2002 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 18, 2002

Defining Moments

Good morning! It is my great pleasure to welcome our graduates, and their families and friends to this joyous celebration.

Today is a defining moment in your life. It is a time that you will forever remember. Defining moments often give meaning to our lives and shape who we are and what we stand for. Because of their importance, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about Defining Moments.

December 7, 1941. America is attacked on its home front at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.

November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy, our young president on whom so many hopes rested, is gunned down in a Dallas motorcade.

April 4, 1968. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of God and man of peace who personified the civil rights movement, is assassinated in Memphis.

May 4, 1970. Four Kent State college students are shot and killed by national guardsmen in a moment that defined the chaos of the Vietnam era.

For many of you who are graduating today, these are defining moments of the last half-century that you have read about in books and studied in class- events that took place before you were born. But for your parents and grandparents, these events are moments when time stopped for us, when our lives and activities came to a halt as we watched and waited and listened for the heartbeats that would assure us the world we knew would continue, albeit altered.

Even though the events I just cited are from an American perspective, the concept, relevancy and life altering impact of Defining Moments are common to all of us in this audience regardless of our country of citizenship. The specific examples may clearly differ by cultural heritage, but their importance on the lives of those who experience them are equally profound. I'd like to add another date to my list, one with which all of us can identify more directly and will always share together: September 11, 2001. For the rest of our lives, we all will be able to recall what we were doing, thinking and feeling when we heard about the attacks on America and its way of life. You will remember when, during your college years at Tulane, the world stopped and held its breath in the knowledge that inevitable change was coming.

So, today, you who are graduating at Tulane's 2002 commencement live in a very different world than the one in which you entered this university. You face a very different world than the one that awaited Tulane graduates of even one year ago. You leave here, as graduates before you, with the knowledge and skills that accompany your Tulane University degree. You also leave with an indelible mark left on you by the events of September 11.

Today is not the time or place to deeply analyze those events, but it is perhaps a time to reflect on the possible ways it might change our lives and how you can play a role in making those changes positive ones. Because as horrific as September 11 was, there ARE positive things and lessons learned that have come from it.

We have a renewed understanding of community and of what it means to be a nation under attack.

We have a renewed understanding of the word "resiliency" and what it means to bounce back in times of tragedy.

We have a renewed understanding of patriotism and courage, and what it means to have the freedoms and ideals we enjoy in a democratic society.

And we have a renewed understanding of our place in the world and what implications our actions have on those of other nations and cultures.

I suspect the results of 9/11 provided you with even more of an education at Tulane than you bargained for, didn't they?? It would be easy today to focus on negativity and uncertainty. You will be entering a different economy and job market, a different political and social and financial realm than your predecessors.

But you also will be entering a world that will be filled with a renewed energy, unity and steely determination. And you will be entering that world armed with a solid education that taught you how to think, to create, to learn, to grow- in essence, how to live. Perhaps more than any previous generation in recent memory, you will have the opportunity to have a substantial impact on the world. How will you choose to live your life?

With that in mind, I'd like to share a few hopes I have for you as you leave here to start new lives, new careers or continue your educational endeavors.

  • I hope you don't just work for a living, but will think about what you're doing, and why you're doing it. Find ways to make whatever work you embark on meaningful to the greater whole. Even the smallest contributions, collectively, can make a great impact. Dedicate your lives to improving your communities and our society. If you don't, our future is not bright.
  • I hope you will fight cynicism. It is easy in this world today to become jaded and cynical, to expect the worst, to lower expectations. It can be a self-fulfilling cycle; don't fall into it. Expect good things, see the half-full glass, and good will come.
  • I hope you will always respect others. Our shrinking world brings us in daily contact with people who have different looks, unfamiliar customs and belief systems that do not agree with ours. You don't always have to like them. You certainly don't always have to agree with them. But you should always treat them with respect and dignity. You can't always be responsible for how others act toward you; you are always responsible for how you treat others.
  • I hope you will keep learning. There's a whole exciting world out there full of things to do and see and learn. Learning is a life long journey that never ends. Dedicate your lives to it and you will stay young at heart, young in mind and young in spirit. Most of all, you will make informed and reasoned decisions rather than those based on emotion or ignorance.
  • I hope you will always find a way to have fun. That sounds much simpler than it is. As you get older, ironically, you will have to work harder to keep a fresh and childlike wonder at the amazing world around you. It will be more difficult to find pleasure in simple things. Keep the ability to do that, and it will reward you for the rest of your life.

For the undergraduates leaving here today, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for you and fond memories of our time together. We came to Tulane at the same time and I fondly remember you and your parents from the first day we met on a sultry day in August. I have seen you grow and develop in the last fours in a way that has made me extraordinarily proud of your accomplishments. You came as young adults and you leave today much different people. I want to personally thank you for making my first four years at Tulane so special. I will miss you.

As you all leave us today, I wish you love and luck and laughter. I urge you to get involved, to care about others, and to use your tremendous talents and gifts to help bring about peace and understanding to a world that deserves it.

Godspeed and thank you all for making Tulane such a special place.

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