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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

Speakers urge Class of 2024 to embrace nuance, intellectual inquiry at Commencement

Daniel Heuer | Assistant Photo Editor
University President Ellen Granberg speaks before the graduating class of 2024 on the National Mall at GW’s Commencement.

Yahya Aliyu believes that there is nothing more dangerous than a rigid mindset.

The master’s of bioengineering and biomedical engineering graduate, said his father, an immigrant from Nigeria, had earned his degree from the Milken Institute School of Public Health on the same stage 25 years ago. As he spoke before GW graduates on the National Mall in his own student address at University Commencement decades later, Aliyu said graduates must rectify universities’ positions as places for intellectual inquiry, free from the “shackles” of ignorance and prejudice.

Aliyu said GW’s goal to uplift people with a common dream of furthering humanity and pursuing higher learning hasn’t changed, but the community has grown more aware of complexities over time, which has created a reality that is hard to grasp.

“We cannot resort to abandoning nuance and painting the world black and white,” Aliyu said during his address on a stage before the Washington Monument. “Such simplifications have yielded innumerable tragedies throughout history, and I need no outside examples.”

University Commencement comes more than a week after local police cleared an encampment that demonstrators from across the D.C. region erected in University Yard late last month to call on the University to divest from Israel and protect pro-Palestinian speech. At the ceremony, graduates garnished their graduation gowns with keffiyehs, raised red-painted hands and waved signs with messages condemning officials for their response to the demonstration. GW officials like Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights and University President Ellen Granberg received choruses of boos from the graduates section as they entered the event and throughout consecutive addresses.

Aliyu said the allegiances of the Class of 2024 must rise above nation, tribe, class and race, and called for a “world perspective” that develops a society that can live with its conscience.

“The most important revolution we will ever stage is internal,” he said. “We must come to embody the change we wish to see in this world.”

At least 100 students exited the ceremony during Granberg’s address, chanting “walk out for Palestine” as they joined students who gathered outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture to protest against the war in Gaza and officials’ handling of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus.

Officials announced that amplified sound devices and signage, including posters, banners and flyers, were not allowed at the Commencement earlier this month. Before the ceremony began, officials announced that they would not permit disruptions to the event.

“Graduating Class of 2024 — your successes are many and very,” Granberg said as the stream of protesters filed out of the ceremony. “But you’ve all exemplified the very best at the George Washington University. As your degrees are conferred today, I hope you each feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Graduates gathered at the back of the graduate section before exiting, chanting “The students united will never be defeated” and “Admin, admin, you’re all cowards, we the students have the power” as Granberg congratulated graduates and welcomed guests to the ceremony. At least 10 Park Police officers were present on 15th Street, when the last group of demonstrators met with their peers at the protest, and did not appear to be escorted out by law enforcement.

One counterprotester, who appeared to be an attendee at the ceremony, stood near the group and chanted, “If you don’t want to be here, go home.” Other ceremony attendees moved their chairs in front of the protesters who were blocking their view of the stage.

In the aftermath of Granberg’s address and protesters’ walkout, three community members received honorary doctorate degrees of public service: Vincent Gray, the former mayor of D.C. and the Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember, Jonathan Ledecky, a former trustee and Jen Psaki, the keynote speaker and the former White House press secretary under President Joe Biden.

Psaki, the host of MSNBC’s “Inside with Jen Psaki,” said in her address that the Class of 2024 faced adversity when they had to adapt to learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave them better understanding of the world compared to previous graduating classes.

“To finish college at this moment in history like this one, when it can seem as if the world is falling apart around you, in multiple ways, takes not only resilience but also optimism that there is a future for you,” Psaki said. “And I promise you there is one.”

Psaki said making mistakes offers a chance to regroup and “recalibrate” to avoid missteps in the future. She shared a story from her time serving as former President Barack Obama’s traveling press secretary on his 2008 presidential campaign when she split her pants at a track and field campaign stop after she attempted to jump a hurdle.

“If you think something you do in the next 10 years or 15 years is so embarrassing, that it will ruin your career, I want you to remember that I split my pants in front of the future leader of the free world and he called it ‘X-rated,’” Psaki said.

Gray accepted his honorary doctorate of public service degree at the ceremony, marking his achievement in his advocacy for D.C. and his legacy at GW. Gray graduated from GW in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was the first Black student to enter the University fraternity system after pledging to Tau Epsilon Phi.

Dawn Kum, Gray’s wife, spoke on his behalf due to his recovery from a recent stroke, and said one of Gray’s biggest regrets was not pursuing a doctoral degree. She said he had planned on enrolling in a doctoral program at GW before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We take a few steps forward, around an unforeseen turn, maybe take a step backwards, but always keep our eyes on the prize and move forward,” Kum said. “That got you here today and that has brought Vince here today.”

Ledecky, an entrepreneur and co-owner of the National Hockey League team New York Islanders, said “hockey is life” and urged graduates to cherish their passion just as hockey players embrace their sport.

“Be sure to give your own grit, determination, tenacity and dedication to something you’re passionate about in your work and in your community,” Ledecky said. “You will continue to be winners by positively impacting the lives of others around you to make a true difference.”

In Granberg’s concluding remarks, which received fewer boos from students, she said graduates have gone beyond checking the boxes necessary for graduation and have matured intellectually and emotionally as they explored their passions on campus.

“Through your scholarship, you have unlocked new knowledge and ideas and have emboldened your colleagues and teachers with your talent and your intellect,” Granberg said. “Outside of the classroom, you’ve succeeded in athletics, inspired us through the arts and given back to your communities.”

She called on the Class of 2024 to broaden their understanding of diverse perspectives and viewpoints they will encounter after college during her charge to graduates at the end of the ceremony.

“You came to GW to learn to change the world and I have no doubt that each of you will,” Granberg said. “I charge you to develop even greater empathy and understanding in your personal and professional interactions.”

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