2008 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 17, 2008

The Calm before the Storm

It is with great pleasure that I welcome everyone to the 174th commencement of Tulane University. I am particularly delighted to be here on this special day with the distinguished Class of 2008. In my mind, there is no other graduating class in America that can compare to the courage, dedication and spirit of those seating in this audience today. No university president could be more proud of their graduates as I am of all of you.

Let me give you a quick profile of the graduating class:

  • 2,267 students are graduating.
  • The youngest graduate will be 20 years old tomorrow; while the senior member of the class is 81 years young.
  • The five states with the most graduates are: Louisiana, Texas, New York, California, Florida and Illinois.
  • The five countries outside the U.S. with the most graduates are: Chile, China, Taiwan, India and Canada.
  • Finally, most of you are members of the last class to have spent time at Tulane prior to Hurricane Katrina. You have not only persevered to get to this glorious moment, but you have excelled and thrived.

In my mind, you will forever be the “Calm before the Storm” class. For the undergraduates in the audience, most of you were 19 years old when the storm blew in and gave you an education you never envisioned when you enrolled at Tulane. You truly received a unique experience in life. This also holds true for those students who enrolled at Tulane after Katrina despite what happened to the university and city.

You have received an education that will have a greater positive impact on the remainder of your lives than that which you could have received at any other place or time.

Your Tulane experience has tested your character and courage and has transformed you, whether you realize it or not — a transformation that could only have been achieved through the life lessons you learned here over these past few years.

You have learned that in a split second, your life can change in ways you never imagined. Most of you were preparing to come back to school on August 29, 2005 — a date few of us will ever forget. What you assumed to be reality on August 27 seemed tenuous and unfathomable two days later — the near-destruction of your university and city. Many people — perhaps even most people — don’t experience that kind of significant change in life until their later years, if at all. It is the type of change that, if you persevere, makes you stronger. It helps you look deep inside yourself, and recognize on a profound level what is really important. For each of you that internal journey was different, but it has given you a deeper understanding of who you are and what you stand for.

You have learned what it means to overcome adversity through sheer will and desire. By your presence here today, you have proved that you are tenacious and determined. Despite what happened, you found a way to overcome it. You came, or came back, to Tulane and New Orleans against all odds, and you finished your studies to graduate. You have dealt with issues in recent years that few other students ever confront. During all if this, you have demonstrated your personal values and your commitment to this university and city. Without you, Tulane and New Orleans would not have survived.

You have learned that you can have a significant impact on communities and on the life of others. Last year’s graduation speaker, NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, asked members of the graduating class to stand if they volunteered time to the recovery of the city. I would ask that same question this year: Will all members of the class of 2008 who have volunteered their time to help the city recover please stand and be recognized by the audience?

Let the record show that the entire class is standing. As you think about Tulane students, this is the moment you should remember. Their commitment to public service speaks volumes about their character.

You have come through your own adversity empowered. More than six decades ago, a sudden attack on U.S. soil at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, changed the course of history, and a generation of young men and women stepped up to the challenge of defending our country and the liberty of people around the world. They became known as the “Greatest Generation” because of their selflessness, dedication, and sureness of purpose and heart.

For me, the next “Greatest Generation” is sitting right in front of me. Your tireless and impassioned efforts following the worst natural disaster this country has ever known have forever changed the course of this university and the people of this great city. You have made a difference, and I love and respect each and every one of you for it.

It doesn’t seem enough, but it’s all I know to say: Thank you.

Finally, through all of this, you have learned that tragedy can lead to a brighter future because of the incredible resilience of the human spirit. I have never been more optimistic about the future of Tulane and New Orleans than I am today, and that is in large measure because of you.

None of us would ever have wished for a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, but good things came from it, as is often the case when strong people are confronted with a major challenge. Rather than defeat us, the storm forced us to redefine and shape ourselves to thrive in a new environment. It caused us to rethink old ways of doing things and develop newer, smarter ways of learning, teaching, building and living. Our individual and collective behavior in a time of crisis will inure to the long term benefit of New Orleans, Tulane University, and each of us.

Even though these lessons resulted from a tragedy, I have no doubt they will serve you well throughout your life. These lessons are not just about struggle in a time of crisis; instead, they are more generally about what is important to a meaningful life.

Your Tulane experience will enhance your future, no matter what it holds. Remember to treasure life because it is fragile; make the most of the extraordinary opportunities you have been given; when you make a mistake in life, which you surely will, learn from it; and keep giving of yourself so others less fortunate can positively benefit from your experiences and talents.

Will the audience please now join me in thunderous round of applause for the remarkable and memorable class of 2008?

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