2009 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 16, 2009

What do you say?

In the past few weeks I have been asked numerous times by colleagues, friends and members of my own family what I wanted to say today to the Class of 2009. They asked whether I could maintain my composure when I addressed Tulane’s “Katrina class” ― you who began your college careers facing doubt and devastation and those of you who came in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

Those were valid questions. As I stand here on this stage and look at all of you, I hope I have found the words to truly express what is in my heart and mind at this special moment in your lives as well as in the life of Tulane University.

What do you say to the fall, 2005 entering undergraduate and medical school students who made the decision to return to a city and university that they had known only for a short time, before it was so grievously wounded?

What do you say to the parents who loved their children enough and trusted them enough to honor that decision?

What do you say to those who disregarded the images broadcast nightly on the news, the warnings of family and friends and the security of the known to enroll at Tulane after Katrina, and who then dedicated their hearts and minds to working toward their own degrees AND to re-energizing and rebuilding a great American city at its time of greatest need?

What do you say to the most dedicated senior group of administrative colleagues a President could wish for; colleagues who worked 24/7 for months on end to make today possible?

Finally, what do you say to Board members, to the faculty and staff, to your alumni and to your family all of whom stood by you during the darkest hours; the way only true friends, colleagues and loved ones can?

All of the 2009 graduates are members of the famous “Katrina” class regardless of when you began your studies; because you played a critical role in the recovery and renewal of Tulane and New Orleans.

Words like remarkable, extraordinary, awesome, strong, daring, courageous, selfless, and unforgettable…apply to all of you; yet, they do not adequately describe who you are and what you have done for Tulane and New Orleans and, in the process, done for yourself.

The first time I spoke to many of today’s graduates was August 27, 2005, two days before Katrina. I welcomed you to campus in a very memorable gathering wearing shorts and a Tulane shirt, and then told you to leave for what I thought would be five days. I was correct in the number five but wrong in the duration of time, as five days really turned out to be five months.

In the hours and days after the storm I often wondered whether I would ever see you again. Yet, thankfully, I did. I saw you on the internet through your emails, message boards and blogs, I heard about you from my colleagues in the hundreds of colleges and universities you attended in the fall of 2005, and I saw your pictures in newspapers. When I left the devastation of New Orleans, I saw you in cities all over America cheering us on and eager to return no matter what.

Your spirit, passion and unrelenting determination sustained and motivated me during the most challenging time in my life and for this I will be forever grateful to you.

Finally, I saw you in person on the Tulane campus, January 16th, 2006, when you came back in numbers far exceeding our highest expectations. I so fondly remember that day as I will always recall today. Within 48 hours of the university’s reopening and your return, the population of the Parish increased by approximately 20% and the future of Tulane and New Orleans truly began to shine.

Do you realize, graduates, what you have accomplished?

Do you realize how few people your age, or any age for that matter, have confronted what you have and not only persevered but thrived?

You will be able to wake up every morning for the rest of your lives, look in the mirror and know that you made a real difference in the world-you helped save a university and a city while also positively impacting the lives of many through your civic engagement and volunteerism.

No other graduating class in America can lay claim to that distinction. No other graduating class in America has had their character and spirit tested as you have and you have passed the test of a lifetime with flying colors.

You are heroes in the truest meaning of the word--heroes who never gave up and showed people around the world what it means to love, to be committed and to give unselfishly of yourself so others may benefit.

You have made history in the storied life of this university and you will never be forgotten--never, ever! You often hear about the “power of one.” What I have seen since Katrina is a mass demonstration of the power of one, touching and transforming more lives than you will ever personally know.

I have seen how a civil society comprised of remarkable people can transform tragedy into opportunity and success.

Finally, I ask you to take a look around you today ― at the people on the stage, at your classmates in caps and gowns, at your professors and parents and friends in the audience. Four years ago, the Superdome was a symbol of every social, political and human failure exposed by Hurricane Katrina. Now, I look across this sea of blue and green and I see instead a living symbol of how belief and determination can turn darkness to light. I see the strength and beauty of the human spirit. I see a miracle, and that miracle has been brought about by you.

Remember, Katrina made you stronger and that strength will always be with you no matter what challenges you confront in the future.  

You have developed the Habits of the Mind and Heart to be advanced citizens of the world and extraordinary leaders.  And, under your leadership, I have no doubt the world will be a much better place.

I end by freely and sincerely admitting how much I love and admire all of you for what you have accomplished and for your basic goodness.  Each of you will always have a special place in my heart and in the history of Tulane University.

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