U.S. senator from New Jersey addressed more than 6,400 grads at GW’s commencement
By James Irwin
On a bright and unseasonably chilly May morning following weeks of rain, U.S. Sen. Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.) and members of the GW community gathered to celebrate the end of the university’s 195th academic year.
Facing a sun-splashed National Mall, and with an estimated 25,000 people in attendance, Mr. Booker channeled life lessons from his parents as well as personal triumphs and tragedies in an emphatic speech that urged graduates to fight for a better, less cynical future by taking control of their lives.
"[My father] would say you can’t control the world, but you can control your reactions," Mr. Booker said. "Don’t give in to cynicism. It is a toxic spiritual state. You’ve got to be one that, wherever you are, like a flower, you’ve got to blossom where you’re planted. You cannot eliminate darkness. You cannot banish it by cursing darkness. The only way to get rid of darkness is light and to be the light yourself."
In addition to Mr. Booker, honorary degrees also were conferred upon Baroness and Parliamentarian Joanna Shields, MBA ’87, and philanthropist and Southern Engineering Corporation President Albert H. Small.
GW President Steven Knapp, student speaker Julia Haigney, BA ’11, JD ’16, and Provost Forrest Maltzman also offered remarks during the Sunday-morning ceremony, which was shortened due to high winds. It was one of more than a dozen events held during GW’s commencement week, including individual school celebrations, a doctoral hooding ceremony, senior class toast, Phi Beta Kappa induction and the Interfaith Baccalaureate.
On the Mall, Dr. Maltzman welcomed the more than 6,400 graduates, highlighting the "one-of-a-kind" opportunity to celebrate commencement on the National Mall. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony there, a tradition that started in 2006 after commencement moved from the Ellipse.
Mr. Booker is the first political figure to speak at GW’s commencement since 2011 when the ceremony featured then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke last year. Mr. Booker filled his speech with anecdotes, advice, jokes and confessions. He spoke of his parents having their first date at the Jefferson Memorial—"my dad got lucky to meet my mom, and my mom had the charity to allow him to marry her"—and delivered droll one-liners that sparked laughter in the crowd.
"My mom has a saying: Behind every successful child is an astonished parent," Mr. Booker said.
He implored those in attendance to heed the wisdom of their parents and to raise the level of respect and civility in America, starting with their own daily actions. "I’m tired of this call in our country for this idea of tolerance—that is not the aspiration," Mr. Booker said. "We have a nation right now that seems to think the greatest and highest achievement is for us to be a tolerant nation, but I say no. We’re not called to be a tolerant nation. We’re called to be a nation of love. What we need to do is understand that we have to love each other, that we have to see each other have worth and dignity and value."
Dr. Knapp thanked the parents, families and friends of the graduates and conferred degrees, pausing to offer a final charge to the graduates.
"Go out, be the light, remain faithful and change our world,” he said. "Congratulations to you all."