren’t talking about it. And not talking about things made them worse than ever. It got us as a country to where we are today. And where we are today is a scary time for a lot of people.

“In fact where we are today led me to write not only one of the most personal episodes of television ever done, but I really believe one of the most important things I have ever done as a writer,” he said.

He then spoke about the Black-ish episode in which the characters wrestle with the aftermath of the presidential election this past November. The episode, titled “Lemons,” was written by Barris immediately after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and it aired within weeks of the inauguration.

“The episode was so personal to me because it dealt with a feeling we were all dealing with—uncertainty,” Barris said. “The main character, Dre, played by Anthony Anderson, had a moment where he was addressing both sides, red and blue of our country, on the uncertainty of the future, saying that the only actual way we were going to make a difference was for us to stop complaining, stop name-calling and to actually start having conversations with each other and stand together to make a difference.

“This piece of advice Dre gives, along with that feeling of uncertainty, I think is particularly poignant for where you guys are sitting right now. This is a crazy world you’re entering,” he said.

In addition to Barris, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, the university bestowed honorary degrees on Bruce Baum, D71, scientist emeritus at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; Sean B. Carroll, SK83, professor of molecular biology, genetics and medical genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Maria Contreras-Sweet, former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration; Joyce Cummings, J97P, M97P, a leader in local and international philanthropy; Jean McGuire, G63, former executive director of METCO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity and the first African-American woman elected to the Boston School Committee; and Joseph William Polisi, F70, president of The Juilliard School.  

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts

“To go to this art school demands that while you’re still learning, you have to renew your trust every day,” SMFA dean Nancy Bauer told the graduates. Photo: Ian MacLellan“To go to this art school demands that while you’re still learning, you have to renew your trust every day,” SMFA dean Nancy Bauer told the graduates. Photo: Ian MacLellan

“SMFA is a school built by artists, for artists,” Teruko Isabella Kushi, BFA17, told her fellow graduates. “Go out and take on the world as if anything is possible, because it is.”

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts held its inaugural commencement ceremony as part of Tufts University at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on the evening of May 21. Students were welcomed with cheers as they descended the stairs of the Shapiro Family Courtyard to the Star Wars theme song played by a brass quartet.

Nancy Bauer, dean of the SMFA at Tufts, welcomed families, students and faculty, and spoke about this first-year journey for the school, and the importance trust plays in an art practice. “To go to this art school demands that while you’re still learning, you have to renew your trust every day. And you need to trust your [art] practice over anything else.”

After award recipients Janella Beaudoin, BFA17, Ea Domke, MFA17, and Christine Sopata, BFA17, were recognized, Professors of the Practice Megan McMillan and Ethan Murrow introduced the student speakers.

The three students each shared their perspectives on the SMFA at Tufts experience. “I grew up chasing grades, but I found the courage to abandon traditional school,” Camiel Duytschaever, BFA17, said about her to path to the less structured fine arts curriculum. Duytschaever reminded the audience to “have faith in your uncertainty.”

Teruko Isabella Kushi, BFA17, shared a defining moment: her first sculpture class assignment at SMFA, making shoes out of tape. At first daunted by the task, but ultimately successful, Kushi noted that “at art school, you don’t learn to make things, but how to think.”

M.F.A. student speaker Graham Yeager touched on an important quality of the SMFA community. “People at this school are stewards of risk-taking,” he said. “Now we have literal and metaphorical piles of potential to carry forward. Together, we are ready.”

School of Medicine and Sackler School

Philip Rosenstock, right, gets a hug from a classmate at the School of Medicine commencement ceremony. Photo: Matthew HealeyPhilip Rosenstock, right, gets a hug from a classmate at the School of Medicine commencement ceremony. Photo: Matthew Healey

The commencement exercises for the School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences Sunday were a time for reflection—and also a call to action.

Graduates will need to be creative and embrace new technology when tackling the pressing issues facing our health-care system, School of Medicine Dean Harris Berman said as he welcomed the crowd to the Gantcher Center. “Because you are young and bright, you will bring fresh perspectives to age-old problems,” he added, before concluding with a rallying cry: “You are poised to have wonderful careers doing good—go do it.”

Outgoing Sackler School Dean Naomi Rosenberg congratulated the students for each advancing science through their discoveries. “It’s both a privilege and an honor to contribute new knowledge to our world,” she said. As for the stresses currently affecting medicine and science? “You will be best served if you remember your training, follow your heart and follow your passion,” Rosenberg said.

Berman conferred both a Dean Emeritus Certificate and a Faculty Emeritus Certificate on Rosenberg, heralding her “deep commitment to educating the next generation of scientists.” Rosenberg, who joined the faculty in 1977 and became the Sackler School dean in 2004, will retire on June 30.

“Since we can’t ethically treat family members, we apologize in advance that we can’t answer all your questions or your ailments—but we promise to refer you to some fantastic classmates,” medical class president Ian Campbell Murphy then told the chuckling assembly. Indeed, through the trials and triumphs of medical school, he made lifelong friends who “are also going to make excellent physicians,” Murphy said, beseeching his peers to hold onto this community spirit beyond the Tufts campus. “I challenge everyone here to be the doctor you want to be, to be the inspiration for future generations.”

In her Sackler student address, Elizabeth Hanson thanked the female scientists she learned from at Tufts, and paraphrased a passage from Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s book Advice for a Young Investigator as she implored her classmates to go forth advocating for curiosity, beauty and objectivity.

At a separate ceremony for the School of Medicine’s Public Health and Professional Degree Programs at Cohen Auditorium, Dean Aviva Must quoted Prince Siddhartha while encouraging graduates to be change agents in their communities: “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea,” she said.

“We are confident that you will endeavor to make the world, or some part of it, a healthier and more just place,” Must added. Justice was also a theme in the faculty address delivered by Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “Health is a right—it’s up to us, all of us in this room, to treat it as such,” she said. Bharel touched on the narrowing gap between health care and public health, the reasons why the social determinants of health matter, and the importance of data in decision-making. “Literally, the health of the world is in your hands,” she told graduates.

The Class of 2017 is up to the task, at least according to class speaker Omar Shukri Abdulrahman Yaghi. He stressed that although his fellow graduates followed a set syllabus and attended the same lectures, they are all individuals. “What you get from a Tufts graduate is a highly dedicated, sharp, determined and imaginative individual,” Yaghi said, “an individual armed with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

School of Dental Medicine

“The future of our profession is in your hands,” Dean Huw Thomas told the graduates. Photo: Alonso Nichols“The future of our profession is in your hands,” Dean Huw Thomas told the graduates. Photo: Alonso Nichols

At Tufts School of Dental Medicine’s 149th commencement ceremony, Bruce Baum, D71, H17, a pioneer in gene transfer strategies, inspired graduating students to pursue a path of lifelong learning and discovery.  

It is a credo that reflects Baum’s own life. His research breakthroughs have improved the quality of life for those with oral cancer and other dry-mouth patients. But his vision of what a dentist could be, he said, was initially informed by simply what he had known as a patient. Growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts, he said he envisioned he would practice in an office “with a view of the water.”

“That all changed the first day I got to Tufts,” he said. Indelible welcoming remarks, he recalled, included this sentence: “The goal of a health profession is to eliminate itself.”

“This was something that never entered my mind . . . but I heard it and it stuck,” he said, going on to express his gratitude to the dental school. “I can honestly say to you that I owe my professional good fortune to Tufts,” he said. “Tufts gave me an extraordinarily solid foundation as an entry-level health professional, something that enabled me to adapt to a career path and a type of clinical practice that I never anticipated when I started dental school in 1967.”

Among the valuable lessons he learned, two were critical. “First, treat the whole patient, not just the mouth. . . . And second, be a lifelong learner. If you walk away from Tufts with those two concepts, along with your clinical skills, I assure you that you will have an enjoyable, satisfying and successful career no matter what pathway you choose,” Baum said.

In his remarks, Dean Huw Thomas framed challenges facing dentists today, including the changing demographics of oral disease, rapidly evolving advances in science and technology, and access to quality health care. He urged the Class of 2017 to be undaunted and fearless by sharing a short poem included in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, in which the character sees his life reflected symbolically in the image of a boat that has a furled sail, but that rests in the harbor, “a boat longing for the sea, and yet afraid.”

“The future of our profession is in your hands,” said Thomas. “Lift your sails.”

Class president Pasquale Eckert also encouraged his classmates to embrace challenges, reminding them that while they soon would have a diploma in hand, “the learning doesn’t stop. It can’t stop. We owe it to ourselves and our patients to keep reading, keep learning, join a journal club, take an excessive amount of CE [continuing education] and ask questions. Dr. Baum is a perfect example of someone who continues to learn and give back to the dental community.” 

Moosa Dalwai, president of the Class of International Students, also called upon his classmates to “stay humble and stay thirsty,” and provided a global context for a life of meaningful connections. “Let those connections nourish a sense of community,” he said, “but do not limit those connections based on race, religion, gender, wealth or anything else that may divide us.  In the end, no matter how accomplished we are, no matter how smart we think we are, we are nothing without each other and without this world.”

The School of Dental Medicine this year awarded 212 Doctor of Dental Medicine degrees, and 18 master’s degrees.

David Leader, an associate professor in the Department of Comprehensive Care, received the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service. Ronald Davitt, a clinical instructor in the Department of Comprehensive Care, and Patrick McGarry, an assistant professor in the Department of Comprehensive Care, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching. Robert Amato, assistant dean of post-graduate clinics, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching. Ekaterina Heldwein, associate professor of microbiology at the Tufts School of Medicine, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science Teaching.

Friedman School

This is “a moment for us to make an impact and put to good use the training that we have been afforded,” said class speaker Alison Brown. Photo: Anna MillerThis is “a moment for us to make an impact and put to good use the training that we have been afforded,” said class speaker Alison Brown. Photo: Anna Miller
David Kessler, who served as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, has an insider’s perspective on how health regulations are decided. In his address at the 36th graduation ceremony of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, held at Cohen Auditorium on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, he recalled standing in the Oval Office with President George H. W. Bush and making the case to require a nutrition facts label on all processed foods.

The secretary of agriculture, also in the room, argued that such labels would cost the food industry billions of dollars. Kessler, who had recently stopped for fast food, pulled out a tray liner he had pocketed, which listed nutrients and calories for the restaurant’s menu items.

“If it’s good enough for McDonald’s, it should be good enough for the Department of Agriculture,” Kessler said. The president replied, “Well, I guess that’s true.”

“And that’s how policy is made,” said Kessler.

Kessler has served as dean of the medical schools at Yale University and the University of California at San Francisco, where he is currently a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics. He is also known for his best-selling books, including The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, Your Food Is Fooling You: How Your Brain Is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat, and Salt, and his most recent book, Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering.

He said that nutrition currently has the public’s attention.  “But we must do a better job and have more to show for it than shelves full of gluten-free products,” he said.

“There are a few of you sitting out there who will take on the big, hard, challenging problems and touch what others see as untouchable,” he told the 117 degree recipients. Kessler lived that fight in his own career-defining campaign against the tobacco industry. “It took 15 years, but ultimately the president and Congress gave the FDA the authority to regulate cigarettes,” he said, including rules on the marketing and sale of tobacco to children.

“Some of you will work as pioneers on the microbiome and the interaction of food and the immune system, and tackle devastating diseases such Crohn’s and colitis,” he said. “The answers are waiting for your commitment.” To have an impact, he said, will take “persistence and commitment, persistence and grit.”

“You have earned the highest privilege in life, to touch the lives of others,” he said. “Your work can improve the health of all of us.”

The dean of the school, Dariush Mozaffarian, in his charge to the graduates, said that one student told him that she chose the Friedman School over another prestigious public health school because of a small detail: the Friedman School offered her nuts, fruits and veggies as snacks, while the other school served cookies and soda.  “I wanted to go somewhere that put their money where their mouth is,” she said to him.

Mozaffarian said it is small choices such as what snacks to serve that 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.”

Alison Brown, N17, who received her doctorate, gave the class address. In her time at Tufts, she has received the Gershoff-Simonian Award for Research Excellence in Nutrition Science and Policy as well as the Tufts Presidential Award for Citizenship and Public Service. But when she applied to Tufts, she was uncertain she belonged here. She was drawn to the Friedman School’s innovations in research and public health, but was concerned about moving to Boston, which she had grown up hearing stories about. “The city’s history of bussing and racial and economic segregation had left its imprint in my mind,” she said.

The reality, she found, was five years of working with amazing researchers, classmates and colleagues. She thanked many by name, as well as her fellow Friedman Justice League members, who she said have worked alongside the administration to embed the values of diversity and inclusion into the school’s current and future plans, while also organizing school-wide efforts focusing on justice in the food system. “Thank you for your commitment to equity,” she said.

She said the current political climate has left many people uncomfortable, including scientists compelled to defend the importance of science-backed policy. “With this discomfort, however, comes opportunity,” she said. “With this discomfort comes the moment to advocate for the changes we want to see. A moment for us to make an impact and put to good use the training that we have been afforded.”

Cummings School

Cummings School graduates enjoying the afternoon. Photo: Peter GumaskasCummings School graduates enjoying the afternoon. Photo: Peter Gumaskas
At Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s 35th commencement ceremony, 138 students received diplomas. While most earned D.V.M. degrees, the school also graduated two Ph.D. students, 13 students earning a master of science in animals and public policy, 16 earning a master of science in conservation medicine, and 11 earning a master of science in infectious disease and global health.

Florina S. Tseng, associate professor of infectious disease and global health, gave the faculty address. “Be as happy as your dog is when you come home, faithful to who you love,” she said. “Live life with purpose, celebrate life, enjoy your food, take naps and play.”

She added that “more than ever, we need people with clear moral compasses in order to serve as examples and lead or stay behind the scenes doing hard work,” she said. “The world needs all of you.”

As the graduates head off into the world, she said she feels like a mother bird watching her offspring leave the nest. “One day, you will fulfill that role for others. Keep yourself open to experience miracles,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to. It was an honor getting to know you the past four years. I truly hope you look at the Cummings School as the home you can migrate back to year after year.”

The student speaker was Jenna C. Dean, who urged her classmates to remember how much they have already accomplished.

Nick Frank, professor of clinical sciences, and Daniela Bedenice, associate professor of clinical sciences, were honored with the Zoetis Animal Health awards for distinguished teaching and research excellence, respectively.

The ceremony also featured the presentation of the Artemis Award, which recognizes clinical excellence. This year’s award was given to Dominik Faissler, assistant professor of clinical sciences. Paula J. Northrop received the school’s Henry E. Childers Award, which is given to a part-time instructor who has made extraordinary contributions to educating veterinary students.

Albert G. Andersen, president of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, administered the Veterinarian’s Oath.

Fletcher School

Fletcher graduates celebrate at the university-wide commencement ceremony. Photo: Anna MillerFletcher graduates celebrate at the university-wide commencement ceremony. Photo: Anna Miller

During the Fletcher School’s 84th commencement ceremony, 178 graduates received degrees, including 122 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy degrees, 22 Master of International Business degrees, and five Ph.D.s.

Those new graduates will follow an illustrious tradition of “making the world a safer and more just place,” said Distinguished Professor Jeswald Salacuse, who presided over the ceremony because Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, had a personal commitment elsewhere. Salacuse, who is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law, was dean of the school from 1986 to 1994.

Fletcher students possess an insatiable thirst to learn and a passion to make a difference, said Patrick Schena, F79, F00, A15P, an adjunct assistant professor of international business relations who was selected by students to receive the James L. Paddock Teaching Award. In addition to their classroom achievements, they have already made an impact in their chosen fields, he said. While earning their degrees, graduates ran a social investment program, organized professional symposia and consulted with a multinational company on sustainable finance, among other projects. “These are extraordinary people,” he said. “They’ve done amazing things, and I promise you they will do far greater things still.”

Class speaker Tanay Tatum, F17, echoed that theme. “We don’t just learn and critique, we act,” she said. That said, determining how and where to focus one’s efforts can be a challenge. For example, she recalled how torn she felt when teaching in a poor township in South Africa on a Fulbright, but wishing she could simultaneously do more community organizing in her native Florida in response to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teen.

Tatum urged her fellow graduates to stick to their commitment to service across boundaries, although it would require “a lifetime’s worth of stamina.” Echoing the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she said, “We have a very important role to play in shaping history’s long arc toward justice.”

The second class speaker, Natalia Prieto, F17, a former member of the women’s national soccer league in her native Colombia, told parents in the audience two “secrets” about Fletcher students. First, they put as much effort into organizing cultural nights representing their home countries as into their academics, she said, and second, “we will find a job, but it might take us longer because . . . we ask too much.” The drive to do meaningful work with a purpose defines the Fletcher community, she said. “We are courageous dreamers and doers.”

At Fletcher Class Day, on Saturday, May 20, keynote speaker Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC, urged graduates to help defend human rights and freedom of the press around the globe in an era of “fake news.” Lisbeth Tarlow, F84, F97, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a member of the Fletcher Board of Advisors, 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 Elizabeth Hennemuth and Miriam Freeman. The recipient of the Edmund A. Gullion Prize for Outstanding Second-Year Student was McKenzie Smith, F17, and the Leo Gross Prize for Outstanding Student of International Law was awarded to Philip Jones, F17, and Seth Turner, F17. Avner Golov, F17, and Laura Kuhl, F11, F17, both received the Peter Ackerman Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation.  

Jose Luis Stein, F08, founder of the Fletcher Club of Mexico City, received the Fletcher First Ten Award, which honors a recent alumnus’s success beyond the classroom and contributions to the global Fletcher community. The inaugural Outstanding Administrator Award was given to Associate Registrar Ann Marie Decembrele, who is retiring after nearly 30 years of service to the school.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at Additional reporting by Laura Ferguson, Julie Flaherty, Courtney Hollands, Ariana Shirzadi and Heather Stephenson.

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