2024 Commencement ceremony

Remarks as delivered by President Ronald J. Daniels

Good morning to our alumni, trustees, staff, faculty, parents, family, friends, and of course, our graduates, welcome to the Commencement for the great, great Class of 2024!

I am thrilled that we are here, together, at your commencement.

This moment I know, is something you have been waiting for, dreaming of—not just for four years, but from the moment your high school graduation was scuttled by COVID, and you were forced to celebrate that momentous achievement in your living rooms.

You made it. We all made it here.

And it feels momentous because it truly is.

Now, I’ll confess, in such moments, my instinct is to go big. Commencements call for that. Year after year, I have sought to deliver Big Messages of Great and Enduring Import.

But today, I’ve decided to eschew my tradition and to go small …

Boston terrier small, in fact.

This is Barney. [Picture of Barney]

And yes, I, too, fell prey to the pandemic puppy craze.

So, here’s the story: My wife Joanne and I had long contemplated getting a dog. And if we were going to get a dog, my preference was clear and unambiguous. I grew up with big dogs. I wanted a big dog.  We needed a big, dopey dog.

But Joanne felt that we should not take on more dog than we could reasonably handle. Small dog, she said.

So, we did what all good Hopkins couples do. We debated, we marshaled evidence, we made elaborate pro and con lists.

But no matter how many irrefutable points I felt I had landed … Joanne ultimately remained unpersuaded. 

And it turns out: Joanne was right.

Not merely because walking Barney helped me win my office Steps Competition, which I did.

Nor because he reliably offered unconditional love.

OK, love on the condition of one of the many meaty treats I use to earn his undying loyalty and affection.

No. Barney did something far more powerful, in fact.

But it took me a minute to fully appreciate the Barney effect.

You see, as our graduates well know, I live on the Homewood campus, just a few steps from here.

And when I first took Barney on walks, Homewood was a COVID ghost town: silent quads, Gilman Tunnel bereft of any activity or posters, no stray mozz sticks dropped after a late night UniMini run for Barney to wolf down.

Of course, Barney didn’t understand the sheer scope of loss this signified for all of you– of the delayed in-person start to college, of friendships made in real life, and of campus traditions experienced … well, here on campus.

Barney’s calculus was far, far simpler: I won the doggy lottery: This campus rocks!  Acres and acres of my very own personal dog park! 

And then you came back, and suddenly, there were people.

And Barney loves people, and the people flocked to Barney. Members of this class included. 

Running across the quad or stopping dead in the middle of a Spikeball game, you would approach Barney, and we’d be halfway through a conversation before you realized I was on the other end of the leash. This is how I learned more than any president should ever know about what really goes on in the AMRs.

As Barney savored the attention, I got to savor the conversations, the small moments of paying close attention to the details of your lives.

Whether you were sharing an update on your Orgo exam, regaling me with a tale of a goal scored on Homewood field, or sheepishly confessing that–after that infamous 2022 Spring Fair concert–you, too, had been felled by the dreaded Meek virus.

It’s fair if, at this point in the proceedings, you are wondering: Why is the president waxing poetic about walking his dog during my long-awaited Commencement ceremonies?

It’s not because right now, we could all use a little bit of furry cuteness in our lives. And it’s not only to advocate for the benefits to me or to you of meaningful connection, though the social science literature provides ample evidence that social connection is critical for well-being, longevity, and mental health.

Rather, I share this story because the lesson I learned time and time again from all of you was how these seemingly small interactions made us so profoundly human to one another, in ways that I might have missed if I had not been Barney’s human.

I was able to see you in your element, in the midst of your day. And I saw time and time again that this class is made up of some truly remarkable people, each with your own moments of joy and laughter, of triumph and accomplishment, and, yes, even a sense of disappointment and dashed expectations. 

Indeed, I think it is fair to say this class knows dashed expectations like no other.

You ended your high school years in your bedrooms and began college the same way.

You missed out not only on high school graduation, but on the traditional start to college in which you found yourself thrust into new relationships with roommates, connections with new professors, conversations over brunch at FFC. You missed the first year formal, Hoptober Fest, and your first Lighting of the Quads.

And it’s true, you will never get those moments back.

But, of course, you fought your way back, moment by moment by moment.

First, in your dorms, slowly connecting with the people living nearest you.

Then as strictures loosened, you branched out–going to classes, having small parties, and even going to extra lab sessions just to meet people. (It is Hopkins, after all. We are a different kind of party school.) 

And as COVID abated, you showed up in droves to celebrate the landmark battle between the DART spacecraft and an asteroid, took in the once-in-two decade solar eclipse, and danced the night away at the newly renamed Hopkins Senior Prom–your first! 

But I would urge you–even as the world has finally returned to some kind of normal–not to lose the perspective that comes from the experience of disappointment–the real loss you endured.

Because, as you well know, life invariably entails (at least some) moments of setback, of disappointment, of dashed expectation, though the reason for those moments will hopefully not be another global pandemic anytime soon.

And so, if you take any lesson from these past four years as you prepare for whatever is to come, I hope that you will heed my Barney rule: go small.

Ask your barista about the book they are reading by the author you’ve never heard of. Strike up a conversation with the person you see every day waiting for the same train–you might have more in common than your schedule.

If you are headed to grad school, go to the office hours of the professor you disagree with the most. Tell them why; then listen to their rebuttal.

Answer your date’s questions honestly no matter what your dating app profile said.

And get a dog. Take it for a walk. And see who you meet.

The benefits accruing to you will be great, but the benefits to the communities of which you are part will be even greater. Because once you go small, you notice, and even come to know, the details of someone else’s existence. 

Once you connect, if only for a moment at opposite ends of the leash of a small dog, you never again see the other person as just a face in the crowd. You see them as a person in full, with daily tasks, loves, ambitions, responsibilities, fears, anxieties, and passions so very much like yours.

I know because I experienced this myself when we gathered for your last Lighting of the Quads–one I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

At a moment of uncertainty and division on our campus, in our country, and in the world, you descended from all parts of campus to Keyser Quad, which had been so eerily silent four years earlier. 

And you’ll recall that before we lit the quad, I asked you each to take out your cell phones, turn on your flashlights, and aim them at the night sky.  As the lights slowly flickered on, one by one, a constellation of individual lights formed a collective beam, a dazzling beacon of hope in that chilly Baltimore night.

[Photo of Lighting of the Quads 2023]

It was an extraordinary sight to behold. 

I have never been prouder or more moved to have known so many of you, and to see in that fleeting moment, and in such a vivid and powerful way, the light you will carry forward, with conviction, with brave determination, to our world.

And so, and so, I hope you’ll indulge Barney and me one last time.

Since all Barney knows of most of you is shoes and shins, I want him to see you today in your glorious, amazing totality. 

Jay, have you got Barney?

[Blue Jay mascot walks Barney up to stage. President Daniels lifts Barney up and carries him to the podium.]

Barn, take a good look at them. And say goodbye, Barney, on this auspicious day to the resilient, to the determined, to the extraordinary Class of 2024!

Barney and I say, Godspeed!