Across the country, tens of thousands of college graduates have recently heard their commencement speakers wax wisely about success and achievement. Yet a few people had another message in today’s political climate: Stand up for what’s right.
The Nation collected excerpts from speakers at commencements around the country telling students about what it means to be young in the Trump era, the importance of social-justice work, and, in one case, what it means to be a Syrian refugee in the US.
Here are their words.
Linda Sarsour—CUNY School of Public Health, June 1
What does it mean say we say we are social-justice activists and organizers committed to justice and equality for all people? It means that we made a decision that we will never be bystanders. We in this room together must commit to never being bystanders to poverty, lack of jobs, health care, sexism, violence, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. We will stand up; we will speak truth to power no matter the consequences. We will demand change, we will center those most directly impacted because they and we, who are closest to the pain, are also closest to the solution.
Preet Bharara—New York Law School, May 25
About a week ago, a law student from a different law school I think, tweeted to me a question. It was, “Do you have any tips for law students in the Trump era?” I thought about a couple of witty responses, and then I responded as follows. I said, yes: Study hard. Learn the law. Hone your craft. Refute nonsense. Amplify truth. Keep the faith. Give back. I think that was pretty good…. I hope that’s good advice in any era and decent advice for any profession. But the limits of 140 character are significant because I realized later I forgotten one especially important two-word piece of advice and that is do justice.
Senator Elizabeth Warren—University of Massachusetts Amherst, May 12
It’s easy to say, “I don’t like politics,” or “I don’t like any political party.” I get it. I never even considered running for student government when I was your age, and I already had grandchildren by the time I ran my first Senate campaign. And believe me: There are days when I leave work so frustrated that I want to spit. But the decisions that get made by your government are important and far-reaching. And it is no longer possible to assume that democracy will work if most Americans simply wait until election time to learn a little about the candidates and otherwise ignore what’s going on.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor—Hampshire College, May 20
I’m not here to tell you what to do with your lives. But I will tell you what I think is necessary to be in this world that we live in right now. Today is a recognition of the sacrifices you and your family have made to finish college. But you are graduating into a world of uncertainty and one that is increasingly dangerous. These dangers manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most extreme illustration now resides in the White House. The president of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, is a racist, sexist megalomaniac.
John Lewis—Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, May 13
We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a distance to go. There are forces in America today that want to take us back, to another place, another time. We’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress, and we must not go back. We must go forward as a nation and as a people. I don’t want to go back. I got arrested 40 times during the ’60s. Since I’ve been in Congress, arrested another five times. My last arrest, almost two years ago, and 200 private citizens and eight Democratic members of Congress, at a protest on the Capitol grounds. Trying to get the speakers of the House to bring forth a comprehensive immigration reform bill. If we [brought] this bill forth, every Democratic member would have voted for it, and enough Republican members would have voted for it. We would have passed it, and President Obama would have signed it into the law. It doesn’t make sense for millions and millions of people, including little children, to be living in fear in the United States of America.
Senator Bernie Sanders—CUNY Brooklyn College, May 30
We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We are seeing exploding technology, which if used well, has extraordinary potential to improve life. We are an intelligent and hardworking people. If we are prepared to stand together; if we take on greed and selfishness; if we refuse to allow demagogues to divide us up there is no end to what the great people of our nation can accomplish. So today as you graduate Brooklyn College, my message to you is very simple. Think big, not small, and help us create the nation that we all know we can become.
Reshma Saujani—Harvard Graduate School, May 24
We can’t topple the structures without addressing the culture. The culture is the problem. And the solution, graduates, is you. In whatever capacity you pursue a career in the field of education, you, or the people you manage or teach, will be some of the most influential role models in a young girl’s life. So here’s my ask: Don’t let our girls play it safe. Don’t let them limit themselves to the thing they’re best at, or the thing they think they should do. Push them to be brave. Push them to take risks. Reward them for trying.
Ammar Mohrat—Saint Leo University, April 29
I’m not from America. I was born in Syria in the city of Homs. Ever since I was 14 years old, I have always wanted to come here. As a kid, we always watched American television and movies like NCIS, Lost, and Prison Break. We always knew that America was a place of freedom and opportunity for everyone who wants to work hard. You see, in Syria, it’s really different. Corruption rules. How talented you are and how hard you work are less important than your family, your religion, and how powerful your friends and relatives are.