Special Feature: Commencement 2010

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Congratulations, Graduates!

Wilbon urges graduates to marry passions with careers in commencement speech

June 18, 2010 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The day was hot and steamy, and the predicted downpour arrived right before Northwestern University’s 152nd commencement ceremony began that evening. 

But the heavens cooperated just in time, and the preceding weather drama clearly did not dampen the spirit of Northwestern’s ultimate celebration. Thousands of graduates, families and friends filled Ryan Field, with graduates becoming particularly elated upon spotting Michael Wilbon during the opening procession.


Wilbon, a sports columnist for The Washington Post and co-host of the popular ESPN show "Pardon the Interruption," interrupted his extraordinarily busy schedule to deliver a commencement address that left the graduates cheering.

Even before he spoke, Wilbon fans in the audience likely were well aware that the popular journalist had only landed in Chicago that morning after covering game seven of the NBA finals in Los Angeles the night before. But if Wilbon was feeling tired, it wasn't reflected in his speech.

He urged the graduates, above all else, to follow their passions and in the process take lots of risks, whether in forging relationships outside of comfort zones or taking on new projects. The difficulty of doing so, he acknowledged, is particularly acute in rough economic times. "But it's the willingness to take calculated risks, difficult as they are to define, that often enables us to create opportunities for ourselves and the successes that follow."

Wilbon referred to the epic battle between the Lakers and the Celtics that he covered the night before. "Even somebody as accomplished as Kobe Bryant said immediately after beating the Celtics last night that this was the sweetest triumph of his career precisely because it was the most difficult to achieve, and, to that point, he sobbed very real tears."

A communications pro who trained with the best, Wilbon is a 1980 graduate of the Medill School of Journalism who began his career as a student reporter and columnist at The Daily Northwestern.

"I know from my own professional and personal experiences that you, as a group, are as well prepared as any and better prepared than most to leave Evanston and be successful, by any measure, at whatever you want to do," he said.

Wilbon was introduced by 2010 graduate Natasha Dossa. And later, 2010 graduate Joyce Gar-Yun Lee delivered a warm message to parents and family members, recognizing and thanking them for their support. 

After a busy year of travel and meeting the Northwestern community, President Morton Schapiro began his first commencement remarks joking about his initial request to Wilbon, a member of Northwestern's Board of Trustees, to deliver the keynote. Wilbon, President Schapiro joked, didn't quite remember the phone conversation as a request, rather claiming that he was told "don't even THINK about saying no." On a serious note, President Schapiro expressed gratitude to Wilbon for graciously honoring Northwestern with his commencement speech. 

Through all of President Schapiro's conversations with the community, whether in fireside chats or with large audiences from the stage, the Northwestern community has been learning about the new president's passion for all things purple, reflected in his clothes as well as his heart.

"You are absolutely ready to enter the outside world and to make it better," President Schapiro said in his address to the graduates. "While it may be commonplace to praise past generations and demean the current one, I disagree. You care more about inclusion, sustainability and social justice than my or other generations, and I can't wait to see what you will do with your lives."

President Schapiro was among the faculty, deans and dignitaries on stage wearing traditional academic regalia distinguished by colorful caps, hoods, robes and insignia representing a host of distinguished institutions and Northwestern schools. The president's robe is based on Northwestern's traditional purple doctoral gown, and its sleeves are trimmed with four black velvet chevrons outlined in gold braid. The hood is lined with purple satin bordered in gold.

The seven distinguished individuals who received honorary degrees follow: 

  • Thomas J. R. Hughes, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, is a longtime leader in the field of finite elements. (Doctor of Science)
  • Martha Lavey is the artistic director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, one of America's preeminent regional theaters, which, under her leadership, has transferred a number of productions to Broadway with great success. (Doctor of Arts)
  • David Levering Lewis, the Julius Silver University Professor and professor of history at New York University, is the author of the definitive two-volume "W. E. B. DuBois: Biography of a Race," which won, among numerous honors, the Pulitzer Prize for biography in both 1993 (for volume I) and 2000 (for volume II). (Doctor of Humane Letters)
  • David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., is director of The Satcher Health Leadership Institute, established in 2006 at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga. He served as the 16th Surgeon General of the United States from 1998 to 2002. (Doctor of Science)
  • Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, one of today's most important interdisciplinary analysts of the imagination and its moral and social functions. (Doctor of Humane Letters)
  • Gabor A. Somorjai, University Professor and professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, is considered the world's preeminent scientist in the field of surface science and catalysis. (Doctor of Science)
  • Claude M. Steele, the provost of Columbia University, is one of the nation's preeminent social psychologists and is particularly known for his pioneering research on stereotype threat. (Doctor of Science)

Northwestern conferred approximately 4,300 degrees and certificates at the commencement ceremony, including approximately 435 from the Feinberg School of Medicine, the Kellogg School of Management and the School of Law.

The pageantry -- the processions, the music, the academic regalia and other symbols of tradition -- was indeed splendid. But it was the faces and gestures of the graduates posing for photographs and posterity that brought home what the day was all about.
Topics: University News