Metro

Commencement speakers deliver messages of service

Importance of public service is key message to graduates at Tufts, Brandeis, elsewhere

 Boston University graduates (above) celebrated during commencement ceremonies at Nickerson Field Sunday.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Boston University graduates (above) celebrated during commencement ceremonies at Nickerson Field Sunday.

This article was reported by Nicole Fleming, Jim Kimble, Katherine Landergan, and David Scharfenberg. It was written by Scharfenberg.

Prominent politicians and diplomats urged college graduates to engage in the nation’s increasingly dysfunctional but still vital political life in a series of commencement addresses around New England on Sunday.

With concerns about police brutality still smoldering in Baltimore and South Carolina and a presidential primary heating up in New Hampshire, speakers said it was important for a new generation to take part.

“America faces daunting challenges: generational poverty, looming debt, a warming climate . . . and a world that is increasingly dangerous and tumultuous,” Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee, said in an address at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

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“Washington appears inept, powerless, and without an effective strategy to overcome any of those,” he continued. “America needs your passion, your impatience with inaction, your participation in the political discourse.”

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The theme, public engagement, sounded from lecterns across the region.

Tufts University graduates held up signs supporting the school’s janitors during the commencement ceremony in Medford.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Tufts University graduates held up signs supporting the school’s janitors during the commencement ceremony in Medford.

At Tufts University, where students have been protesting plans to lay off janitors, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright praised graduates for engaging. While some people “simply shrug their shoulders,” she said, Tufts students have made their “voices heard on behalf of the voiceless.”

“You have stood up on behalf of workers, you have spoken out against the scourge of sexual assault, you have made clear that black lives matter, and you have pressed for action on climate change,” she said.

Albright told the graduates they now must rely on guidance not from professors but from an “inner compass,” a compass that will determine whether they become “a drifter, or a doer — an active citizen.”

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“All I see are doers,” she said to the graduates, adding that “when I tell you the world needs you, I really, really mean it.”

At Brandeis University, former ambassador Thomas R. Pickering acknowledged that a life in public service “will not provide a lavish living.” But the rewards, he suggested, are great.

“Public service will bring you the opportunity to be part of a mission that has the greater good in mind, and the ability to advocate and make changes, and to support and improve the lives of millions at home and around the world,” he said.

The pleas for public engagement come as the rewards of the private sector, which could seem so distant to twenty-somethings during the recession and halting recovery, suddenly appear more attainable.

Students at the Suffolk University graduation, held beneath the soaring canopy of the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the South Boston waterfront, spoke excitedly of the jobs they had already lined up.

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“Oh, it’s awesome right now,” said Kimberly Boutwell, 31, who was graduating with a master’s in interior architecture and has a job at a design firm waiting for her. “It’s definitely been a lot easier than the graduates the years before us.”

‘Public service will bring you the opportunity to be part of a mission that has the greater good in mind, and the ability to advocate and make changes, and to support and improve the lives of millions at home and around the world.’ --Thomas Pickering, former ambassador, speaking at Brandeis

For 20- to 24-year-olds with college degrees, unemployment has dropped to about 7 percent. That is the lowest mark since 2008, the first full year of the recession, when it stood at 6 percent. And with millions of new jobs sprouting, the competition for each post is not nearly as intense as it was just a few years ago.

The commencement speakers, to be sure, talked about more than just public life Sunday.

At Boston University, television journalist Meredith Vieira spoke of being a “lost English major” during her senior year of college when she was offered a radio station internship that changed her life.

“So if you haven’t found a job or decided on a career path yet, don’t freak out,” she said. “Don’t let fear or frustration or the fact that others around seem to be all set immobilize you.”

It would be boring, she said, if the graduates knew where their journeys would take them. “Listen, you’re terriers,” she said, referring to the school’s mascot. “When terriers go for a car ride, they don’t know where they’re going. They don’t care where they’re going. They stick their head out the window and let the wind rush over them and enjoy the ride.”

But the public engagement message, nonetheless, was strong.

Anschel Schaffer-Cohen wore a smile and a stuffed lemur on his cap during commencement for Tufts University’s class of 2015 in Medford Sunday.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Anschel Schaffer-Cohen wore a smile and a stuffed lemur on his cap during commencement for Tufts University’s class of 2015 in Medford Sunday.

At Suffolk, Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar, congratulated graduates and noted they were entering an “improved labor market that rewards education.” But she pivoted quickly, reminding the audience that those without degrees are in a more difficult position.

“Poverty is very real in our country, and the mass incarceration that began with the War on Drugs in the 1980s is a failed policy,” she said, to applause.

Echoing the words of Pope Francis, she said “all of you graduates can bandage the wounds of others and heal the world.”

And she urged graduates to get involved, even if they do not have a full idea for how they want to contribute.

“It may seem odd to suggest that you just jump in without deep consideration,” she said. “Yes, of course it’s important to think ahead and to plan. But often the best thing is to just take that first uncertain step. Life happens when you make choices, when you take action. Get yourself to a place, take a stand, be present.”

Governor Charlie Baker, who also spoke at Suffolk, made more oblique reference to the importance of public service.

But he offered up a bit of advice very much in line with the upbeat, fix-it governance style he has ridden to high public approval ratings in his first five months in office: “Be constructive, be positive, and try to focus on what works instead of on what doesn’t.”

The governor recalled a meeting with a community activist, years ago, who spoke about all that ailed his community. After an hour, Baker asked the activist to tell him about something that worked in his community.

“A very awkward silence followed,” he said, pausing for effect.

There is, he suggested, a better way.

The governor cited a personal hero, the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, who remained positive during a fight with AIDS, and became an advocate.

Most of the speakers Sunday seemed intent on encouraging a new generation of advocates, whatever cause they might embrace or avenue they might take.

“Most of you probably won’t run for office,” Romney said at Saint Anselm. “But the country needs all of you to serve.”

Saint Anselm College president Dr. Steven DiSalvo helped Mitt Romney with his gown at the New Hampshire institution.
Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe
Saint Anselm College president Dr. Steven DiSalvo helped Mitt Romney with his gown at the New Hampshire institution.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe