2012 Commencement Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
May 19, 2012

Iconic Graduates of an Iconic University and City

It gives me great pleasure to welcome everyone on this joyous day of Tulane’s 178th Commencement.  I’ll take a moment to comment on the word “commencement’: it means, of course, “beginning”—this is the occasion on which you begin the rest of your lives, surrounded by parents, relatives, friends, faculty, and alumni -- all of us gathered here to congratulate you on your achievements and to cheer you on into the future.  But there was another momentous beginning before this one, that occurred when you first chose Tulane and came to New Orleans to start your course of study that would shape so much of what you have become—your character, your mind, your values, your beliefs.

We are always in the process of learning and growing whether we are young, middle-aged, or older -- but the college years are unique in their explosion of knowledge, insight, and experience that creates a coherent sense of self and personhood.  That you came here, to post-Katrina New Orleans, already reflected something about you—the wish to engage, to experience the “real” world, to make a difference.

So let me give you a quick profile of who you are and where you began the journey that brought you here today:

  •     2,700 of you are graduating.


  •     The youngest graduate is 20 years old; while the senior member of the class is 76 years young.


  •     The states with the most graduates are: Louisiana, New York, Texas, California, Florida and Illinois


  •     The five countries outside the U.S. with the most graduates are China, Columbia, Peru and Chile.
        India and Venezuela are exactly tied in the number of graduates.

Though your origins are far-flung, today we celebrate your common identity as Tulanians and New Orleanians.

Everywhere I go in my many travels promoting Tulane, I often use our saying “Only at Tulane, Only in New Orleans” to denote our iconic status.

What makes New Orleans and Tulane iconic? This city is a symbol of the resiliency, the diversity, the uniqueness, the community, the hope and the rebirth that has made America great.  And Tulane, with its faculty, staff, students, and distinctive characteristics is at the heart of this great city.

Though Tulane has been a part of New Orleans for nearly 180 years, there was a time when the typical Tulane student would spend his or her university years within the bubble of campus, learning a lot, making friends and having a good time in the city.

This dramatically changed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed this great city and our great university. Most of you were still in high school or perhaps pursing your undergraduate degree when Katrina hit. But you heard the news of its destruction and you also heard the call to become part of something bigger than yourselves: the rebuilding of an iconic American city. In the last five years alone, we estimate you all have spent approximately 1,000,000 hours rebuilding this city.

In answering that call you yourself have become iconic, a symbol of all that is right, that is caring, that is connected and engaged in the community beyond the borders of campus or country.
In answering that call you not only helped rebuild New Orleans, you helped transform it into a model city for the 21st century, into a symbol of what is possible when people take the knowledge they have been privileged to gain in the classroom and use it to bring about lasting change in neighborhoods around the block or around the globe.
Long before you came to Tulane, long before you were even born, New Orleans was the only American city that could lay claim to its own food, its own language, its own music and its own brand of fun. But it did not have you.

You have taken a one-of-a-kind city and made it all the more unique, diverse and beloved. Because of you the “city that care forgot” has become the city where care lives, where it is born anew and brought to others not as charity but as empowerment. Not as a few volunteer weekend hours but as an everyday way of life.

Be proud of your achievements  but hold most dear to the ways in which you have become living icons of that Tulane motto: Non sibi, sed suis, "not for one's self, but for one's own."

Be proud of the lives you have empowered but also be aware of the ways that those lives have challenged, changed, taught and empowered you.

Before you came to Tulane many of you had never even heard the words beignet, muffuletta and Étouffée. Now you call them breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Many of you had never seen or tasted gumbo, now you are part of the spice that makes this city and our university so special.

Before you came to Tulane many of you thought a horn was something you blew to get someone out of your way. Now that you are part of the rhythm of this city you know that a horn can stir the soul and touch the heart like nothing else.

For those of you who are sad about leaving Tulane and New Orleans, I have some good news. You can never really leave Tulane and New Orleans.  What I mean by this is that the Tulane spirit and the story of New Orleans will never leave you.
As someone who has watched you grow at Tulane, I wish you much health, success and happiness. However, most importantly, I want you to stay iconic, to be a living symbol of what an American education is all about. 
Sharing your gifts, helping others, and working to change the world are the values that will make the American Dream accessible to everyone and add quality to your life.

My dream for you is that wherever you go in this life you always bring a part of New Orleans with you and whatever you do in this life you do it inspired by the values that were at the heart of your Tulane education. 

Congratulations and much love to the class of 2012!

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638