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Dean's 2014 Hooding Ceremony Remarks

Modified: June 27, 2014

Good Afternoon!

And now, welcome to the 13th Annual MFA & PhD hooding ceremony!  I’m Dwight McBride, Dean of The Graduate School.  And on behalf of the graduate faculty at Northwestern University, it is my pleasure to extend a very warm welcome to the families, friends, and guests of each of our graduating MFA and Doctoral students!

I am privileged today also to introduce the President of Northwestern University, who will bring words of welcome on behalf of the University—President Morty Schapiro.

{President’s remarks}

Now it is my honor to recognize a few other distinguished guests who are with us for today’s ceremony. I’ll ask that each of them please rise to be recognized as I call his or her name:

First, a colleague who has been a great friend to graduate education at Northwestern, University Provost Daniel Linzer.

Representing our partner schools and colleges are the following:

Kelly Mayo, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, Weinberg College of Arts And Sciences

Jane Rankin, Associate Dean for Research, School of Communications

Robert McDonald, Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research, Kellogg School of Management

Ajit Tamhane, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Planning, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Rex L. Chisholm, Vice Dean for Scientific Affairs and Graduate Education, Feinberg School of Medicine

The work of The Graduate School would not be possible without the strong collaborations we enjoy with the provost and each of our partner schools.  So on behalf of our graduates and our faculty, I thank my colleagues for their presence here today and the deans of each partner school for their good offices on behalf of our students.

And one final procedural note. Today we will inaugurate a new tradition.  The presidential fellowship is the highest honor that Northwestern University bestows upon a graduate student.  Those who are graduating today as presidential fellows, will receive from me—after they are hooded—a medallion that signifies their station as lifetime members of the society of presidential fellows. They also have my congratulations!


Commencement season is the time on the academic calendar that I most look forward to each year, for on graduation days, the community of scholars celebrates in all its external splendor, the monumental personal and educational achievements represented by the somewhat peculiar costumes you see before you.  The peculiarity of these costumes also represents the rarity of the accomplishment we are here to celebrate.  According to the latest census data, 29% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree; 6% hold a master’s degree; 1.4% hold professional degrees; and only 1.1% hold an academic doctorate.  I feel very fortunate, indeed, as Dean of The Graduate School at this incredible university, to be able to honor you and your extraordinary achievement.

Having completed this educational journey, this is also a time for contemplation on the paths that brought you to this stage. Even as this ceremony represents the end of one journey, on this occasion we stand at the start of many new paths, roads that have yet to be travelled.  While we can—with a little effort—trace the various routes and pursuits that brought each of you here today, the possible paths upon which you will continue are limited only by your imagination, courage, and perseverance.  As you venture forth from this place, remember these inspiring words:

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams,
Before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the
Greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
Have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But they cannot learn, feel, change,
Grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
They have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

Many more moving passages could be culled from the words of writers and artists, political figures, distinguished scientists and scholars, but when I looked in earnest for an inspirational allegorical story to share with you today, I was surprised to find it in a children’s movie.  Like all children’s tales, this is, at heart, a simple story: the heartwarming tale of a father who rescues his son, learning along the way the value of friendship and the ability to trust in others.  Seems simple enough, but before you scoff at our descent into fairy tales this afternoon, let me assure you that Finding Nemo is heavy stuff. 

It’s also the tale of a young couple, awaiting the birth of their children, who are viciously attacked.  The mother and all but one child is killed in this massacre, and the bereft father, the Clown-Fish Marlin, is left to raise his only surviving offspring, Nemo, alone.  To make matters even worse, on his very first day to school the young Nemo is kidnapped by scuba divers and placed in an aquarium—taken away from his father—presumably forever.  Read in this way, Marlin’s herculean efforts, to rescue his son Nemo, offer a tale of inspiring courage and perseverance.  But Marlin does not achieve this heroic rescue alone.  He is aided by the Blue Tang, Dory, a light-hearted and optimistic character who suffers, rather hilariously, from short-term memory loss. It is through Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, that Finding Nemo delivers its most important messages.

The first lesson Dory offers is that of perseverance.  Shortly after she and Marlin set out together to find Nemo, the two find themselves first befriended, then attacked, by a great white shark.  Barely escaping from the attacking shark and an exploding mine-field—remember, this is a children’s story — M arlin is more than a bit dismayed and fast losing hope.  Dory, however, is totally un-phased by the ordeal and offers Marlin these words of encouragement: “when life gets you down, you know what you got to do?just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…  buoyed slightly by these words, Marlin continues his search for Nemo, only to find himself lost, again seemingly without hope, this time in the mouth of a giant humpback whale.

It is here that Dory teaches Marlin the power of trust.  When first convincing Marlin to ask the whale for directions, she overrules all his objections by asking, matter-of-factly, “how are we gonna find our way, unless we give it a shot and hope for the best?”  They ask for directions from the whale, who promptly takes them inside his mouth.  Marlin, once again, descends into misery and despair, presuming that the whale is going to eat them. 

All his worst fears seem about to come true when the whale stops swimming and begins to raise its tongue and fill its cavernous stomach with the water from his mouth, as if preparing to finally swallow them. Dory, however, continues to be undaunted, and is willing to literally throw herself down the whale’s throat at the merest suggestion, for the whale has informed them that it is “time to let go.” As she falls, Marlin catches her, but she implores him to let go and assures him everything will be alright. 

But “how do you know?,” he asks, fearing for both their lives; “how do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?”  Dory matter-of-factly replies, “I don’t.”

In this moment, Dory inspires him to trust finally and fully in someone else again, and so he too lets go and they both fall.  They fall, however, not into the belly of this beast, but into the spray of the now breaching whale, who has held them gently in his mouth and propelled them out of his blow hole, right into the harbor where they need to be to find Marlin’s son, Nemo.

While I doubt that any of you here need lessons in perseverance, there is a final lesson Dory can teach us, about the importance of finding what makes you fit.  When we first meet Dory, her short-term memory loss has left her an outcast, alone without friends or family.  Through helping Marlin, however, she is able to find not just a friend and a new family, but also a means to overcome her own shortcomings.  As she tells Marlin, “when I’m with you, I remember things better…when I’m with you, I’m home.” For Dory, then, “home” is not about a place to live.  It is instead a way of being, a purpose, a calling, what we used to call a vocation.  To put it bluntly, when she is completely selfless, dedicated to helping another, she is able to find her fit, her “home,” and her obstacles are no longer insurmountable. 

I hope that you, too, will find your passion, your vocation in life. And should you find that the path you wish to travel has yet to be laid, I wish for you the courage to create it for yourself.  For that is the kind of courage that changes the world.  The kind of courage that blues performer, Bonnie Raitt describes when she shares her journey of personal discovery:

"I think people must wonder how a white girl like me became a blues guitarist. The truth is, I never intended to do this for a living. I grew up in Los Angeles in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one.

In 1967 I entered Harvard as a freshman, confident—in the way that only 17-year-olds are—that I could change the world. My major was African Studies, and my plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism. I wanted to help undo the damage that western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world.

Playing guitar was one of my childhood hobbies, and I had played a little at school and at camp…but it was a hobby—nothing more. Then one day a friend called and told me that blues promoter Dick Waterman was doing an interview at…the Harvard college radio station and asked did I want to come meet him.  Dick and I became close friends. I was amazed by his passion for the music and the integrity with which he managed the musicians.

Then in my sophomore year Dick moved to Philadelphia, and this incredible community of musicians moved with him. Something inside me told me that I couldn't not go with them…and though I had every intention of graduating, I decided to take the semester off and move to Philadelphia.

I never went back to school, and I never got to Tanzania. But through my music I was able to contribute to political and social causes and to speak out on issues that are important to me. To this day I don't feel that I compromised. My decision to leave Harvard to go to Philadelphia with those bluesmen certainly changed me…it's a big choice, a deciding moment, but ultimately either path brings surprises and magic."

Today, as you end your role as northwestern student, you take up another very important role as northwestern and TGS alumni.  In this new role, I hope you will remember your time of sustained reflection, investigation, and expression here in this place.  It is through the use of your talents that you will spread the good word and good work of this great university. 

We need your time.  I hope that each of you will take time to participate in the activities of the alumni association, and to answer the call of your programs and of northwestern when we invite you back to campus for important events.  When you do, remember that seeing you and hearing your stories inspires our current students. 

And we need your commitment to support this institution so that it might continue to provide the incredible educational opportunities it has afforded to each of you today.  For it is only through your involvement and support that this great work can be sustained.

I hope you’ll recall this moment for many years to come, especially in those other moments ahead when the obstacles of your work seem so daunting, when the hurdles of your lives seem to reach ever higher, and when the roads ahead seem to stop short of the goal. You will undoubtedly encounter challenges as you move through whatever vocation you find yourself called to.

And when you do, recall the strength and courage that got you to where you are, and remember to “♪just keep swimming♪.”

Once again, my heartiest congratulations you all!

From the Dean