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VCU Commencement

May 11, 2013
Richmond Coliseum

Good morning. Board Rector Doswell, Board Vice Rector Ginther, members of the Board of Visitors, my faculty and staff colleagues, our honored guests, our graduates, family and friends.

Provost Warren, thank you.

Many people don’t really know what a provost does, and why it’s so important that VCU happens to have the best provost in the nation. Let me tell you. Dr. Beverly Warren is the academic compass of our university. She has an unrelenting focus on academic rigor, a commitment to student success and to making your degree from Virginia Commonwealth University significant and distinct in the marketplace. She is an unstinting partner for me, and an unparalleled advocate for you.

Please join me in thanking your provost, the university’s chief academic officer, Dr. Beverly Warren.

Dr. Warren, like me, is privileged to be part of an extraordinary faculty who have invested themselves entirely in you — both by providing you the knowledge you need to succeed today and engaging you in creating the knowledge that will shape your future. They have mentored you and supported you. They have pushed you, driven you and supported you. And today, they celebrate with you.

When people are asked what they remember and appreciate about their time in college — if it was five years ago or 50 — the most common answer is a professor who they admired and who made a difference for them.

I know there’s a faculty member here this morning who you’ll always remember. So I ask you to take a moment right now to thank them.

I add my thanks to my faculty colleagues as well. I am beginning my 20th year as a college president, having served four institutions in four states. And this is the most collegial, engaged, innovative faculty. Provost Warren, Dr. David Fauri, Prof. June Nicholson and the Faculty Senate leadership, and a nationally renowned group of deans have been peerless examples of excellence.

One of those deans is saying goodbye today. Dean Nancy Langston is retiring after more than two decades leading the School of Nursing. Her legacy of profound national excellence has elevated the School of Nursing and all of VCU. She led the construction of the beautiful and leading-edge nursing building on Leigh Street. She led the expansion of the school’s research enterprise into the nation’s top 25 and has served on the boards of countless national organizations.

Please help me show gratitude to Nancy for her unprecedented contributions to the strength of our university and the health of our commonwealth.

Thank you.

I have asked you to recognize several people. Some of them, maybe, you’ve never met. But whether you know who they are or not, they certainly know who you can become. That’s why they have invested time and toil, joining together with your family and friends, to help you earn your degree — and challenge you to bring incredible goodness into our world.

I’m going to tell you three stories about just that.

The first story is about using your degree not just to make a better life for yourself, but to touch the lives of those who need you most.

This is what Richard Hubbard has done. Richard is earning the degree of Doctor of Medicine today. But while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in global studies a few years ago at VCU, he visited the crowded South Asian nation of Bangladesh. Now, to give you some idea about what life is like in Bangladesh, imagine if half of all Americans — some 150 million people — all lived in the state of Iowa. Not surprisingly, resources are scarce; poverty and sickness, rampant. Especially among children.

One of those children was Halima, a precious 1-year-old girl who weighed only 7 pounds. That’s the average weight at birth in this country. Halima had sunken and distant eyes, and she was too weak to use her arms and legs. Her single mother supported five children by working as a dirt mover. Three other children in the family had already died because of their impoverishment. Richard Hubbard wasn’t going to let Halima die too.

He took her to a local hospital, staying with her, and paying the bill for her care himself — even though he was a college student. Today, Halima is a strong little girl. She inspired Richard to think: “Now is the time to make a decision about what you’re going to do with your life.”

What Richard decided to do was save as many children like Halima as he could. He started a nonprofit called The Basic Needs Program, which has changed the lives of countless children in Bangladesh by providing them with their basic needs: housing, clothing, food, education and medical care. He raises about $40,000 a year for his charity and, working with his faculty mentors in the VCU School of Medicine, created a program where VCU students can do monthlong medical rotations in large hospitals and rural clinics of Bangladesh.

As Richard has pursued his medical education at VCU, he has treated hundreds of Bangladeshi children, completed a pediatric survey of an entire village and presented lectures to the burgeoning medical community in that nation.

Because even more children needed help, he also opened a school — which he named for his mother — that gives 20 orphans and 100 village children a free primary education. One Christmas, instead of gifts, he asked for donations that helped equip the school with solar panels, giving it electricity and low-cost health care services. Among the children in that school is 9-year-old Jannat, who can now read English. She reads stories to Richard. “She can read,” Richard says, “so she can do anything now. She could even go to medical school.”

The American Medical Association has honored Richard with its highest award for leadership, advocacy and education. And we honor him today.

Dr. Richard Hubbard, will you please stand so that we can recognize you?

The second story is about your degree not marking the end of your journey, but the beginning of your mission to serve others.

When she earns her bachelor’s degree in social work in a few minutes, Tanetta Walston will become the first person in her family to graduate from college. But more than a bragging right for Tanetta, this is part of a deeply personal story about living your best life, even when life gives you its worst.

When Tanetta was 12 years old, she learned her father was HIV-positive. Now, it’s one thing to read about all the things people go through when they have a terrible disease. It’s another to watch them assail your father.

“I didn’t know who to talk to about it,” Tanetta said recently. “I was scared. I felt like I had no outlet for the things I was feeling.”

So she decided to become an outlet for others.

And she has. Listen to this: As a social work undergraduate, Tanetta has worked tirelessly to improve the mental and physical health of people most at risk for contracting HIV, spearheading an educational and resource campaign in schools and charities across Richmond. In women’s shelters, she has counseled victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse — some of whom struggle with diseases like AIDS — and connected them to resources for housing, clothing and medical needs. She is even working to bring VCU Police officers into the shelter to teach rape-prevention programs. Through the highly respected AmeriCorps program — usually reserved for teachers — Tanetta has gone into the area’s poorest schools to help young children who are falling behind in reading. Because, she knows, when you read well, you live well.

The little girl who needed an outlet has become a whole powerhouse.

Tanetta learned her clinical expertise at VCU. The lessons of compassion and care came from her parents, including a father whose own illness never stopped him from serving others and a mother who constantly put her family’s health before her own. Even when they felt their worst, they would do anything for anybody.

Just look what they did for his daughter. Although they never graduated from college, they showed her the powerful combination of a world-class education and a world-loving heart.

Tanetta says: “Sometimes you might feel like everything you do is going unnoticed. But you’re changing lives without even knowing it. The little things are the things that count. Helping people is your greatest reward, and it keeps you going when you don’t feel like going anymore.”

Tanetta’s father, by the way, is doing very well. In fact, Ron is here today — and I had the great honor of meeting him just before the ceremony. He is a warm and caring man who has helped raise a remarkable daughter of whom VCU is so proud.

Tanetta Walston, would you please stand so that we can recognize you?

Our last story is about using your education not simply to forge ahead, but to forge a path for others.

Isaac Rodriguez is receiving his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering today. As a student, he has already authored or co-authored 10 research manuscripts, 10 conference posters and two book chapters about tissue engineering. He has worked in the Tissue Engineering Lab at VCU. And soon, he’s going to work for a veterans’ rehabilitation center, where his research will help heal our most seriously wounded warriors.

Isaac’s accomplishments are to be expected: He comes from a family of hard workers. His father was an engineer. His mother would babysit neighborhood children all day, then wait tables at night. They passed down to their son a relentless determination to succeed — no matter what. That meant pursing an education — no matter what.

Now, the drive to go to college is one thing; the funds to go to college are another. But the story of Isaac’s life is “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” And for him, the way was getting money from Bill Gates.

Every year, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds one of the most competitive and generous scholarship programs in the world. It’s called the Gates Millennium Scholarship, and it covers tuition and fees for a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree at any university. You can imagine that the criteria are strict and the competition is fierce. In fact, even to be considered, Isaac had to write 10 essays in 10 weeks — each one by hand.

Very few students get this opportunity, but Isaac did. And he wants every student to have the same chance at an education that he did — even if they’re not Gates scholars. So, throughout his time at VCU, Isaac has reached out to young Latinos across Virginia, helping them realize their dreams through education. 

He co-founded the Hispanic College Fund chapter at VCU — which provides educational, scholarship and mentoring programs to talented Latino students. He helped create weeklong workshops for underrepresented students who think they can’t go to college because they just squeaked by in high school. They come by the hundreds to learn everything about college — from how to apply, to how to succeed once they’re here. 

Isaac also reached down into the middle schools, co-founding an after-school program that helps young Latinos realize that their ticket to success is education, not gang violence.

Issac said, “The students go back home excited and actually believing in themselves. We’ve had parents ask us what we’ve been feeding their kids!”

For those who doubt they can afford to go college, Isaac points out that he’s been a student for 10 years — and has never paid a dime. In fact, he helped one alumna of his program follow in his footsteps as a Gates Scholar, and she’s now enrolled at VCU too.

Isaac tells his students that education means a better chance to succeed. In his case, that’s succeeding at healing the body — and empowering the mind.

Dr. Isaac Rodriguez, would you please stand so that we can recognize you?

These are three short stories of incredible goodness by incredible people. They are unique in their circumstance, but not in their spirit.

Within each of us is the passion and motivation to make a difference in our world. Indeed, the very best way to find ourselves as humans, Gandhi told us, is to lose ourselves in the service of others.

The opportunity is there. We don’t yet create everything we can. We don’t yet heal everyone we can. We don’t yet help everywhere we can.

It’s your turn to find yourself by serving others.

Thank you, and congratulations.