Madeleine Albright praised the Tufts community as a “light on the hill” for its activism work as students carried out a quiet protest during this morning’s commencement ceremony opposing a Tufts plan to cut janitor jobs.
The former secretary of state spoke of inequality during her speech and said while some people “simply shrug their shoulders,” Tufts students have, through protests and marches, 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,” Albright said.
Dozens of graduates held red signs during the commencement ceremony, with the words “I support Tufts janitors” on a heart shape. Some graduates pinned what appeared to be a single piece of white fabric, in solidarity with the custodial staff.
According to a student organizer, faculty members, parents, alumni, underclassmen and other guests also held signs in support, and a number of faculty members wore the squares.
The university conferred 3,406 degrees: 1,992 graduate degrees and 1,414 undergraduate degrees at the commencement ceremony at the school’s Medford and Somerville campus. Amid the pomp and circumstance, some students decorated their caps; some had forward-looking phrases like “Allons-y” — “Let’s go” in French — while others had playful and silly things, like “Pizza” accompanied by a hand-drawn slice.
Albright told the graduates they now must rely not on guidance from professors but from an “inner compass,” and that compass will determine whether they become “a drifter, or a doer — an active citizen.”
“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.”
Albright’s speech was also filled with a few lighter moments — she congratulated the graduates on passing “one of the most difficult tests of all: surviving a truly wicked Boston winter.”
She also described the time she attended Wellesley College as “somewhere between the Apple Watch and the discovery of fire.”
As an immigrant attending college at Wellesley, Albright said she wanted to fit in. Conformity was encouraged at the time, she said. “Women were finding our voices but we were still expected to be ladies.”
“I wanted to use the fine education I received for more than meaningful dinner conversation,” she said. “I wanted to give something back to this country that had given so much to me.”
Albright touched upon a number of major themes during her speech, including racial discrimination, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and climate change.
“We see how many of the assumptions of my generation, and your parents’ generation, about the 21st century have been proven wrong,” she said. “To put it another way: the world’s a mess.”
But she said that “for all the anxieties and turmoil that surround us, I have to say that I remain an optimist — though an optimist who worries a lot.”
“I insist that you put your opinions to the test, when required, you dare — as Tuft’s motto suggests — to be voices crying for peace and light,” she said. “Because your choices will make all the difference to you, and to us all.”
Following the ceremony, graduate Anne Donovan, 21, said she hoped the custodial staff felt represented during the ceremony.
“It was very noble, and very Tufts,” said Donovan of Brewster, N.Y., who graduated with a double major in international relations and Chinese.
Scarlett Hao, 22, who was graduating with the same two majors, said she looked forward to a trip to Asia before starting a job as a business analyst.
“I’m very relieved to have a concrete path,” Hao said.
Nicholas James Macaluso, 22, said that he did more than he could have imagined in college, including taking a summer-long trip to Nepal to teach in a school.
“The students at Tufts are passionate in all they do,” he said.
Katherine Landergan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.