Giving shout-outs to student groups, the actor and activist told grads of the Class of 2019 to “write your own script”
In an effervescent message of hope and encouragement, actor Alfre Woodard urged Tufts graduates to seize their futures with gusto, but also with compassion for all people and a respect for the fragile planet.
“Keep a conscious intent for your sonata, for your start up, your suspension bridge, for your space station,” she told the 3,666 graduates during Tufts University’s 163rd commencement on May 19. “Remember, our real work in this life is the continual growing into how to love and how to receive love. You guys are finally free to go and do. So go, make stuff. Make just laws. Make films. Make sustainable foods, renewable energy. Make love. Make peace.”
Woodard stressed that Tufts graduates face a “rigorous destination,” and called on them to “be the influence” the nation and the world needs. Regardless of their chosen path, she called on them to be doers with a strong social conscience.
“Make art, make science, make commerce,” she said. “Make decisions that speak truth to power and stand even when it is unpopular. In fact, especially when it is unpopular. Stand for the true principles of life, liberty, choice, and the pursuit of happiness to which we are entitled.”
Woodard, with warmth and candor, also reminded graduates that life is, at its very best, an adventure. As a “fellow traveler,” she said she is “still seeking, discovering, still flying by the seat of my pants. So that free-falling sense you’ll feel next week—it doesn’t go away. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t go away.”
Her advice? Keep seeking. “Safety is a snoozer, so don’t even go there. Get out of here and live,” she said. “Screw up, big time, and then keep living. Keep reaching and seeking. Be kind to others, of course. But even more so, be kind to yourself.”
Woodard was one of five individuals awarded honorary degrees at the ceremony on the Academic Quad of Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, which was followed by convocations for the individual schools (see below). Awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree, Woodard was praised as one of the most extraordinarily versatile and talented actors of her generation, and for her work for justice.
Woodard’s forty-year acting career has earned her an Academy Award nomination, four Emmy Awards and seventeen nominations, three SAG Awards, a Grammy Award nomination and a Golden Globe. As an activist, she has long supported human rights, democracy, and the fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa and the United States. She also helped found the Turnaround Arts Initiative to narrow the achievement gap and increase student engagement across the country.
Woodard, a 1974 graduate of Boston University, gave a warm and jubilant welcome to Tufts graduates. “It is a big day—dare I say, a Jumbo day” she said, getting a round of laughter. She established a ready rapport with the audience, praising Tufts’ “kick-ass” levels in soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and football. “Even quidditch and Ultimate Frisbee,” she added. “And what about Jesse Grupper!” The graduating senior placed fifth last year at the World University Sport Climbing Championship. “Keep climbing, my brother. Your fellow grads are right behind you.”
She spoke of those undergraduates who were not able to be at Commencement; senior Sam Lobley would have graduated summa cum laude, but passed away on May 10 from complications of long-term cystic fibrosis and a lung transplant. “How fortunate you are to have lived in the time of Sam Lobley,” she said, “to have been inspired by his perspective, touched by his kindness, stirred by his ideas, and infected by his joy.”
Woodard offered all graduates words of wisdom that have stood her in good stead over her remarkable career. “Whichever direction you move, follow your passion,” she said. “I know, you’ve heard it. It’s worth being a mantra. Follow your passion, not the paycheck. . . . You might have to take a J-O-B now and then. But even just a job, done with a heightened consciousness, will not be a burden. You can enliven, embolden, innovate—whatever you need to do.”
In closing, she got yet another round of laughter as she braided together philosophy, beauty tips, common sense, and a universal Star Trek greeting (she played Lily Sloane in the film Star Trek: First Contact.)
“And remember—never let anybody who is telling the truth stand alone,” she said. “Life is good. Even when it’s complicated. Stay in it. Create. Foster justice. Have fun. Moisturize, moisturize. Hydrate. Step away from the single use plastic and people like them. Put your phones down, my friends, and live. Live long and prosper.”
In addition to Woodard, other honorary degree recipients were Marie Cassidy, director of the Medford Family Network (MFN); Edward J. Markey, U.S. senator from Massachusetts; Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools; and Ellen Ochoa, veteran astronaut, inventor, and former director of the Johnson Space Center at NASA.
Former president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston and president-designate of Roger Williams University Ioannis Miaoulis, E83, EG86, EG87, addressed the School of Engineering’s undergraduate degree graduates, and former Aware, Inc. CEO Michael Tzannes, EG90, addressed graduates of the School of Engineering’s graduate programs on May 18.
Harris Berman, dean of the medical school, told the Gantcher Center crowd, “You graduate today not only with the skillset and tools to improve health care in underserved communities, but also to transform it so that it becomes patient centered and not provider centered.”
Andrew Jarrah, president of the medical class, described the 2019 graduates as a family. When gearing up to take their first set of board exams, “We remembered to check in on each other, reminded each other to eat, to sleep, and occasionally to shower,” he said. Later, when working on the wards, “when one of us struggled we all struggled together . . . we came to our classmates’ aid,” he said. “Instead of thinking ‘How can I be the best?’ you thought, ‘How could we be the best?’”
Sackler School Dean Daniel Jay praised several graduates by name, including Alexander Fine, who gave the Sackler student address. Fine said he applied to the Sackler School Ph.D. program in part because of its downtown Boston location, with its promise of nightlife and fancy coffee. He was stunned when he was offered a spot in the mammalian genetics track at the Jackson Laboratory five hours north of Boston in Bar Harbor, Maine. Even though he saw more deer on his morning commute than humans, he quickly fell in love with the program.
“It had nothing that I wanted,” he said, “but everything that I needed.”
The experience taught him to embrace the unexpected, something all scientists should do, he said, especially when looking at study results which may be the opposite of what they expected going in. “We take a step back and throw out our pre-conceived notions,” he said.
Emeritus certificates were presented to professors Curtis Bakal, Barry Goldin, Ira Herman, Stuart Levy, Ellen Perrin, and Girard Edwin Robinson and clinical professor Peter Randolph.
At a separate ceremony for graduates of the Public Health and Professional Degree Programs, held at Cohen Auditorium, Dean Aviva Must did not have to reach to find an example of a public health crisis. She pointed to the reemergence of measles in the United States, a disease declared eliminated in 2000. “The root causes for gaps in coverage are disturbing—distrust of science, laws that limit adolescents’ agency over their own health, and the pervasive use of social media where unvetted health information can masquerade as evidence,” she said.
She encouraged the public health graduates to use the tools they’ve learned to work toward solutions such as legislation that limits vaccine exemptions, media campaigns to communicate risk, and partnerships with schools, pharmacies, and community health workers.
“We are confident that you will use these tools effectively and wisely. Apply your energy, your passion, your considerable knowledge, and your heart to be leaders and change agents in our society,” she said.
Marta del Carmen Illueca, who gave the class address, said graduates have a duty not only to society, but to their own health and integrity. “The more wholesome we are in body, mind, and spirit, the better healers of society we will become,” she said.
In his faculty address, Giles Li, executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, recounted some of Chinatown’s history and its decades-long relationship with Tufts University, which has sometimes been mistrustful. But he said over the past several years it has been a joy to work with the department of Public Health and Community Medicine to address the neighborhood’s health challenges and to “witness first-hand the sincere dedication from all of you in trying to knock down the walls between the institution and the neighborhood,” he said.
“Seeing you all heading off into your communities—I know you will continue to do great work as you do your part to address inequities,” he said.
“When we study the Holocaust and subsequent mass atrocities, we note time and again that the malfeasance and abhorrent acts of a few were made possible by the silence and complicity of the many around them,” said Theidon, who is the Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Fletcher and was selected by students to receive the James L. Paddock Teaching Award. Yet, “I imagine all of us in this room would wish to be counted among those who used whatever power or privilege they had to do the right thing in tough times.”
To demonstrate her point, Theidon asked the gathered students, faculty, and family members to stand up if they believed “climate change is real and we should be doing something about it.” As virtually everyone in the crowd rose to loud applause, she called on them to stand up for other beliefs, such as “equal rights for all people, all genders” and the principle that “immigrants are human beings and that no child belongs in a cage.” Theidon urged them to look around at the hundreds of people standing in the tent. “This is a social movement in the making,” she said. “This is power. This is what change looks like.”
At the ceremony, 190 graduates received degrees, including 135 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy degrees, 12 Master of International Business degrees, 18 Master of Arts degrees, 15 Master of Laws in International Law degrees, 4 Master of Arts in Transatlantic Affairs degrees, and 6 Ph.D.s. The graduates joined more than 10,000 alumni of The Fletcher School in more than 150 countries, who are all “making this world safer, healthier, and more just,” said Dean ad interim Ian Johnstone.
The two class speakers challenged their fellow graduates to think critically about what they had learned and show leadership in sharing that knowledge. “Whether you end up working in the marbled halls of your capital cities or the dirt roads in the corners of the world, know that you have the tools to help and serve others,” said Pedro Cárdenas Casillas, F19, a student from Mexico who received the Tufts Presidential Award for Civic Life. Quoting novelist Isabel Allende, he added, “Give. Give. Give. . . . It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world, and with the divine.”
While Fletcher students share great ambitions, such as standing up for human rights and eradicating poverty, class speaker Latifah Azlan, F19, an Honos Civicus Society member who is from Malaysia, said she learned at the school that “advocacy begins in our immediate surroundings.” She added, “No matter how noble our intentions are, we cannot hope to make the world a better place if we are not actively and consistently thinking about making our communities better, too.”
At Fletcher Class Day on May 18 the keynote speaker was Susan Rice, former U.S. National Security Advisor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Vikram Mehta, F79, a member of the Fletcher Board of Advisors and executive chairman of Brookings India, offered the alumni greeting.
The day also featured the presentation of awards, including the Robert B. Stewart Prize for Outstanding First-Year Student, which went to Aesclinn Donohue and Madison Chapman. The recipients of the Edmund A. Gullion Prize for Outstanding Second-Year Student were Christina Klotz and Daniel Tobin, and the Leo Gross Prize for Outstanding Student of International Law was awarded to Caroline “Nicky” Armstrong Hall and Odyne Berger. Phoebe Donnelly and Shahla Waliy Mohamad Al Kli received the Peter Ackerman Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation. The Administrator of the Year Award was given to administrative coordinator Lupita Ervin.
“If Dr. Garnett were here today, she would be so proud to see the fifteen extraordinary black women in our class, and the immense contributions made by students from so many different backgrounds,” said Class President Benjamin Smith in his address to his classmates. “We are not simply a group of strong clinicians. We leave today with a sense of cultural competence, of compassion, of ethics, and integrity that was ingrained in us since our orientation in 2015.”
A total of 240 students received degrees: 225 D.M.D.s and fifteen Master of Science degrees. Graduates of the school’s postgraduate specialty certificate programs will be recognized at a ceremony next month.
This commencement marked not only the end of a rigorous training program for the dental students, but the final graduation ceremony with Dean Huw Thomas, who will be leaving the deanship June 30, after leading the School of Dental Medicine for eight years.
“The dental profession is facing many challenges,” Thomas told the new dentists. “The future of our profession is in your hands. Engage in the many challenges of that future.” He shared a section of Spoon River Anthology by the poet Edgar Lee Masters: “Now I know that we must lift the sail / And catch the winds of destiny / Wherever they drive the boat.”
“Lift your sails! Be leaders!” Thomas urged.
During their last two years treating patients in the clinic, the D19s have provided care to more than 10,000 people, Smith said. “We get to improve the lives of others on a daily basis. Not many professions give you that opportunity. What I’ve learned is that success is not measured by monetary gain, by the size of your practice, or golf memberships. Success is about the people you influence, your family, and the relationships you build. It is our duty to help others and give without expectations.”
In that vein, Nadeem Karimbux, associate dean for academic affairs—who will become the next dean of the dental school—highlighted the efforts of the D19s to carry out a core value of the dental school: service to the community and the underserved. He lauded the twenty students inducted into the university’s Honos Civicus society for civic engagement; the thirty-two who traveled on service trips to provide urgently needed care in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Zambia; the 110 who helped their fellow students as teaching assistants; and the three members of the class who will go on to serve in the dental corps of the armed forces.
Oliver Austria, president of the DI19 international students—those who previously received dental degrees abroad—thanked Tufts for the “once in a lifetime” opportunity to pursue their American dream. “Going to dental school twice is definitely not an easy task,” he said. “We hustled, and we never gave up. And we owe everything to our families.”
Carole Palmer, G69, professor of comprehensive care and director of the division of nutrition and oral health promotion, received emeritus status, upon her retirement after fifty years at the dental school.
The following faculty members received teaching awards: Irina Dragan, DG15, MSD15, DI19, assistant professor of periodontology, Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service; Patrick McGarry, D83, assistant professor of comprehensive care, Dean’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Training; Robert Amato, D80, DG83, Winkler Professor of Endodontics, Dean’s Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching; and Tanya Wright, assistant professor of diagnostic sciences, Dean’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science Teaching.
“One in eight Americans are food insecure or hungry. One in six kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” McGovern told the graduating students at Friedman’s commencement ceremony in Cohen Auditorium, who received eight doctorates; seventy-six Master of Science degrees; eight Master of Science/Combined Dietetic Internship degrees; two Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance degrees; and fourteen Master of Nutrition Science and Policy degrees. “Forty percent of the food in this country spoils and is wasted, but millions of families don’t have access to sustainably sourced, healthy, nutritious food. Anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs are under attack, mischaracterized and underfunded.”
Now more than ever, it’s important for Friedman graduates to step up and become advocates, educators, and activists, building a movement to end hunger in America and “make food a fundamental human right for every person,” McGovern said. “When you speak about these topics, people are going to listen to you. Your country needs your knowledge and experience, not just to make change, but to do good,” McGovern said. “You have been given the incredible gift of an education from the Friedman School. Now is the time for you to use that to make this a better world.”
Student speaker Nayla Bezares, who earned her M.S. in Agriculture, Food and Environment, also exhorted her fellow graduates to tackle the challenge “to mitigate economic and social disparities to make wholesome food the norm for all people . . . while preserving the beauty of cultural identity, which is inherent to the nourishing nature of food in our lives.”
As people who understand ecological models, Friedman graduates must accept their responsibility as custodians of their environment, Bezares said. “How do we handle the uncertainty that surrounds us? No other light, no other guide than the one burning in our hearts,” Bezares said. “I hope you can find the fire burning within you. I hope it never goes out.”
Bezares also told classmates, “The best is ahead of you.” It was a sentiment shared by Dean Dariush Mozaffarian, who acknowledged the “alarming, truly terrifying” statistics about the number of U.S. children likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and the number of federal dollars spent treating conditions that could have been prevented through a better diet.
But he said ultimately he is optimistic. “You are graduating at an incredible time right now on the planet. I believe the first half of the twenty-first century will be remembered as the time homo sapiens fixed the food system,” Mozaffarian told students. “On behalf of the faculty, staff, and alumni of Friedman, congratulations, and I look forward to working together toward our shared goals of a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system.”
In her commencement address, Dean Nancy Bauer reflected on how we all, over the course of our lives, need to continuously rediscover who we are as our circumstances change. “I urge you to let all of your experiences—even the dreadfully difficult ones—take up their place in your life,” she said. She went on to congratulate the students for all they have accomplished, adding that “no matter what you end up doing professionally, you are ready, right this minute, to go out in the world and make a difference with your artistic voice.”
Megan McMillan, chair of sculpture and performance and professor of the practice, then honored retiring faculty member Ken Hruby, marking his twenty-nine years at SMFA. A Vietnam War veteran, Hruby first came to the school to study before he began teaching. “Students attest to his lasting impact,” McMillan said before reading a letter from one of Hruby’s former students who spoke of his powerful influence. Hruby was recognized with a standing ovation.
Willoughby Hastings, the first of two graduate student speakers, spoke about the political climate and the significant events that impacted her graduating class’s experience. “Some of these topics of debate seeped in [to our program], whether we wanted them to or not,” she said—from the 2016 presidential election and the travel ban to the #MeToo Movement and the Kavanaugh hearings. “Now at the conclusion of our program, we are shaped by these debates,” she said. Despite the challenges they’ve faced, she said, the community they made is a support system.
Undergraduate student speaker Mushky Rice, who was described as someone who “truly embodies the free spirit of SMFA” by Kendall Reiss, director of the Senior Thesis Program and professor of the practice, started her speech with a joke. “You ever tell someone you’re an artist and they say, ‘You’re so lucky, I can barely draw a stick figure’, and you say, ‘Me either—I work in video.’”
Rice went on to speak of the importance of identity, explaining how coming to school led her to consider her identity and Hasidic upbringing objectively for the first time. Letters that she and father wrote to each other over her course of study taught her the lesson that in these significant life moments, you learn to “hold on and let go” at the same time, she said.
Anja DuBois gave the second graduate student address, and considered the percent of work all artists never get to make. “Either way, you’ll still leave this world not making everything you wanted to,” she said. “I think of [what we end up making] as being about 80 percent, and I often ask myself, where does that other 20 percent go? I’ll propose this 20 percent is the fertilizer, for you, the maker, it goes into the soil.” She reminded her classmates that the conclusion of their SMFA program does not mark a true end. “Be present in this world as much as you can,” she said.
Faculty members Nate Harrison, Nan Freeman, Neda Moridpour, and Eulogio Guzman then conferred the Master of Fine Arts degrees, Post-Baccalaureate Certificates, combined degrees (B.F.A. and B.A./B.S.), and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees.
Cummings School awarded diplomas to 147 students, with ninety-four students earning a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. Six graduates also received a Master of Public Health and four graduates also receiving a Master of Science in combination with their D.V.M. degrees. Eighteen students earned a Master of Science in Animals and Public Policy, eighteen earned a Master of Science in Conservation Medicine, and sixteen earned a Master of Science in Infectious Disease and Global Health. There was one Ph.D. recipient.
Dean ad interim Joyce Knoll presided over the ceremonies, telling the graduates to keep up the exemplary work, collaborations, and scientific curiosity that defined their time at Cummings School. “Treat your patients like they’re your own pet and empathize with your clients . . . basically, keep up what you’re doing,” Knoll said. “And find something that you’re passionate about. One of the amazing things about this profession is that you can take your career in many different directions.”
In the faculty address, Raymond Kudej, assistant professor of clinical sciences, noted that the Class of 2019 has displayed a sense of community and support unlike anything he’s ever seen in his twenty years at Tufts. “We have given you many orientations, lectures, and exercises on how to promote teamwork, understanding and acceptance—and they were all completely wasted on you,” he said. “You were already there. There’s no doubt in my mind that the sense of community you’ve developed will last a lifetime.”
The V19 student speaker was Cindy Cesar, who agreed that her classmates and professors have forged a lifetime bond of friendship, support, and mentorship over the past four years. “Fellow V19s, by now we are more than just friends—we are colleagues, we are veterinarians, we are family,” Cesar said.
Robin Irene Kopplin, who received an M.S. in animals and public policy, was the graduate programs’ class speaker. She used her struggles during a research project involving giraffe spit to explore how the surprise hurdles encountered in graduate programs help students shed their biases and expectations to become better scientists.
Gregory Wolfus, clinical assistant professor of clinical sciences, and Jonathan A. Runstadler, professor of infectious disease and global health, were honored with the Zoetis awards for distinguished teaching and research excellence, respectively. The ceremony also featured the presentation of the Artemis Award for Clinical Excellence to Stefano Pizzirani, associate professor of clinical sciences and a veterinary ophthalmologist at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. Jacqueline Fremont-Rahl, adjunct assistant professor of environmental and population health, 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.
Tufts University Provost and Senior Vice President ad interim Deborah Kochevar and AVMA President John H. de Jong, A78, V85, a university trustee and member of Cummings School board of advisors, also spoke at the ceremony. Cynthia Fuhs, V03, president of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, administered the veterinarian’s oath.
Throughout the speeches, faculty and guests thanked family and friends in attendance for their crucial support during the graduates’ schooling. Several D.V.M. graduates were hooded by veterinarian relatives, including Emily Berman (by her mother, Julia Berman, V91), Travis Grodkiewicz (by his father, Jeffrey Grodkiewicz), Magdalena Niedermeyer (by her parents, Linda Mulski and Thomas Niedermeyer), and Sarah Trifiletti (by her mother-in-law, Grace Strake).
Four members of Worcester Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit, along with their horses, also participated in the day’s festivities—and graduates and their guests eagerly posed with the glossy equine dignitaries both before and after the ceremonies. The horses’ appearance at commencement was particularly fitting given that Cummings School has collaborated with mounted police units since its very beginning.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com. Julie Flaherty, Monica Jimenez, Helene Ragovin, Genevieve Rajewski, Ariana Shirzadi, and Heather Stephenson also contributed to this story.