A Meaningful Adventure

Author, humanitarian and Navy SEAL Eric Greitens urges graduates to use their talents to be of service to others
graduates at commencement
Tufts awarded 3,360 degrees at Commencement 2012. Photo: Emily Zilm
May 20, 2012


Eric Greitens, a former Rhodes Scholar and Navy SEAL who has been involved in humanitarian efforts around the world, urged members of the Class of 2012 to match their passion to the world’s needs and find a way to be of service.

At the all-university commencement exercises on May 20, Greitens told the graduates that a life helping others may not be easy, “but you will have chosen for yourself a meaningful adventure.”

Greitens was the main speaker and received an honorary degree at Tufts’ 156th commencement held on the Medford/Somerville campus. The university awarded 3,360 degrees, including 1,901 graduate degrees and 1,459 undergraduate degrees.

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In addition to Greitens, Tufts president Anthony Monaco presented honorary degrees to president emeritus of Tufts Lawrence Bacow, now president-in-residence in the Higher Education Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education; Bonnie Bassler, Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Princeton University; Cecilia Ibeabuchi, manager of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program clinic at St. Francis House; and Farooq Kathwari, chairman, president and CEO of Ethan Allen Interiors and director and former chair of Refugees International. Bacow, long a favorite on campus, received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Monaco introduced Greitens as a man “whose remarkable career reflects the values this university cherishes” and noted that students had nominated the award-winning author to be the commencement speaker. Greitens served as the commander of a Joint Special Operations Task Unit, among other responsibilities as a Navy SEAL. He is the founder of The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit organization that challenges veterans to serve and lead in communities in the United States, and is the author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

Greitens began his speech by poking fun at himself, saying that when he learned he was going to receive an honorary degree from Tufts, a friend sent him an editorial from the student newspaper, the Tufts Daily. “It was titled, ‘A Fine Choice for Commencement Speaker.’ I thought that was great, and then I read further: ‘Eric Greitens might be the greatest commencement speaker that you’ve never heard of.’”

While he had never before given a commencement speech and initially felt unqualified, Greitens said, he realized he had spoken to many others on the precipice of life-changing events, “moments of severe consequences and even potential disaster.” That included refugees in danger of starvation, U.S. Marines facing death in Iraq and Navy SEALS facing the prospect of injury or worse in Afghanistan. “And now I add to that list you, the graduates of the Class of 2012, who face the very real danger of going home to live in your parents’ basements,” he said.

Carrying on the Lesson

“I know from working with them what you and your generation are capable of,” said Eric Greitens. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Becoming serious, he described activities that put him in the midst of wartime chaos, with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and peacetime efforts that have taken him to such ravaged countries as Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia. What he learned throughout his experiences, he told the graduates and their families, is that those who knew they had a purpose larger than themselves, who knew that others were counting on them, were the ones who were able to thrive even under adverse conditions.

He learned a similar lesson while undergoing Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, considered the toughest military preparation in the world. It includes swimming with your feet tied together and your hands tied behind your back, a 10-mile run carrying a 40-pound rucksack and “hell week,” in which the average amount of sleep is about five hours for the entire seven-day period, all the while carrying out numerous physical endurance activities.

Finally offered a chance to sleep, Greitens said, he found himself lying awake in his tent feeling self-pity and fear. It was his hardest moment in the ordeal, until he began to realize the grueling tests weren’t about him. “They were about my ability to be of service to the people who are asleep in the tent right now,” he said. The minute he stopped thinking about himself, the worry washed away and he was able to sleep.

He said his work with an organization he founded, The Mission Continues, tries to carry on that lesson. While in Iraq, he commanded a unit whose barracks were hit by a suicide bomber. Many of the men were severely injured, and when he went to visit them in the hospital, he discovered they wanted to continue serving in some way. He said even veterans missing limbs or suffering from burns or traumatic stress are now volunteering for such organizations as the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity.

“I know from working with them what you and your generation are capable of,” he said, “and what I want to say to you is the same thing I said to the veterans: ‘We still need you.’ ”

Greitens urged the graduates to “look back with pride at all that you have accomplished and … look forward with confidence, knowing that you will go forward to use all of your talents and abilities, all of your creativity and energy to find a way to be of service to others. If you do that, life will not be easy, but you will have chosen for yourself a very meaningful adventure.”

Poised for Change

Medical school graduates enjoy the School of Medicine’s 120th commencement. Photo: Alonso Nichols

At the joint commencement ceremony for the School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, held in the Gantcher Center, the focus was on the future of health care and scientific research.

Medical school dean Harris Berman noted the tremendous changes currently rippling through the American health-care system. “What an opportunity to be agents of change,” he said. Adding that the graduates will face more fiscal constraints than previous generations, he urged them to use the tools they were given at Tufts to think critically, to be caring and to be socially responsible. “Never forget that you entered the health profession to make the world a better place. You are poised to have wonderful careers doing good. Go do it.”

In the medical class president’s address, Neel Shah, A06, M12, recalled the advice former Tufts president Lawrence Bacow gave the Class of 2012 at their first-year orientation. “Don’t become a medical nerd,” Shah said, paraphrasing Bacow’s admonition to students that they remain the interesting, well-rounded and engaged citizens the admissions committee admitted.

Shah noted that one member of the Class of 2012 was not present because she was taking part in the Olympic Rowing trials in Lucerne, Switzerland, while 12 more ran the Boston Marathon in April. Several graduates have published research, many have been advocates for underserved communities, at least one is a classically trained jazz musician and another has published books. “If it sounds like I’m bragging about our class, I am,” Shah said. “These interests outside of medicine will allow you to connect with patients in a way residency training never will.”

“You have all discovered new knowledge, and, more important, you have contributed that knowledge to the world so that everyone can benefit,” said Naomi Rosenberg, dean of the Sackler School, in her address to the 53 graduates. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“You are all here because you’ve done something amazing,” said Naomi Rosenberg, dean of the Sackler School, in her address to the 53 graduates. “You have all discovered new knowledge, and, more important, you have contributed that knowledge to the world so that everyone can benefit.”

Like Berman, Rosenberg noted that “we are entering a time of both changing science and constrained resources for science.” Sackler students’ training, she reminded them, can be applied not just to academia, but also to industry and many other careers. In making those choices, Rosenberg said, “Be brave, and above all else, follow your heart. We are very proud of you.”

The Sackler student address was delivered by triple-Jumbo Robert Howard Goldstein, a graduate of the M.D./Ph.D. program. “You could never design a school like Tufts,” Goldstein said. “The Sackler School is what it is because of the people here today,” he added, noting not only the close relationships students develop with their professors and mentors, but also “the pivotal role each of us played in each other’s education. I am proud to call everyone not only a colleague, but a friend.”

This was the School of Medicine’s 120th commencement and the 32nd for the Sackler School.

A Moving Ceremony

A little creativity at the School of Dental Medicine’s commencement ceremony on May 20. Photo: Kelvin Ma

“Whatever you do, do it with real emotional energy and vitality and passion,” Dean Huw Thomas urged the members of Tufts School of Dental Medicine’s Class of 2012, in his first commencement address since arriving at the dental school last summer. Let those you treat know that dentistry is about “feelings, not just fillings,” he added.

Thomas commended the 180 students who earned their Doctor of Dental Medicine degrees and 21 students who earned Master of Science degrees on their commitment to excellence and their devotion to the underserved. He reminded them more than once during his address of the importance of supporting access to dental care for all segments of society.

Like father, like son—and grandson? Dimitri Tripodakis, D12, poses with his father, Aris-Petros Tripodakis, D81, and his son, Aris Petros. Photo: Kelvin MaRobert Kasberg, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, echoed the theme, lauding the Class of ’12 for its record of service at the school, in the local community and throughout the world.

And D12 class president Inga Keithly captured the emotion of the day with a moving expression of personal gratitude to two of her friends and professional mentors, Elizabeth Greenberg Rooney and Rebecca Paglia, both D00, and a tribute to classmate Catherine Dahl. As its class gift, the D12s established a scholarship in honor of Dahl, who was diagnosed with breast cancer during her studies at the dental school and went on to become a leader, mentor and friend to many; Dahl was greeted with vigorous applause and a standing ovation as she came on stage to receive her diploma and lavender doctoral hood.

James Hanley, associate dean for clinical affairs and associate professor of periodontology, received the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service. Hamasat Gheddaf Dam, assistant professor of prosthodontics and operative dentistry, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching. Kanchan Ganda, professor of public health and community service, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching. Peter Brodeur, associate professor of pathology, and Paul Leavis, associate professor of physiology, received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science Teaching. Nancy Arbree, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of prosthodontics and operative dentistry, received emerita status upon her retirement.

Creating a Personal Compass

“Don’t be afraid to think big and visualize that ideal trajectory, just like the athlete who sees that perfect shot,” Peter Dolan told the graduates. Photo: Emily Zilm

Looking out at the packed Cohen Auditorium at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s 31st commencement ceremony, Interim Dean Robin Kanarek said the scene was a far cry from Tufts’ first nutrition school commencement, where only a handful of degrees were awarded. This year there would be 78 master’s degrees and 10 doctoral degrees.

She said all the usual advice people give to graduates—to have a passion for what you do, to give back, to make a difference—would be superfluous in the case of the graduates before her.

“I have never seen a more dedicated, focused group of students,” she said.

Peter Dolan, A78, A08P, vice chair of the Tufts Board of Trustees, did give one specific piece of advice in his commencement address: to take the time to write a mission statement for your life.

“I can’t help you define your North Star or create your personal compass,” he said. “But I really do conclude that having one makes all the difference.”

He said he wrote his first personal mission statement in 1985 as part of a leadership seminar that his then-employer, General Foods, sent him to. The statement covered professional and personal priorities, right down to the kind of father he wanted to be—loving, giving, a great teacher and coach—even though his two sons had not yet been born.

Ironically, one of the first things he did as a result of his mission statement was to leave the company, since it didn’t fit with his newly minted goals.

“I still have the original version of what I wrote, have referred to it often and believe it guided me at key decision points of the last 25 years,” he said.

Dolan went on to become chairman and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb. When he left the company after 18 years, he revised his mission statement to focus on health and wellness, which led him in part to become director of Vitality Health, a for-profit health and wellness company, and to chair ChildObesity180, a team of leaders and experts, centered at Tufts, working to reverse the child obesity crisis.

“Don’t be afraid to think big and visualize that ideal trajectory, just like the athlete who sees that perfect shot,” he told the graduates.

A Bright Future

Two of the 92 graduates at the Cummings School commencement ceremony. Photo: Andrew Cunningham

With some 191 million pets in the United States, but only 61,000 veterinarians, the future for the Class of 2012 is bright, John Berg, professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School, told the 92 graduates.

“We now recognize that the public demands and is willing to pay for very, very high quality veterinary medicine,” Berg said. Pet owners spent $10 billion on veterinary care in the previous year, he noted.

He also urged the graduates to enjoy their success, and recall what brought them to veterinary school in the first place. “Remember that every time you do something as simple as vaccinate a cat or spay a dog, you’re making a difference,” he said.

In addition to the doctor of veterinary medicine degrees awarded, the school bestowed master of science in comparative biomedical sciences, master of public health, and master of science in animals and public policy degrees.

The Cummings School also presented awards to faculty members, including the Henry E. Childers, D.V.M., Award to Debra Gehrke; the Artemis Award for Clinical Excellence to Barret Bulmer, clinical assistant professor of clinical sciences; the Pfizer Animal Health Distinguished Teacher Award to Brendan McMullen, assistant professor of environmental health; and the Pfizer Animal Health Award for Research Excellence to Elizabeth Rozanski, associate professor of clinical sciences.

The Keys to Experience

Fletcher School students were vocal at the main commencement ceremonies. Photo: Alonso Nichols

This year, 385 students received professional degrees from the Fletcher School—368 master’s degrees and 17 doctorates.

Fletcher Class Day on Saturday, May 20, was held at Fletcher Field and featured award presentations, including the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy to David Bruce Wharton, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, African Bureau. The Dean’s Medal was given to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who also gave the keynote address.

On Sunday, the faculty address was given by Lawrence Krohn, professor of practice in international economics, who received the James L. Paddock Teaching Award.

In their speeches, the student speakers acknowledged their families’ sacrifices to help them and their classmates. Sebastian Molano, a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy graduate from Colombia, recalled his displeasure waking up early for English classes when he was seven years old. “Back then, I didn’t understand that my parents were giving me the keys to experience the world.” Bilal Baloch, a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy graduate from the United Kingdom, reflected on the “beauty, brilliance and diversity” of his class. “We imagine the world differently,” he said.


Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu. Julie Flaherty, Jacqueline Mitchell and Helene Ragovin contributed to this story.