In the Face of Turmoil, ‘Step Up and Speak Loudly’

To meet today’s complex challenges, we must reject easy narratives and work to understand each other, Amina Mohammed tells Tufts’ Class of 2023

Halfway through her commencement address, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed asked the graduating class an interesting question: Where are the most movies in the world produced?

“I wouldn’t blame you if you said Hollywood,” said Mohammed, chair of the U.N. Sustainable Development Group, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the university’s 167th commencement on May 21. “That comes to mind, but it’s wrong. It’s not even in second place.”

The answer: India’s Bollywood, Mohammed revealed, to cheers and applause. The second most prolific movie producer is Nollywood, in Mohammed’s home country of Nigeria.

She also shared some other lesser-known facts. The country with the most women in parliament is Rwanda, followed by Cuba. And the continent where a major conflict broke out early last year? Europe.

“The world today is infinitely more complex and multifaceted, and frankly richer and more interesting, than the received narratives they would have you believe,” Mohammed said.

One Global Family

Right now, that world can feel overwhelming, Mohammed said. We have COVID-19, she said, but also groundbreaking scientific and medical advances; great wealth and great poverty; globalization and fragmentation; climate crisis and ambitious sustainable solutions; powerful women and pushback on women’s rights; and technology that both connects us and narrows our worldviews.

Amina J. Mohammed

Amina J. Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations and chair of the U.N. Sustainable Development Group, addresses the Class of 2023. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“You leave this great institution to step out into a world in flux, a world on the brink of breakthrough or breakdown, a world full to the brim with contradictions,” Mohammed said.

She recalled the climate of “enormous uncertainty” at her own college graduation in the 1980s: a world still divided by the Cold War; a global economy emerging from its deepest recession since World War II; and apartheid in South Africa. “Every generation faces challenges, risks, and anxiety, and every generation must forge their own path,” Mohammed said.

She already sees the current generation choosing a better path: “Whatever the crisis, whether climate change, inequality, or human rights, young people are in the vanguard.”

Everyone has a part to play, but no one can do it alone, Mohammed said. She pointed to the 17 sustainable development goals that the U.N. set forth in 2015, covering poverty, hunger, gender equality, and the economy across the globe. “If the challenges we face are existential and interlinked, our responses must be integrated, transformative, and collective,” she said. “We need a coalition of the world—multilateral, networked, inclusive, global.”

Whether working in business or public service—or by joining the U.N.—graduates should join this coalition to find ways to support meaningful causes, oppose injustice, and protect the planet, Mohammed said.

“We need you—your commitment, energy, creativity, and courage,” Mohammed said. “Yes, our world is going through a tough time right now, but the progress made in the last 75 years is enormous, and our potential as one global family to turn this turmoil into opportunity is huge.”

“Whatever path you choose, I challenge you to ensure that the opportunities afforded by your Tufts education do not enrich your life alone. I urge you to place human rights at the heart of every action and to use them as your internal compass.”

Amina Mohammed

Speak Loudly, Look Closely

To do so, Mohammed urged students to claim their power. “Step up and speak loudly,” she said. “Don’t compromise on ambition. Always punch above your weight.”

But remember to look at the whole picture before you leap into action, she cautioned. “Question stereotypes,” she advised. “Don’t just blindly accept the received narratives.”

After becoming the U.N. deputy secretary-general, Mohammed recalled, she was asked, “What are you?” When she responded with her title, she was asked: “How many of you are there?” People couldn’t seem to grasp that she was the single second-in-command to the secretary-general.

“People see me first and foremost as an African matriarch, which is exactly what I am. But I am also the second highest-ranking civil servant in the world, a deputy leader of a huge organization,” Mohammed said. “You wouldn’t believe how confusing this is for some people.”

The daughter of a Welsh nurse and a Nigerian veterinary doctor, and granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister, Mohammed is also a Muslim, a single mother of six, and a survivor of abuse and discrimination, she revealed.

“We all have unique identities, nationalities, and stories, and first we must try to understand those around us through an intersectional lens,” she said. “The solution is to nurture our curiosity, dig deeper, dig for details, question our own beliefs, try to see the other side, and above all, feel empathy for others.”

Peace and Light for All

Mohammed encouraged students to be proud of graduating from one of the world’s leading universities, and excited about the path ahead, but to always keep others in mind. “Whatever path you choose, I challenge you to ensure that the opportunities afforded by your Tufts education do not enrich your life alone,” she said. “I urge you to place human rights at the heart of every action and to use them as your internal compass.”

She remembered the “poisonous anesthetic” of military dictatorship and oppression that plagued Nigeria when she was a young adult, but also the movements that flourished in response, bringing out the best in people and creating hope. “Human rights are the ultimate tool to help societies thrive in freedom,” Mohammed said.

To the surprise and delight of her audience, Mohammed concluded by singing a few lines of “All That You Have Is Your Soul” by singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, J86, H04: “So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple / Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit / Hunger only for a taste of justice / Hunger only for a world of truth.”

Take Tufts’ motto, Pax et Lux, to heart, Mohammed suggested: “With passion and compassion, you can build a world in which all people enjoy peace and light.”

Always a Home on the Hill

Tufts President Anthony Monaco, who will step down in June after 12 years leading the university, was also recognized at the ceremony. In addition to receiving the title of president emeritus, announced Board of Trustees Chairman Peter Dolan, A78, A08P, Monaco will become a University Professor, the highest academic honor conferred by Tufts on its faculty, and continue his research at Tufts on the epigenetic origins of increased levels of mental health disorders.

Anthony Monaco

Tufts University President Anthony Monaco speaks to the Class of 2023. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“Under his leadership, the university has been strengthened by almost every possible metric,” Dolan said. Specifically, he pointed to a campus transformed by new facilities and renovations; a 100 percent increase in undergraduate applications since Monaco took office; and investment in growing academics and research, which resulted in an invitation to join the Association of American Universities.

Monaco also rose to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also strengthening Tufts’ relationship with surrounding communities, Dolan said, and has always kept the focus on the people he serves. “Throughout his presidency, Tony has been unwavering in his concern for the wellbeing of our students and for fostering an inclusive and diverse community.”

Dolan then addressed Monaco directly: “Your most notable quality is that it’s always about what’s best for the institution; it’s never about you. You put Tufts first over the nearly 12 years of your tenure, and I want to personally thank you, and also extend thanks to your wife, Dr. Zoia Monaco.”

True to Dolan’s words, Monaco did not speak about himself, but turned the focus back to graduates. He offered the same parting words he has spoken at past commencement ceremonies, which held additional meaning in light of his own departure from the presidency.

“Goodbye, and good luck. You are ready to go out and make this world a better place, and we will be watching from this hill,” Monaco told graduates. “Shine your light brightly, and remember that you will always have a home here.”

Graduates at cheer during Tufts commencement ceremony

Photo: Alonso Nichols

In addition to Mohammed, other honorary degree recipients were: Mary Chin, executive director of the Asian American Civic Association; Louis Fiore, D62, who served on the board of Advisors at the School of Dental Medicine and endowed a scholarship at the school together with his wife; Carla Hayden, the first woman and first African American to serve as Librarian of Congress; James McGovern, representative of the Second District of Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1997; Alan Solomont, A70, A80P, who served as Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life from 2014 to 2021; and Kehinde Wiley, the first African American artist to paint an official U.S. presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. (Wiley was not able to attend the ceremony in person but will formally receive the degree at a future event.)

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