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Bob Woodward to Boston University graduates: ‘Don’t be afraid to try new things’

Other speakers included singer-songwriter James Taylor at the New England Conservatory and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick at Brandeis University

James Taylor received an honorary degree at the 151st New England Conservatory commencement exercises.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Speaking to throngs of Boston University graduates gathered Sunday at Nickerson Field, reporter Bob Woodward pointed to his career in journalism and urged them to be open to new experiences as they move forward in their lives.

Woodward, the longtime Washington Post reporter whose work alongside Carl Bernstein helped expose the epic Watergate scandal and led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974, was among many speakers who appeared at commencements across the region.

Other speakers taking the stage Sunday included singer-songwriter James Taylor at the New England Conservatory and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick at Brandeis University.

At BU’s all-university commencement, Woodward told graduates that he entered journalism after questioning what he wanted to do after leaving the Navy in his late 20s.

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He’d considered becoming an attorney or working in corporate America, then a job as a reporter after reading the Post each morning, he said. He got a tryout there, despite no newspaper experience, and loved the work, he said. The tryout ended without a job.

Nevertheless, he thanked the editor, Woodward said, because he then knew journalism was what he wanted to do.

“I was enthralled; the energy and sense of immediacy in the newsroom was overwhelming,” Woodward said.

He got a job at a suburban Maryland paper for about a year, and then was hired by the Post to cover the night police beat. Nine months later, he was assigned to cover the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972. The resulting story began the Post’s coverage of the scandal that brought down Nixon’s presidency.

“I’m not sure there is an exact lesson from this path. But I have one suggestion: Don’t be in a hurry to do what might be the wrong thing in your life,” Woodward said. “How do you prevent that?... Don’t be afraid to try new things.”

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At Brandeis’s commencement earlier in the day, Patrick offered an impassioned call to action for graduates to preserve democracy, which is being challenged by voting rights limitations in the United States and other restrictions that make it more difficult to cast a ballot.

A citizen’s responsibilities in a democracy. he said, include being “informed and discerning, to engage, and to be a good steward.”

“A generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit the community is a generation that is not learning what it means to be citizens in a democracy,” Patrick said.

The other big challenge facing the nation, he said, is to make “democracy matter.” Patrick lamented that many Americans do not vote, and told graduates there is too much at stake to treat voting as a waste of time.

“Citizenship is an act, a thing you do, not just a thing you are,” Patrick said. “Its privileges and responsibilities are interdependent, each one making the other possible, and meaningful. So act like it.”

At New England Conservatory’s 151st commencement ceremony, school officials on Sunday granted singer, songwriter ,and six-time Grammy winner James Taylor with an honorary doctor of music.

The 74-year-old spoke of music as “spiritual food,” reflected on how much he has missed live performance during the pandemic, and urged the graduating musicians before him to play their music live.

“Music performed in an actual non-virtual space with an audience of fellow human beings can be truly transcendent, a communal, emotional event,” Taylor said. “Make live music for live people, whatever it takes and however you can manage it, alone or with other players, get your music in front of people. Make us one with everything.”

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After the ceremony, Taylor said in a phone conversation from his home in the Berkshires that he was humbled and touched by the honorary degree.

“It’s hard for me to know how to advise young musicians looking for a place in the world,” he said, other than to emphasize the importance of playing for a live audience.

“It’s mysterious. People have really missed it,” Taylor said. “There’s a connection that happens. It runs the gamut from the bacchanal to sort of like being in church, it sort of gets us out of the prisons of ourselves. It’s a communal, emotional experience. It can really be profound.”

Suffolk University held three commencement ceremonies Sunday. Tim Ryan, the US chair and senior partner of PwC, spoke at the combined undergraduate and graduate ceremony. Manny Lopes, executive vice president for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, spoke at the College of Arts & Sciences combined ceremony. And Claire Cronin, the US ambassador to Ireland, spoke at the law school’s commencement.

Meanwhile, Tufts University honored 3,275 students in its undergraduate, graduate and professional schools. Commencement speaker Erika Lee, author and historian of immigration and the Asian American experience, told graduates: “If we are to learn anything from the converging public health, societal, political, and economic crises of the past two years – and from the tragedies in Buffalo, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Charleston – it may be the knowledge that we can no longer function as divided as we are.”

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Globe correspondent Maria Elena Little Endara contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.