Solve Problems and Know Your Values

Ellen Kullman offers “career constants” to 2018 Tufts graduates to guide them in a rapidly changing world
students wave at commencement 2018 at Tufts
The university awarded 1,521 undergraduate degrees and 2,186 graduate degrees. Photo: Alonso Nichols
May 20, 2018

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Skills learned today have, at best, a half-life in a world of rapidly evolving technology, so those just entering the workplace should be prepared “to retire skills no longer needed, or marketable, and replace them with new ones,” Ellen J. Kullman, E78, A12P, retired CEO of DuPont, advised 3,707 graduates during Tufts University’s 162nd commencement on May 20.

“Whole industries will come and go during your careers,” said Kullman, who rose through the ranks of DuPont to become its first woman CEO in 2009, “so you will have to be alert and adaptable. Skill development and your learning are never finished.”

Complete coverage, including photo galleries, of Tufts University’s 2018 Commencement>>

The university awarded 1,521 undergraduate degrees and 2,186 graduate degrees on a day when skies lightened on the academic quad after an initial heavy cloud cover. The university also bestowed emeritus status on nineteen long-time Tufts teachers, including Jeffrey Summit, who is stepping down this year as Jewish chaplain and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel.  

Skills and creativity, problem-solving, and personal values were the three “career constants” that, Kullman said, guided her career over the past forty years.

“Keep your skills sharp, become a problem solver, never compromise your values,” said Ellen Kullman. “The increasingly polarized world we’re living in needs both you and these skills more than ever.” Photo: Alonso Nichols Kullman said the first skill she learned after graduating from Tufts was collaboration. “Early on I found myself part of small teams completing a project; later it was building larger teams to start new businesses,” she said. “We solved some pretty tough problems and we ultimately built a very innovative and successful business.”

Kullman also urged students to develop a reputation as problem solvers and “create a sustainable solution,” she said. “Early in my career, I learned to recognize the difference between a person who came to work just to a job, and the person who came to work to solve problems. Problem solvers were destined for great opportunities.”

She confronted extraordinary challenges when she stepped into the leadership role of DuPont just as the global recession hit. “I very quickly got to see who in the organization were real leaders, real problem solvers,” said Kullman, who served on the Tufts Board of Trustees for ten years and currently is on the Board of Advisors for the School of Engineering.

Kullman noted that the first step to a successful strategy to confront the recession was not change, but what was “constant, what would not change. In this uncertainty, what could we control?” she said.

She said another of her career constants was a focus on values. “Fairness led to my lifelong commitment to making sure everyone, and in particular, women, have the opportunities to succeed,” said Kullman, who is currently co-chair of Paradigm for Parity, addressing the leadership gender gap in America.  

She urged the graduates to “determine what your personal values are and resolve to yourself that they’re non-negotiable,” she said. “Your personal values will be your primary ethical and moral compass. Know how to read that compass and trust what it tells you.”

In sum, she said, “keep your skills sharp, become a problem solver, never compromise your values. The increasingly polarized world we’re living in needs both you and these skills more than ever.”

For her accomplishments and service, Kullman was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Other honorary degree recipients were José Andrés, award-winning chef, restaurateur,  and founder of World Central Kitchen; Ashton “Ash” Carter, Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration; Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, former president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and expert on health policy and geriatric medicine; Arturo O’Farrill, founder and artistic director of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra; and Farah Pandith, F95, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration.

In addition, former Steinway Musical Instruments CEO Dana Messina, E83, addressed graduates of the School of Engineering as part of its commencement ceremony on May 20, and Akcea Therapeutics president and CEO Paula Soteropoulos, E89, J89, EG90, addressed graduates of the School of Engineering’s graduate programs as part of commencement exercises on May 19.

Friedman School

“Make sure that you face the same challenges you are looking to solve,” José Andrés told Friedman School graduates. “Don’t just study them, but face them. Put yourself in those people’s shoes. Feel their pain, down to the bone. What they face, you must face it too.” Photo: Anna Miller

José Andrés is the only chef in the world with both a two-star Michelin restaurant and four Bib Gourmands. Yet he has fed more than the elite. Five days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, he was there. What started with 20 friends in one San Juan kitchen grew to more than 20,000 volunteers in 23 kitchens. They turned out 150,000 meals a day, totaling more than 3.3 million meals.

“We didn’t meet, we didn’t plan, we only did what we know—we started cooking,” he told the 119 graduates at the 37th commencement of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, held at Cohen Auditorium on the Medford/Somerville campus. Andrés, who received an Honorary Doctor of Public Service at the university-wide commencement earlier in the day, spoke about his dual—often overlapping—roles as a chef and humanitarian.

“My mission and the mission of many has been to provide sustainable solutions to poverty through the eyes of a chef,” he said, describing some of the efforts to end hunger and strengthen economies by his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, which he started after witnessing the devastation of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. He provided meals there, as well, but also learned about the cycle of poverty, including the three billion people worldwide who cook over open fires or use charcoal or wood as fuel. He now advocates for clean cookstoves, which make less lung-damaging smoke and have fewer environmental impacts.

“Make sure that you face the same challenges you are looking to solve,” he said. “Don’t just study them, but face them. Put yourself in those people’s shoes. Feel their pain, down to the bone. What they face, you must face it too.”

He described going to one Haitian village to personally test out a prototype backpack for carrying water. Not only was it less useful than the traditional ways the Haitians used (he got soaked to his underwear), “it didn’t begin to address the cause of the problem—no clean water nearby.” Soon, he said, the village will have an atmospheric water collection system powered by the sun.

“To be young and inexperienced for many is a handicap,” he said. “But actually it can be your greatest asset. You’re not captive to the failed ideas of the past.”

Andrés praised the class address, given by Alejandra Cabrera-Mondragon, N18, who likened the solving of nutrition problems to the native American practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together. The corn provides a pole for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen with their roots, and the squash leaves spread out to suppress weeds. In the same way, it takes leaders, networkers, and foot soldiers from different fields working symbiotically to find answers.

One of the best attributes of the Friedman School, she said, is that “we acknowledge that if we are going to attempt to solve the world’s most pressing issues related to food and nutrition, we are not going to do it alone. We need to reach across sectors, across cultures, across countries, and across what makes us uncomfortable. Because everyone has a role to play. When you want something done right,” she said, “you do it together.”

School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts

Graduates receive diplomas and certificates at the Museum of Fine Arts on May 20. Photo: Ryan McBrideCheers from family and friends and a piano rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story greeted graduating students of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts as they descended the stairs to the Shapiro Family Courtyard at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for commencement.

Dean Nancy Bauer spoke of the more complicated realities behind the success stories we so often hear about throughout our lives. “I urge you to let all your experiences, even the dreadfully difficult ones, take their place in your life,” she said. She also reminded the students to use what they have learned. “Be bold, be brave, take risks, and rest assured that the faculty and staff at SMFA will always be here for you, full of pride, cheering you on and having your back.”

Undergraduate student Serena Feingold shared the story of how she chose SMFA based on the tour she took, became a tour guide herself, and realized that “the Museum School became my home.” She also shared advice she had received from her artist grandmother during a period of self-doubt about her ceramics practice.

“As I continued to judge myself,” Feingold said, “my grandmother interrupted and said, ‘Serena—stop. There is no perfection to be had. We learn from each other. This is why you need community: for the times when we forget why we practice art, when feel the sting of failure or cannot remember the joy in making.’ No matter where you land, wherever that is our passion will drive us to carry on with our work.”

Graduate student speaker Evan Blackwell reflected on her time in the master’s program and emphasized the importance of “situational awareness” in her life and art. “We’ve been in this community for two years . . . [and] our bubble has shaped us into more than we realized,” she said. “We have learned to organize, compromise, to be relentless, and rely on each other.”

In thinking of the many circumstances that led her to Boston and SMFA, Blackwell has always kept in mind the words “situational awareness,” a mantra she heard from her father repeatedly throughout her life. “Situational awareness acknowledges that perhaps you don’t know everything about your circumstance,” and the importance of remaining open to new opportunities.

“We are taught to perceive that which the world either overlooks or marginalizes, what it constructs and organizes and then we subsequently as artists critique, recreate, redefine, and even tear it down completely,” she said.

Faculty members Jeannie Simms, Nan Freeman, Charles Goss, Michael Barsanti, and Eulogio Guzman then conferred the Master of Fine Arts, Post-Baccalaureate Certificates, Studio Diplomas, Combined Degrees (B.F.A. + B.A./B.S.), and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees.

School of Medicine

Medical school graduates recite “A Modern Hippocratic Oath” during the Phase II Commencement ceremony. Photo: Matthew HealeyThe new graduates of the School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences are poised to make the world a better place, said School of Medicine Dean Harris Berman at Sunday’s commencement exercises.

“The class of 2018 has more interest than previous classes in caring for communities that have been marginalized, specifically prison populations, the homeless, and immigrants,” Berman said to the crowd gathered at the Gantcher Center. “It is powerful to see that the Tufts tradition of serving the underserved—from founding the nation’s first community health centers in the late sixties to fighting Ebola from the frontlines in Sierra Leone—continues to pulse through your veins.”

And as the health-care landscape evolves, graduates now have the tools they need to excel. “You will be going on to participate in programs around the country that will segue into dynamic, fulfilling careers that change lives and impact some of health and medicine’s toughest challenges,” Berman added.

Sackler School Dean Daniel Jay echoed that sentiment when he declared the world in the midst of a “biomedical revolution,” and said graduates “will change human life in ways we cannot yet imagine.” Invoking Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Jay namechecked a few students and talked about their diverse backgrounds and where they’re headed post-commencement. One of the graduates he mentioned, Elizabeth Erin Smith, received her Ph.D. Sunday and gave the Sackler student address.

Smith thanked her support system, and then encouraged her classmates to be mentors to young scientists. “Let’s strive to not only be leaders in our future endeavors,” she said, “but also to help the next generation rise to excellence.”

Medical class president Swetha Padma Iruku implored fellow graduates to remember the faculty, friends, family members, and patients who made the last four years possible. “If I’ve learned anything over the last four years, it’s that medicine is hard, but the people make it worth it,” she said.

At a separate ceremony for the School of Medicine’s Public Health and Professional Degree Programs at Cohen Auditorium that saw the school’s first graduate with a Doctorate of Public Health, Dean Aviva Must said that multidisciplinary approaches will be needed to tackle today’s complex health issues such as bacterial antibiotic resistance, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence.

“It has been our privilege to guide your learning and to learn from you,” Must said. “The responsibility is now yours to keep up that education, stay abreast of new information, and most importantly, consider new perspectives.”

In her class address, Public Health Student Senate president Kamisha Charles said she was first attracted to Tufts by this line in the medical school’s mission statement: “To serve and advocate for all people, especially underserved and vulnerable patients and populations.” And in the current national climate, as more and more people’s rights are being infringed on, “advocacy has never been more urgent or important,” she said. “Advocacy is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.  We have to work at things little by little, continuously building on the movements that came before us.”

Lisa Carron Shmerling, MG14, vice president of legal at Decibel Therapeutics, Inc., gave the alumni address, and James J. O’Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, gave the faculty address.

School of Dental Medicine

“Lift your sails! Be leaders!” Dean Huw Thomas exhorted the graduates. Photo: Nicholas Pfosi“Catch the winds of destiny,” Dean Huw F. Thomas told the graduates of the School of Dental Medicine, reciting from a section of poet Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology: “life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire. It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

“Lift your sails! Be leaders!” Thomas exhorted the D18s.

This year’s commencement ceremony took place as the dental school celebrates its 150th anniversary, and the graduates were lauded for continuing the school’s history of dedication to patients, clinical excellence, and service to those in need, both at home and abroad. But the focus was also firmly on the future, as the new dentists prepared to launch their careers.

“You have every reason to be full of hope,” Joan La Salvia, president of the international students, told her classmates. The opportunity to keep Tufts dental’s legacy alive lies in the Class of 2018, “in whatever we will achieve through our diplomas,” La Salvia said.

Nathaniel Reimers, class president, celebrated the bonds that developed among the D18s—bonds, he said, that should continue to support them as they become professional colleagues rather than classmates. “Nurture this network. Protect it,” he said. “I hope these friendships will last.”

Being in the dental profession, Reimers said, offers the privilege of caring for others. His classmates, he said, have shown the capacity for tremendous kindness and compassion. “You are talented. You are grounded. You carried responsibilities, and remained true to your values and priorities,” he said. “There is nothing to hold us back. Go get it!” he urged.

Thomas awarded emeritus status to Hans-Peter Weber, professor of prosthodontics, and four faculty teaching awards: the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service to Paul Leavis, associate professor of periodontology; the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching, to Robert Amato, Winkler Professor of Endodontics; the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching to Francois Fisselier, assistant professor of prosthodontics; and the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science Teaching, to Najla Fiaturi, lecturer at the School of Medicine.

Sunday’s ceremony included students receiving D.M.D. and master’s degrees from the School of Dental Medicine. Post-graduate students completing the school’s programs for specialty certificates will be recognized at a ceremony in June.

Cummings School

Classmates celebrate their graduation on the Grafton campus. Photo: Peter GumaskasAt Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s 36th commencement ceremony, 147 students received diplomas. While most earned D.V.M. degrees, the school also graduated 18 students earning a Master of Science in Animals and Public Policy, 15 earning a Master of Science in Conservation Medicine, 15 earning a Master of Science in Infectious Disease and Global Health, one Ph.D. recipient, and a student receiving a Master of Science degree in life sciences.

Lois Wetmore, assistant professor of clinical sciences, gave the faculty address, in which she stressed the importance of graduates making their own wellness a priority as they go on to pursue their careers as healers and scientists. She also urged the graduates to hold on to the passion and curiosity that carried them into and through veterinary school, while accepting that they will make some mistakes no matter how hard they strive for perfection. She told them to simply do their best. “Forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes,” she said.

The student speaker was Molly Lawry, who praised her classmates and professors for their friendship, support, and mentorship over the past four years, noting that “may we always have such a fine team.” AVMA President-Elect John H. de Jong, V85, a university trustee and member of Cummings School board of advisors, also spoke at the ceremony. Veterinarian Albert G. Andersen, president of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, administered the veterinarian’s oath.

Trisha Oura, V08, assistant professor of clinical sciences, and Cheryl London, V90, research professor of clinical sciences, 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 Thomas Jenei, V02, assistant professor of clinical sciences and associate medical director of the Hospital for Large Animals. Charles Innis 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.

Cheryl Blaze, associate professor of clinical sciences and associate medical director of the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, and Randy Boudrieau, professor of clinical sciences, were honored for their new status as emeritus faculty members.

Fletcher School

Fletcher graduates assemble before the main commencement ceremony. Photo: Anna MillerDuring the Fletcher School’s 85th commencement ceremony, 202 graduates received degrees, including 135 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy degrees, 31 Master of International Business degrees, 20 Master of Arts degrees, 10 Master of Laws in International Law degrees, 3 Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance degrees, and 3 Ph.D.s.

Addressing the graduates, Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, invoked the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Acknowledging that today’s world is full of both danger and hope, Stavridis told the graduates, “The values that you have studied and learned and lived at the Fletcher School are the values that will ensure this does not become a season of darkness, but rather becomes a season of light, that it does not become a winter of despair, but instead becomes a spring of hope.”

To tackle the challenges ahead, graduates must keep learning—and one of the best ways to do that is to seek and accept feedback, said Alnoor Ebrahim, professor of management at Fletcher, who was selected by students to receive the James L. Paddock Teaching Award. While listening to frank suggestions for how you could improve can be tough, he urged the audience to systematically seek out such feedback from others.

He also urged the graduates to make time for reflection, even if it can be difficult given the constant pull of social media. Ebrahim gave the group a final assignment: To designate a twenty-four-hour period within the next two weeks and take a break from technology—“no texting, no email, no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or WhatsApp or Snapchat—the list goes on,” he said. “Think about your tech sabbath as a means of fasting from technology in order to create space for introspection.”

Class speaker Laurance Cosper, F18, a former teacher, emphasized the value of education, describing teaching as “one of life’s noblest acts” and a reflection of hope for humanity. Both Cosper and the other class speaker, Pulkit Aggrwal, F18, nudged Fletcher to embrace even more diversity in its community.

Aggrwal described how he and his four housemates—from France, the United States, Brazil, and Japan—cooked and ate together regularly, enjoying croissants for Sunday breakfast and basmati rice for dinner. Beyond food, he said, Fletcher taught him about valuing diverse perspectives while working to solve problems. “A common characteristic that binds all of us is a sense of pragmatic optimism,” he said.

At Fletcher Class Day, on Saturday, May 19, the keynote speaker was Ashton Carter, former U.S. secretary of defense and the current director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. Masha Gordon, F98, a member of the Fletcher Board of Advisors and noted businesswoman, explorer, and mountain climber, offered the alumni greeting.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu. Additional reporting by Julie Flaherty, Courtney Hollands, Helene Ragovin, Genevieve Rajewski, Ariana Shirzadi, and Heather Stephenson.