Celebrating Fall 2021 Graduates

Join the AU community in recognizing and celebrating our 2021 fall graduates.

  • Our in-person Commencement Ceremonies (Jump to video) include remarks from AU President Sylvia M. Burwell, a commencement address from CNN’s Abby Phillip, and graduate processionals.
  • The Online Graduate Recognition (Jump to video) gives all graduates a chance to celebrate from anywhere that they might be. 

Commencement Ceremonies

9 a.m. Commencement Ceremony

College of Arts & Sciences, Kogod School of Business, Office of Professional Studies, and School of Education

1:30 p.m. Commencement Ceremony

School of Communication, School of International Service, School of Public Affairs, and Washington College of Law

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you, Abby, for those inspiring remarks, and thank you for your contributions to our nation’s political discourse. Your wisdom and objectivity will continue to be valued in the years ahead.

To the Class of 2021: congratulations!!

Moments from now, you will take the short journey from your chair to this stage.

You will be honored with a symbol of your achievement. You will be cheered on by proud family members, friends, and your AU community.

Rare in life do we have such moments, where so many hearts are full, and so many hopes are high.

Posterity will note -- appropriately -- the bittersweetness of this year: the disruption of our lives, the tragedy of lives lost.

Yet we should also reflect on our resilience and solidarity.

Your ties to one another were tested. Yet you remained close. You helped one another.

You found ways to redefine this community as more than a name, a place, or a time.

Our community is a shared experience, a shared body of knowledge, and a resilient set of values. It is an affinity for answering the high calling of our time.

You proved that a vital community is defined as much by its vision for the future as by its past.

Our communities and our futures are interdependent. Your community and your future are interdependent.

Today, in a broader sense, you embark on the next chapter of what is often called the hero’s journey.

From Ulysses in the Odyssey to Katniss in The Hunger Games all the way up to my son Mathew’s book -- How to Train Your Dragon -- the pattern of the hero’s journey is consistent.

A hero-in-waiting receives a call to adventure.

Amid fears and self-doubts, the hero questions the call, but then finds mentors, powers -- and sometimes even entire communities -- to help in the fight ahead.

Upon vanquishing mighty foes, the hero is ready to lead and return the favor of good fortune.

You are on this journey.

By virtue of your character and sense of responsibility, you have been called to a higher purpose.

You are already in the fight for our planet’s environment, the fight for inclusion, the fight for fairness, the fight for dignity, and many others.

You possess extraordinary knowledge, the most powerful weapon available, and you will gain more.

You have shown the resolve necessary to stay the course.

You have a far-reaching community of family, friends, faculty, staff, and alumni. And you should never hesitate to call on them, for joining forces in a higher purpose is the hallmark of our shared humanity.

Most of all, you have honed the one indispensable ingredient of a changemaker -- vision. You have the range, potential, and vision of an Eagle. Once an Eagle, always an Eagle.

So leave this arena as a changemaker for you are:

  • grounded in the practical skills of your professions
  • forged in the rigors of demanding academics, and,
  • fired by the highest of ideals.

On behalf of the entire American University family -- congratulations!!

Graduates, faculty and distinguished guests. It’s a privilege to be standing before you all today in person to share in such a special moment for all of us. Marc Duber, Chair of the Board of Trustees and members of the Board. Provost Peter Staff, it’s a pleasure to be with you today. And thank you, President Sylvia Burwell for inviting me to be here today and for your stewardship of this great American institution.  

It’s safe to say that for nearly 2 years, we have been living through hell. This pandemic has manifested new realities that many of us thought we would never see.  

So, to be standing before you today at American University’s very first in-person graduation ceremony since the pandemic is a distinct pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a sign that this thing is all over. Unfortunately, even as we gather here, we seem to be on the cusp of yet another big wave of covid infections. But this day is a symbol of our perseverance as a country and as human beings. And your perseverance as graduates of this great institution.  

We made it. Through the year 2021 and we are making it through this pandemic – one way or another. We should all be grateful for that.  

As I was preparing to speak to you all today, I reflected on the “before times” and what this pandemic has really meant for all of us. 

I will never forget walking down the street in my neighborhood here in Washington and seeing everyone around me wearing masks. Tears filled my eyes as I watched what seemed like a dystopian nightmare come to life. I am grateful for masks, which along with vaccines, help make us safer. But in that moment, it felt like the world was diving headlong into a dark future, one in which we were forced to obscure our faces and limit our human interaction with others in order to stop the spread of a deadly virus. A world in which hundreds of thousands of people were being killed by a virus silently spreading between us through seemingly harmless interactions. 

I mourned what we were losing and I feared what would come next. There was a lot to fear at that time. But deep in my heart, I knew this was a wake up call for all of us.  

There will be other pandemics and other challenges to our ability to collectively tackle problems that threaten humanity. We weren’t ready for this one. Not even close. But what happened after that, I really never imagined. That so many people would ignore or even reject the advice of the scientific community out of hand was shocking to me and it still is. That so many people could be manipulated with misinformation that threatens their own lives is something that still shakes me to my core. Needless to say, we’ve got a lot of work to do. 

And that’s where you all come in. 

I’m confident that among this group is such an extraordinary array of talents and destinies that it’s difficult to draw generalizations. I’m a journalist, not a life coach.  

But I do think that every single person in this room, every single individual blessed to be able to say “I graduated from THE American University” is also charged with a responsibility.  

It is a responsibility to your country, to your community and to yourself. 
This is a time when we need an army of people committed to the truth, committed to our democracy, and committed to serving others. 

It seems easy to say that from where we stand and sit today. I imagine that for each of you, your cup runneth over today. The feeling of accomplishment and achievement and just the sigh of “FINALLY” upon graduation is overwhelming. 

But I’m here to tell you, having observed a lot of people who are decades removed from this moment in *their* lives, being committed to truth and service is HARD. It is not easy to hold on to your values and what matters the most, especially when life happens, when power happens, when money happens. 

You all are here today because you persevered through something. Perhaps that thing was this pandemic or not knowing how you would pay for college or a lack of motivation to do well in your classes. But you’re here and the question that is probably at the front of your mind is: what’s next? 
I want to start by saying that just by virtue of the fact that you are here today, receiving a diploma from this institution in the nation’s capital, you are entering an illustrious club. You have earned a place of privilege that so many right here in this country and in the world only dream of.  

My question to you today is this: What are you going to do now to pay that forward? 

Because you are here today, the universe has given you a beautiful and powerful gift. The gift of life, the gift of knowledge and the gift of luck. The kind of luck that for so many people is illusive, even when they possess the same intellect and talent. And so, by dint of some luck, your hard work can shine through. I say that not to minimize your effort but rather to put it in an appropriate perspective.  

You see, when you understand that you are being put in certain places and in certain circumstances to make the greatest possible use of your talent, that is when you can tap into your full potential. 

It is tempting sometimes to think that the luck that brought you here means that you are undeserving. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced the fear of failure that can come when you are on the verge of accomplishing the things you’ve been working your whole life for. 

Fear is a natural instinct in humans designed to protect us from the unknown. But it is also an instinct that galvanizes us in one of two directions: fight or flight.  

At the end of the day, wisdom comes in knowing when to fight and when to flee. 

It’s not always easy to know which way you should go. Early on in my life, I knew that I wanted to help others. So naturally, like thousands (or millions) of other freshmen in College, I believed the best option would be to be a doctor. But a few months into my first biochemistry class, struggling through advanced math, I was lost and in a dark place. I kept telling myself: you’re not working hard enough, you’re not fighting enough. I pushed and pushed – staying up all night, struggling. And I sank deeper and deeper into a rut. 

What I thought I HAD to do to make my family proud was beginning to seem like an insurmountable task.  

I was terrified, thinking it was a sign that I didn’t belong there. 

Fight or flight.  

What I didn’t know at the time was that this experience of failure (and I would have many since then) was a clear sign that I needed to move in a different direction. In that moment, changing directions felt exactly the same as giving up. 

We glorify fight so much in our society. And there are so many times when yes, you need to dig in and stand your ground. But there are also times when you need to look around and find a new path. You need to find a creative way to outsmart the enemy, out maneuver your opponent, or leap OVER the problem.  

You see, deep in my heart I knew that I had a personal destiny that needed to be fulfilled. I just didn’t know what it was. I knew that there was something I had to do for the good of others, but before I could get there, I needed to grapple with myself and with my own mind and my own heart.  

I look back on each moment of failure early in my adulthood and see that every single time, something was telling me: it’s time to pick up your stuff and find a way. That’s what led me here, to journalism and to this moment with all of you. 

We don’t talk enough about failure and what it looks like and what it means. 
Failure is fuel. It’s how we grow and how we learn. Without it we wouldn’t understand adversity and perseverance and success would lack true significance.  

But in order to push through and transcend failure, we have to understand our purpose. 

I’m not talking about your 5 or 10 year plan, I’m talking about something bigger than that and frankly, harder to define. 

Don’t get me wrong, many people succeed in this world through sheer force of will. Some of those people are aggressively out for themselves. Some of those people have a leg up. They were born at the one yard line. Sometimes they have such a clear vision for themselves that only the realization of that vision will satisfy them. 

But for the rest of us, purpose is what fuels our success. Purpose isn’t a job, or a title. Purpose is a mission. 

You have to understand that on your darkest days, your own sense of self-preservation may not be enough to get you through the fire.  

As human beings, we are hard wired to seek community and connection. For some people, their community is their own family or their small social circle. But if I had a guess, if you are sitting here in this audience as a graduate of American University, your sense of community is something bigger and broader. And how we give back to our community can become a sense of purpose that drives you to your greatest self and your greatest potential. 

Of course, I am absolutely not an advocate of ringing yourself dry in order to save the world. You have to first be whole before you can truly fill others up.  
But so often we think that giving back is what we do when we’ve overcome all of our challenges. We want to get to the mountaintop and turn around and survey what’s below us from a position of strength. But who we take with us on the journey up the mountain is just as important.  

I know that this is a room of leaders. I know this is a room of doers. And the best leaders SERVE first.  

When we dedicate ourselves to high ideals it changes us for the better. You aren’t just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for people around you as well.  

Not enough people with power and leadership roles are doing that. That’s the sad truth. Too many are operating from a calculus of one. What is good for me. How do *I* accumulate power. How do I attract praise for myself. It’s making us a more callus society, it’s endangering our Democracy, and it’s weakening the fabric of our society. 

But there is a solution. And it’s us. Me, you, all of us. 

We are here at American University – an institution founded with the idea of building a stronger government that can better serve its people through competence and professionalism. No matter what you decide to do with your life, you are here today because of that mission.  

Today, you have a charge. The challenges that the world face are many, but they highlight the need for more leaders to stand up for what is true and what is right.  

Yes, there are some things worth fighting for. And none are more important than our ability to have a shared sense of truth and of facts.  

People ask me all the time: as a journalist, what can you do about misinformation and about the fact that people in this country can’t even seem to agree on basic facts.  

But I like to turn that question right back at the people asking me. It’s not just the responsibility of journalists or politicians to think about these things. It’s on all of us. In our relationships, our friendships, families and on our social media feeds.  

As you graduate today, I’m sure you all are thinking about your careers, about how much money you’re likely to make and about the reputations that you want.  

But I ask you today to think about what kind of society you want to live in and what kind of world you’re willing to fight for.  

Today, we truly are fighting for the survival of our system of governance. We truly are fighting to stand up for facts, for science, and for truth. 

Commit to the truth. Do it right now. Decide today how important it is to you because there will be a time down the road, long after you forget everything I’ve said here today, when you will be tested. You’ll face a choice between what is true and what is convenient for you. You’ll face a choice between what is accurate and what will help you get ahead. And some of you will fail those tests. But I truly believe that many of you will save us all.  

I think about the big choices that generations before us faced. Those who pushed back against lies that sought to divide us based on race, religion gender or class. Those who chose truth are the heroes of our history lessons. 
As you prepare to leave this institution of higher learning to do and be everything you have been preparing for, now is your time to be the hero of our American and global story. We need you to do it for yourselves and for future generations.  

Class of 2021, congratulations. You’ve earned this moment to celebrate all you’ve accomplished, and I’m overjoyed to celebrate with you. Have a wonderful day today and a wonderful and safe holiday season. 

Good morning, everyone

I started my AU journey way back in the fall of the year 2017. You must be asking yourself, joe why so long ago, what took you so long. Well the catch phrase “ life happens” applies. AU journey has been a rollercoaster and jet plane ride combined. It began when I was working as an Instructor working in Quantico VA, dropped me to California, shot me overseas, shipped me to Duabi and took me all over the globe before reaching its end here on this stage.

I would like to share something that my AU experience taught me

What it is to have deliberate Determination. last year, in 2020, when most were locked down due to covid, I was deployed, supporting combat operations in Iraq. If the enemies’ evening rocket barrage wasn’t stressful enough, was finally taking financial accounting, a class I had been actively avoiding because of its reputation for difficulty. But being a glutton for punishment I decided this would be the time to test my limits. And testing it did. Long days and short slept nights found me struggling almost to the point of tears. However, my Professor and my fellow students whom I now call friends, from thousands of miles away, made the time to meet with me, took the time to help me through the dense materials, stayed up late to drill me through step actions of closing the books.. (irony intended)…  the team effort gave me a new watermark for determination and mission success…. as well as my first grey hairs.

In WW1 a Marine officer named Lloyd W. Williams was advised French counterpart to retreat he replied quote, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here!"

that quote embodies the sense of deliberate determination I felt when I was taking my accounting final after having been awake for more than a 24hrs. I knew that I would not give up until the task was complete.

It is said when adversity comes, that Men and women of character should never expect to themselves to rise to the occasion but fall back on the foundations that they have built.

We must be deliberate in our actions and determined in our methods to excellence and distinction.

I charge all of you, Stay deliberately determined, complete the task.

I would like to make a special acknowledgement to Professor Denise Bossard for taking the extra time with a sleepy Captain from across the world who was at his breaking point. we refused to fail each other, and I will forever remember your unwavering grit and genuine concern towards me.

“The struggle is real and ongoing.”

I’m sure you all felt that in your souls. Because if there’s one thing college students know, it’s struggle. The struggle to wake up for that 8:10 you thought you could handle. The struggle of being the guinea pigs for AUx. Or the struggle to adjust to Zoom University as the world was literally collapsing inward. It’s a struggle we all know, and have been surviving since Freshman year.

And while we’ve merely escaped this college struggle, there is another more universal struggle waiting for us outside those doors. The kind of struggle that has catalyzed inspirational student movements, including the movement for safe housing at Howard, or that calling for AU to Divest from war-making institutions. It’s the intimidating struggle against the imminent threat of climate change. An interconnected struggle that centers Black and indigenous liberation movements at home, and similarly shapes global liberation movements fighting for human dignity and the reclamation of life-giving resources needed to sustain this dignity.

It’s a struggle that we don’t deserve to have merely ‘survived’, but owe to ourselves and our futures to eradicate entirely. And this can only be done through collectivism and unity.

Unity. As students of American University— whose principals highlight service, leadership and scholarship— we must understand that our experience here means nothing without unity. For what is service without shared compassion, without the aid and assistance of others? As future leaders, what is this leadership without organizers and allies marching as one toward a more promising fate? And as students, what is scholarship without the concurrence of educators, administrators, and pupils, bound together to build and rebuild knowledge.

Unity is the reason we are here, together as one. But it’s not when we sit together, made up of different hues and backgrounds and strengths and voices, yet we cage our knowledge for fear of exchanging it. When, in this unending war against hatred and injustice and struggle we hide behind the shield of privilege and refuse to face these beasts in the eyes, unity is not possible. When we choose to remain blinded by ignorance, forcing ourselves to disregard the wounds of others, unity is not possible. When we deafen ourselves to the cries of others— when we withhold our hands from joining together, afraid to touch the scars or to grasp the differences or to dare to dream of a better world with others— unity is not possible.

I encourage you all to remember this as you begin your journey beyond these walls. As we navigate this increasingly dull world, let unity be the light and guide we use to recreate this world to be one full of the dignity and humanity we deserve. A world where we’ve conquered the struggle.

Good afternoon graduates! I want to start by thanking our parents, spouses, and families for all the support. Finishing a degree is no small feat, add a global pandemic to the mix and it becomes even harder. We could not have made it without your support.

I came to American University at 25, already an adult, but I knew I still had a lot to learn. What I didn’t know was the important lesson I learned in my six years at AU was about service – to my colleagues, my community, and beyond.  

During my first two years, I was in survival mode, just navigating the rigors of my PhD program. Becoming a graduate research assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in my third year at AU changed my outlook. I worked on a project, contracted by the U.S. State Department, completely out of my comfort zone. Yet, I surprised myself. I learned new skills, and I started to see my place at AU as more than a PhD student. I developed skills that applied to service, to the AU community, and the government.

I went on to be an operations supervisor at the Library, and through maintaining the building, I found pleasure.  I was there, in the morning, opening the Library to students. Those same students called me when the printer jammed. Every day, in some way or another, I served the students, and when I watched them come in and out of the library with books in hand, and one less item on their “to do” list, I took satisfaction in knowing that I was part of that.

Finally, by working as an advisor at the Office of Merit Awards in my last role at AU, I found a role so much more fulfilling than I expected. I didn’t just help students apply for competitive scholarships and fellowships, I helped them think about their goals. Maybe some of you graduating today worked with me – and so to you all I want to say that I have never been so proud of my work as when a student like you reached out to me to let me know they got that Fulbright they worked so hard for.

I came to AU to pursue a PhD, but in my time here, AU also taught me to see every act as an act of service. Today, I can visualize how my work impacted the individuals at AU and the community as a whole.

And, you have this spirit of service too! We are Eagles, and we stick together.

When you helped your classmate to understand a difficult concept, you showed your spirit of service.When your roommate had to quarantine and you brought them meals, you showed your spirit of service.

And when it felt like things were falling apart, and your classmates needed help (and maybe you, too) to get to the finish line, you all definitely showed your spirit of service.

Today I want to invite you to reflect on your time at AU and how, every day, you impacted the people around you. More than that, I want to invite you to take this reflection to your life and career going forward. See your work as an act of service. Let the academic and technical skills you’ve gained at AU be more than just what you’ll do in your job, may they be the engine that assists your service to the world.

Because we will not solve the big problems of today by only focusing on sitting at our desks. Our skills can fuel more than just our jobs, and if we see our lives as our service to those around us, we will build a better and more just world for us all.


Online Graduate Recognition

Fall 2021 Online Graduate Recognition