Special Feature: Commencement 2013

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Commencement: Northwestern's Favorite Day!

Baryshnikov to grads: ‘Figure out what pushes you. What makes you ask big questions?’

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June 21, 2013 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Mikhail Baryshnikov, the world-renowned dancer -- and Northwestern parent -- focused on the power of the arts today in his passionate, and often humorous, keynote address at Northwestern University’s 155th commencement ceremony at Ryan Field.

The stadium was filled with “purple pride,” reflected not only in the great artist’s speech but also in the gowns, the mortarboard messages, the giddy waves from family and friends -- and especially the graduates’ faces.

“Over time I learned that the big questions, the ones that keep you up at night, were being asked, if not always answered, by artists,” Baryshnikov said.  

A critically acclaimed film, television and stage actor as well as one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers, he said he discovered the only way for him to make sense of the world was “through dance and, later, music, literature and the visual arts.”

“Questions like why are we here, what is important, what should we be doing, weren’t being answered by politicians or by religion or even by some of the smartest people I knew,” Baryshnikov said.

His advice to graduates: “Figure out what pushes you. If it isn’t the arts, what is your trigger? What makes you ask big questions?”

More than 12,000 people packed the stadium for the 95-minute ceremony honoring approximately 4,500 exuberant, purple-robed undergraduate and graduate students.

Baryshnikov urged the Class of 2013 “to take the concentration and drive and ambition you’ve applied here at Northwestern and direct it toward deciding what conversations you will have about the world.”

The intense focus that is part of being an artist, he said, can be applied to anything. He urged the graduates to ask questions that matter to them and to pursue those questions with the same focus.   

“Once you figure out what you will do with your life -- and eventually you will -- work hard at it, just like you’ve been working here,” he said. “Give it your time. Let it consume your thoughts.”  

Displaying his playful side, Baryshnikov also acknowledged his television celebrity, telling the graduates he knows they are wondering “why the old guy from ‘Sex and the City’ is giving our commencement speech.” Loud laughter followed. 

And, noting that English is his second language, he insisted that the last thing he wanted to do was struggle “to be inspiring to graduates of one of the finest universities in the country.” His daughter, a member of Northwestern’s Class of 2014, was the main reason he accepted the invitation to speak, he said with a twinkle. She encouraged him to be the speaker. 

On a more serious note, he added that it was a challenge to do something that made him uncomfortable, “to say something meaningful about life in front of everyone.”

“This formal situation forces me to articulate things I never even said coherently to my own children,” he said.

Baryshnikov concluded by saying, “There is something even bigger than success -- it is being fully human. And that is what this school is about.”

“Go Cats!” he shouted at the end, blowing kisses to the wildly applauding crowd and taking a deep bow. 

More moments from the ceremony

  • Undergraduate and graduate students rose in their turns, school by school, as President Morton Schapiro conferred their degrees. Many cheered and applauded for their schools as each of their proud deans introduced them.
  • Dean Everette Dennis rose to announce the graduation in May in Doha, Qatar, of the second class of journalism and communication majors at Northwestern University in Qatar, noting it was the University's only international school.
  • For the third year in a row, President Schapiro acknowledged five high school teachers in the audience who received a special Northwestern award that recognizes the ways they influenced the 2013 graduates who nominated them for the honor.
  • Students sitting in row upon row of folding chairs clapped, chatted, texted and emailed cellphone shots of the ceremony to friends and family with great enthusiasm on their momentous day. Many had messages on their black mortarboards. "No Goodbye, Just Smile" was written in silver sparkles on the top of one woman's cap, which also was marked with a purple Northwestern "N."
  • Timothy Zachas, Class of 2013, introduced Baryshnikov, reflecting on the extraordinary position he holds in the world of the arts: “When he was still a student in Leningrad, The New York Times dance critic saw him in class and proclaimed that he was ‘the most perfect dancer I’ve ever seen,’” Zachas said.
  • Maryam Adamu, Class of 2013, reinforced President Schapiro’s celebration of the parents and family members of the graduates by “thanking the people who are constantly in our heads and in our hearts, the people who every day -- and today in a more literal sense -- have our backs.”
  • Cheers erupted when President Schapiro and Baryshnikov were introduced as part of the procession and later, again and again, when Schapiro gave his protracted shout-outs to graduates’ loved ones, asking each group, starting with parents and stepparents, to stand and be recognized.

Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer introduced the four honorary degree recipients, leaders in the arts, American literature, mathematics and communication studies.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers, founder and artistic director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and critically acclaimed film, television and theater actor.

- Presenter: Robin Neustein, senior director of Goldman Sachs and member of Northwestern's Board of Trustees. 

“Through your legendary work as performer and choreographer and your tireless efforts on behalf of dance and dancers, you have done more to present artistic dance to a global public than anyone in history,” Linzer said. He also cited the talents Baryshnikov brings to his roles as producer, photographer, actor and writer. “We are proud to call you a Northwestern parent and to welcome you as a member of the Northwestern family.”

E. L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow, the Lewis and Loretta Glucksman Professor of American and English Letters at New York University, and one of the foremost living novelists who occupies a central position in the history of American literature.

- Presenter: Frank Galati, the Tony Award-winning director and professor emeritus of performance studies at Northwestern who directed the musical adaptation of “Ragtime,” Doctorow's 1975 novel.  

“With your vivid evocations of 19th- and 20th-century American life, you have achieved a commanding eminence among our nation’s novelists,” Linzer said. “Your work has not only captivated readers but has inspired filmmakers, playwrights and creators of Broadway musicals, including your distinguished presenter.”

Michael J. Hopkins, a Northwestern alumnus who is a professor of mathematics at Harvard University and a leading figure in mathematics whose work has fundamentally transformed the field of algebraic topology.

- Presenter: Jared Wunsch, professor of mathematics at Northwestern.

“As the most important mathematician ever to receive a Ph.D. from Northwestern, you have long been an outstanding ambassador for our University,” Linzer said. “Your pioneering research in algebraic topology has revolutionized the field, and your influence has extended even further through former students who now hold professorships at prestigious institutions around the world.”

Elihu Katz, Distinguished Trustee Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania who has been at the forefront of theory and research in communication and media studies for more than 60 years.

- Presenter: Ellen Wartella, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in Communication and director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern.

“An intellectual leader of the highest order, you have been at the forefront of theoretical and research advances in mass communication for more than six decades,” Linzer said. “Your vastly influential books continue to be among the most widely cited writings in media studies as well as in many related fields.”