Commencement for Class of 2020 at Alumni Weekend 2022

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Commencement for Class of 2020 at Alumni Weekend 2022

Good afternoon! And welcome back to the extraordinary class of 2020, along with all your family members and loved ones!

I am so glad to see all of your faces again—live and in-person!

I hope that you will take this time together to reconnect with each other and perhaps even indulge in a few of the senior year activities you missed in 2020.

Maybe spin the wheel at the Charmery or enjoy some tacos at Clavel? Hop aboard the Blue Jay shuttle for one last joyride? Or kick back (unofficially of course) with a beverage on the M-Level of MSE and—because you don’t have any midterms to worry about—just chill?

I’ll leave it up to you, since I know this class has no trouble getting creative. After all—you transformed your dining rooms into classrooms, and your bedrooms into recital halls and dance studios during a global pandemic!

I also recognize that Commencement week in May 2020 was not, perhaps, the culmination of your college experience that you had imagined or hoped for.

Today’s ceremony may never fully fill that void, but I hope that this moment is still meaningful and galvanizing for you as the great class of 2020—a class that experienced something profound and historic together—even when you were apart.

As I was thinking about what to say to you, I faced a dilemma.

Writing a commencement address is never easy. It’s always hard to avoid clichés and come up with fresh dad jokes. Every. Single. Year.

Turns out it’s even harder when you’re addressing a class that graduated two years ago and has already heard this speech once!

I realized very quickly that I simply couldn’t offer you, yet again, old chestnuts of advice about venturing out into the world—because, in truth, you’ve already ventured out.

You’ve already begun to build careers, to pursue passions, to start families, and to establish yourselves in the world as adults and citizens. You have demonstrated resilience and nimbleness in the face of extraordinary circumstances. At every turn, you have pivoted and you have adapted.

So, at the risk of affirming my own redundancy, I have to admit that you don’t really need my—or anyone else’s—words of wisdom to prepare for your post-collegiate lives.

Nevertheless, I am contractually obligated to give you some sage counsel. So, let me give it the old college try.

When I spoke to your class two years ago (standing alone inside Shriver Hall, as you just saw) I invoked the story of Sisyphus—that famous figure from Greek mythology condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill every morning, only to watch it roll back down every evening, and to return down the hill to retrieve it.

As I said to you then, this is a story often interpreted as one of futility and monotony.

In your own lives, many of you may have had some moments in the past two years that felt genuinely Sisyphean in this sense—both because of the demands of a years-long pandemic, but also the day-to-day challenges of “adulting.”

You may have weathered a tedious project at a new job, undertaken a lab experiment that keeps failing, or filed your taxes for the first, second, and third time. The list could go on.

We push the boulder up, and down it falls. (And, for some of our civil engineers, moving boulders may literally be in your job description!)But now that you are two years into post-collegiate life, I want to look at a different aspect of Sisyphus’ story: that long walk down the hill.

You all know what it is to strive upward, but what about those periods of descent before you begin the next big undertaking?

Depending on what’s looming, that part of the journey can feel many different ways.

Sometimes it may feel like this. [Clip of Indiana Jones running from a boulder plays.]

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we are intentional about it, those periods of time down the hill can also be genuinely rejuvenating—even joyful. [Clip of Julie Andrews singing in The Sound of Music plays.]

Now, of course, I don’t expect you all to be as blissed out as Maria in the Sound of Music or even as capable of killer dance moves as Luisa Madrigal. [Clip of Luisa dancing from Encanto plays.]

But there is something to be said for savoring those moments of reprieve and transition—even when you’re feeling some surface pressure.

Indeed, Camus would advise us to take the slower path down the hill—though perhaps without the twirling. In fact, he argues that the period of descent can be for us an “hour of consciousness,” a moment for real reflection to consider what we have done and what we hope to do next.

It can enable us to exercise more agency in our lives, to own our fate, so that we can learn, in Camus’ words, to “live and create” even, he adds, “in the very midst of the desert.”

Of course, finding that time, that hour of consciousness, can be hard—especially with your generation. You are experts at working tirelessly and diligently to achieve your highest aspirations.

And that’s not just true of Hopkins students and alums! On average, full-time US employees are working more per week than they were just a few decades ago—even as productivity has more than doubled.

But even though it’s hard, I would urge you to be intentional about seizing those moments of space between the boulders. I know that it has been important in my life.

Years ago, I received similar advice from a dear mentor and friend just before I took the leap of becoming dean at the University of Toronto law school.

He knew what lay ahead for me because he’d been there. And he urged me to set aside several hours each week, no matter what, to simply read. The new to-do items—all those boulders—would still be there ready to be pushed. But the moments of reflection and rejuvenation, he insisted, were just as critical as putting shoulder to stone.

So, whether it’s meditation or Cross Fit, a book club or going on hikes with a new pet – as I’ve been doing with my pandemic puppy, Barney—please find those moments.

Whatever you decide to do, I know that giving yourself the time and space to embrace moments of reflection, those walks down the hill, will not only open you up to new ideas and possibilities but give you the fortitude and the desire to advance your goals, one step, one push at a time.

I am so excited for all you have already done and all that you will do in the years to come.

Thank you again for your extraordinary resilience and the incredible bonds you’ve formed with one another, and with your alma mater.

Congratulations again to the great (and historic) class of 2020! There is no other like you!