June 6, 2011

And off they go!

6,634 graduates conferred at Johns Hopkins’ 135th universitywide commencement ceremony, held on May 26 at Homewood Field

The day featured uplifting speeches, several impromptu on-stage moments, and a joyous and raucous celebration of the Class of 2011. A cameo appearance by the Baltimore summer, however, might have stolen the show.

On a humid day that had many dabbing foreheads and guzzling water, President Ronald J. Daniels conferred degrees on 6,634 graduates at Johns Hopkins’ 135th universitywide commencement ceremony, held on May 26.

The Thursday morning ceremony brought to Homewood Field thousands who fought to say cool on a day that crept into the upper 80s. The graduates—many decked out in sunglasses—drank bottled water, unfastened their robes and fanned themselves to beat the heat.

In a tradition begun last year, the undergraduates from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering first gathered on the Keyser Quadrangle to take a ceremonial “final walk” through campus, passing through the Freshman Quad, where their academic journey started, to reach Homewood Field. The Homewood students were joined in their walk this year by undergraduates from the Peabody Institute and the School of Nursing. All other graduates entered from the Athletic Center.

In his address, Daniels delivered personal words of advice on the importance of humanity and maintaining perspective.

Daniels had intended to focus his talk on President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation 50 years ago and how the “new global order” themes of that speech still resonate today. But he opted for a less serious talk that would leave any discussion of global themes to the featured commencement day speaker, television and print journalist Fareed Zakaria.

In his opening, Daniels discussed the demands heaped upon Johns Hopkins students, who live in “the relentless pursuit of excellence.”

“Where else could you find a student body that took such sheer, some would say perverse, delight in the totally unreasonable workloads inflicted upon you by the faculty?” said Daniels, whose question was followed by a round of laughter from the audience. He then told the story of his first day on campus, when he overheard a group of undergraduates discussing the highlight of their week—organic chemistry. “And there was no sarcasm,” he joked.

But Johns Hopkins students, he said, were able to meet these demands and still maintain a social life filled with sports, cultural pursuits and volunteer service.

“You get us,” he said. “While Johns Hopkins is about excellence, it is very much about humanity. I have seen this firsthand in the dizzying array of community activities that you did while you were here: mentoring of underprivileged children, tutoring inmates, counseling adults and administering to those suffering wretched illness. You understood. You embraced the idea that excellence without humanity is void of true and enduring meaning. You understand what at our core we are about.”

Daniels said that this call to humanity will “echo in your hearts and minds throughout the rest of your lives.

“Class of 2011,” he said. “Our work is done. Yours is just beginning. I know you will make us proud.”

Joshua Ayal, senior class president, used his remarks to reflect on how his fellow graduates got to this point. Ayal praised the roles of parents and family, and spoke of the special bond the class had formed, living through good times and bad.

“I, for one, can stand here today and say that every single one of us would not be here had it not been for the love, help and support of at least one other person in the audience,” he said. “We have all faltered, but as a class we took on each obstacle as it came, only to recognize once more that our capacity to persevere may well be limitless. We now leave this fine institution equipped with the pride of our parents, the faith of our friends and the knowledge that we have it within our power to face whatever comes our way.”

Ayal then introduced Zakaria, who hosts CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and also serves as editor at large for Time magazine and as a columnist for The Washington Post.

Zakaria sounded notes of optimism when discussing the world that the graduates were about to venture into. In a growing chorus of gloom and anxiety about the economy, terrorism and war, Zakaria said he sees a world that “isn’t that bad.”

He cited a world with diminishing poverty, fewer civil wars, sprouting democracies and increased cooperation.

“You are living in remarkably peaceful times,” he said. “You don’t have the great kind of power rivalry that dominated the world for hundreds of years and precipitated war after war.”

He referenced what he calls the “rising of the rest,” the growing number of nations who have joined the world economy and found paths to political stability. “The most dramatic result of this has been in China, where we’ve seen a quadrupling of the average Chinese income,” he said. “But similar gains can be found among the people of India and South Africa, and large parts of Latin America.”

He spoke about what he sees as a brave new imperfect world.

“I won’t deny that there are great problems that we face,” he said. “But I also think that there is an extraordinary human response to these problems that we always forget about. We have seen that human beings, human ingenuity, technology and invention always triumph, and we find a way to have a better life for ourselves and our children. You will face particular challenges, a world with extraordinary competition where technology is operating at warp speed and other countries are beginning to do things that the United States has done well. But this is surely a better challenge to have than our predecessors faced, such as the rise of communism, Nazism and world wars. What you are now about to do is create a peaceful and prosperous world where everyone can participate, and the fruits of this prosperity can be shared in a global fashion.”

The ceremony recognized the new members of the Society of Scholars—former postdoctoral fellows, postdoctoral degree recipients, house staff and junior or visiting faculty who have served at least a year at Johns Hopkins and thereafter gained marked distinction elsewhere in their fields of physical, biological, medical, social or engineering sciences or in the humanities and for whom at least five years have elapsed since their last Johns Hopkins affiliation.

Honorary degrees were awarded to Zakaria; C. Michael Armstrong, who will conclude his six-year tenure as chairman of Johns Hopkins Medicine at the end of June; novelist John Barth, professor emeritus in the Krieger School’s Writing Seminars; Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; David M. Serwadda, a physician and pioneering researcher of AIDS and its transmission; and David Simon, author and writer/producer of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s The Wire and Treme.

Toward the end of the ceremony, families and friends sought to load up on water and seek shade.

Steve Jampol used the time after his son walked on stage to scout out the perfect spot to meet him and shoot some more video. Russell Jampol, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major, was graduating at age 20 with honors.

“We are really proud of our son. He has been a fantastic student and just a great kid,” Steve Jampol said. “We are just really excited. I just wish my father was alive to see this.”

Eric Brodie, who graduated with a degree in applied math and statistics, got caught in a slight snafu on stage and had his name announced twice. His name was first called before officials realized that some more nursing students needed to be called on stage. He then got a do-over.

Brodie said he just made the most of the moment, almost moonwalking his way back to the on-stage handshaker.

“I’m really happy. I’m ready to go conquer the world,” said Brodie, who couldn’t stop grinning.

Brodie’s mother was equally all smiles. “I’m elated,” said Susan Brodie, who relished being out of the heat. Her trick during the ceremony was to stand in the shade underneath the stands.

Elizabeth Martinez, a graduate with a mechanical engineering degree, pretty much summed up the mood of the students following the ceremony.”

“I feel good. I’m really excited. I’m just really hot right now,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I can’t wait to get out of these robes.”

For more coverage of the day’s events, go to www.jhu.edu/commencement.