2001 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 19, 2001

Upon Reflection

I am delighted to welcome everyone to this year's universitywide commencement celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates. I trust you all had a wonderful time at last night's "Wave Goodbye" party and our graduates are cherishing their last few days at Tulane and in New Orleans. No doubt you have accumulated memories and experiences during your time with us that will last forever. I can say without hesitation that you are among the best and brightest students to graduate from college this year. I know I speak for the entire Tulane community in telling you how extraordinarily proud we are of what you have accomplished, and we wish you all the very best in your future endeavors.

Let me take a moment to tell you all about the class of 2001.

  • There are 2,187 of you- 1,093 women and 1,094 men, representing all 50 states as well as 67 countries.
  • The top five states represented, after Louisiana, are New York, California, Florida, Texas and Illinois.
  • The top five countries, behind the United States, are Taiwan, Chile, China, India and France.
  • The youngest member of your graduating class is 20 years old; your "most well-seasoned"--I won't say "oldest"--is 60 years old.
  • Of the degrees being awarded today, 51.9% are bachelor's degrees; 20.9% are master's, 2.7% are doctorates; 17.2% are in law; and 7.3% are in medicine.

And, finally, 10 of you are celebrating birthdays today. I hope you'll always remember this as one of your biggest and best birthday parties ever, with a few thousand of your closest friends and family.

Today is a day of celebration, to be sure, but it is also a day of reflection. When you first came to Tulane, you were admitted based on all the wonderful accomplishments of your previous studies and life. Of course, once you got here, you had to prove yourself all over again to get where you are today. Your presence here today is testimony to the fact that you have met all of the academic standards established by the faculty so as to earn a Tulane degree. Enjoy the opportunity to bask in your accomplishments because that opportunity does not often occur, and tomorrow begins a new day.

Tomorrow morning begins the next new chapter in your life, and it is never too early to start thinking about the shape and content of the future you want to make. For those of you in your early 20s and 30s, I can say to you with great confidence and experience that the next decades will flash by at warp speed. Before you realize it, you will find yourself sitting in an audience like this celebrating the accomplishments of your own son or daughter or grandchildren, and reflecting back over your own life.

What will you say about what you have accomplished in your life in 20, 30, or 40 years? I know I often ask myself this question as each year passes.

When I, and I suspect many of your parents, graduated from college, it was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. It was a frightening and uncertain time for students because we didn't quite know what the future would hold for America, much less our individual place in it. Yet, as most of us found out, we survived. Some went through life as if it was a "random walk" while others were more thoughtful and deliberate in making choices. I suspect that either approach had the same likelihood of success.

So if you are sitting here today confused or worried about what the future holds, it is a normal reaction. The "good news" is that, for the most part, you control your destiny and, therefore, have plenty of time to alter your life's plan.

As I look back over what I thought I wanted and valued 30 years ago, I realize how misguided I was. Back then, I just wanted to be a success as measured by how much wealth I could accumulate and what lofty career position I could achieve. I wanted the material life that my parents were not able to fully achieve. Neither was a college graduate, nor did they accumulate any financial wealth in their lifetime. Yet, over the years, I have come to realize that they left me a rich legacy that money or position couldn't buy.

My mother was a person everyone wanted to be around because of her warmth, charm and gregarious nature. I can truly say that I never met a person who didn't adore her. My father was a man of unbelievably high standards and expectations, with a work ethic to match. He never graduated from college, but he was as smart and knowledgeable about the world as anyone I have ever met. Despite their modest income and lifestyle, I think back on the number of special things they did for my sister and me as well as for others throughout their lives. They touched so many people in so many little, but profound, ways as to even now leave me in awe. I now realize that they were among the most successful and richest people I ever knew.

It's amazing how age and life's events can change one's perspective. For me the turning point was the Vietnam War. It was a time for deep introspection and development--a time that ultimately led to a very important personal transition for me. I suspect each of you will have one or more of these life-defining moments in the years ahead. These are important because they are a time to question, to learn, to grow and to make personal and career adjustments. Even though the political and social landscape has changed since the 1960s, the issues we now face are no less important. The fight for human rights, environmental justice, and equality for those left behind are just a few of the many problems that threaten the foundation of our society. These issues deserve our immediate attention, and your generation will be leading the way to their resolution.

As you sit here today, what is it that you truly value and want in your lifetime? How will you measure success? Is it money and fame or is it something more intangible and perhaps durable? Obviously, you will find the answers to these questions as time passes. And, I conjecture, the answers will be as varied as those of you in the graduating class.

I have come to realize that money and fame don't mean very much unless they can be used to help others less fortunate, for the true mark of a civil and just society is that we, as individuals, give back more than we receive. This, of course, can be done with money, but it also can be done with time, love, caring, and helping to empower those in need of assistance. As Calvin Coolidge once stated: "No person was ever honored for what they received; honor has been the reward for what they gave."

As for me, I just want to build on the legacy my parents left and hope they would have been pleased by what I have accomplished for others. Of course, as you leave here today, I wish each of you a legacy you can call your own and be proud of, for it will ultimately define your time on this earth. Don't waste the opportunity you have been given with your education because you--individually and collectively--have the talent to write a masterpiece for the future. One that will make you proud of what you have accomplished but, even more important, that will make it easier for those who follow you.

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638