In an extemporaneous address at the College’s 169th Commencement Exercises held on May 22, social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson challenged members of the Holy Cross Class of 2015 to change the world by letting the ideals in their minds be fueled by the convictions in their hearts.
Under sunny skies on Fitton Field, a total of 724 men and women were awarded Bachelor of Arts degrees before family and friends of the graduates, Holy Cross faculty, administrators, staff and honored guests.
Stevenson, who also received an honorary degree, is the widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Last month, he was included among Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2015.
A powerful voice for change in America’s justice system, Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, reminded graduates that their education has equipped them to make a positive difference in the world.
“As a Holy Cross graduate, you represent more than just a college graduate, you actually represent a graduate who’s been prepared to serve others,” he said.
Stevenson told the grads that getting “proximate” with people from all walks of life is necessary to help change the world. He shared a transformational moment he had after meeting condemned people on death row when he was in law school.
“I stood next to people whose lives are being taken. And I realized that there was something tragic in that space. I don’t believe that the death penalty in America is about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. I think that’s the wrong question,” he said. “The question in America of the death penalty is do we deserve to kill? And the truth is that we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. We have a criminal justice system that doesn’t value people fairly based on their race, we have these problems of inequality and suffering and because of that I feel the need to stand with condemned people. And being proximate with condemned people has taught me something about humanity, and power, and beauty.”
Graduates must change the narrative about the problems facing this country, including drug possession and drug dependency, and racial inequality and racial injustice, Stevenson said. They must also stay hopeful, even though a lot of things they will encounter in the future may threaten to make them feel hopeless.
“I want you to protect your hope,” he said. “I am persuaded that justice needs hope. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. It is the enemy of progress. And your hope is vital, it’s precious, it’s essential if we’re going to change the world. Your hope will sometimes have to cause you to stand up when other people are sitting. It will cause you to speak when other people are quiet. But in your hope you believe the things that others have not seen and you begin to change the world.”
Another step in changing the world? Doing uncomfortable things.
“I want to ask you to consider doing uncomfortable things in service of justice, uncomfortable things that lift up the poor, uncomfortable things that lift up the marginalized, uncomfortable things that confront poverty and bias and discrimination. It is only when we do the uncomfortable things that we actually begin to understand the power that this degree opens up for us,” he said.
Stevenson offered graduates a metric system that will allow them to see if they’re living up to these lofty goals.
“It is a metric system that will evaluate your progress leaving here not by how much money you make, not by what kind of job you get, not by how many more degrees you obtain. It’s a metric system that looks at how much those ideas in your mind are being fueled by the conviction in your heart,” he said.
In his valedictory address, graduating senior, Nicholas Cormier, of Feeding Hills, Mass., told his classmates that, in a culture that demands moving at the speed of light, there is benefit to slowing down and being present to the people in their lives.
“If you are willing to stop regardless of where you are on your journey, you may discover that the people you meet and the experiences you have are even more important than where you are going in the first place.”
A biology and sociology double major with a premedical concentration, Cormier was this year’s recipient of the Fenwick Scholarship, one of the highest academic honors the College bestows. The award allowed him to spend the 2014-15 academic year conducting independent, interdisciplinary research which explored transplant medicine.
In addition to Stevenson, Holy Cross awarded honorary degrees to: Ella Baff, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, an international dance festival in the Berkshires; P. Kevin Condron ’67, former chair of the Holy Cross Board of Trustees, and chairman and CEO of The Granite Group; Richard Sacra, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine and community health at UMass Medical School with a practice at the Family Health Center of Worcester, who contracted Ebola while caring for those stricken with the disease in Liberia.
For more coverage, including photos, video and audio, visit the Commencement website.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
Commencement Address – Bryan A. Stevenson
Valedictory Address – Nicholas R. Cormier ’15
Presidential Remarks – Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J.
Baccalaureate Mass Homily – Rev. Paul Harman, S.J.
Ella Baff – Doctor of Fine Arts
P. Kevin Condron ’67 – Doctor of Humanities
Richard A. Sacra – Doctor of Public Service
Bryan A. Stevenson – Doctor of Laws
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