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May 28, 2002

Words of wisdom for the Class of 2002

Alfred Uhry, prize-winning playwright and graduate of Druid Hills High School.
This is not the first time I have graduated on the Emory campus. Forty-eight years ago, I graduated from high school right over there in Glenn Memorial Church. It was a fairly bizarre ceremony. I was 17 years old. All the guys wore tuxedos, and all the girls wore long white dresses and carried flowers. We walked together down the aisle in lockstep. Serious music. I thought I was getting married; I was scared to death.

What can I say that’s real to me and not sound pompous? Well, I have lived a good chunk of my life and learned things along the way. So what would the me now tell the me back then? What could I really say that I learned?

Actions have consequences. Everything you do is going to show up somewhere down the line. Good things, bad things, everything. In life you get away with very little.

Another thing I didn’t do very well is listen to myself; trust my own instincts. Your parents, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your roommate, they all tell you, “I know you, and this is what you should do.” No. Wrong. You know you, and you know what you ought to do.

If it feels good, if it feels right, do it. If it feels wrong, don’t do it. And don’t let anybody try to talk you into it, and don’t let anybody try and talk you out of it.

Stick with the truth. In the first place, if you tell the truth you won’t have to worry about remembering what you said. I don’t think you can tell the truth all the time. I mean, if a woman asks you how she looks, you always say “great,” right? All actions have consequences, remember? But these are white lies—I’m talking about big honesty.

If you are unhappy in your job, look for another one. If you are unhappy in your relationship, don’t go look for another one, but think, “how much of this is my fault?” In my experience, that’s usually 40-to-60 percent. And you work on working it out.

What’s that James Taylor song? “Shower the people you love with love”? I think that’s a good idea. I’ve just hit you with ’70s folk rock. I’m sorry.

Trying. Giving it the effort all along the line, even when it’s hard to try, you’ve got to keep trying. And I have to tell you, even though I was reluctant to do this. It’s like the old prostitute said, “It’s not the work that gets you, it’s the stairs.” So be careful. You’ve got to keep working. You’ve got to keep climbing.


Benoit Mandelbrot, mathematician, physicist, internationally renowned scholar.
In a certain sense, an honorary doctorate is supposed to provide a model for young people to follow, and I’m not sure whether I’m a real model because, well, I’m a gambler. I’m a compulsive gambler. And besides, the riches I gain in my gambling are a very strange kind—it is not money [that] I can contribute to the endowment of Emory University. I don’t contribute endowments; I live from old endowments.

Besides, one tells young people, “You must not hurry to make up your mind about which field you are in. Take your time, do what you like.” But I’m almost 78, and I still have not decided. That’s too late. Don’t rush, but don’t do it so slowly as I did. It’s too risky.

There is a very strong statement, which is actually in the Bible, which says that in the beginning there was The Word. Well, I believe that in the beginning was The Image, so I’m a horrible heretic. And heretics in churches—they are not welcome. And they are sometimes burned.

So it is with both passion and precision that I would like to proclaim my belief that ... well, what? Let me be conciliatory: In the beginning was the joining of The Word and The Image. And all my work was devoted to showing that by believing very strongly in the power of The Word—and mathematics is part of The Word—but also believing very strongly in The Image, by combining them, enormous riches can come forth.

Mamphela Ramphele, doctor, anthropologist, administrator, World Bank director.
It is a great honor to be with you today and to humbly receive this extraordinary award from your esteemed institution.

I feel very much like you, who also got your well-deserved degrees. I feel not only excited but I feel decidedly much younger. But like you, I also feel a heavy responsibility for having been given this degree.

What does it mean when someone who comes from so far away, from South Africa, gets a degree from a university in another hemisphere?

It means gone are the days of isolation. Gone are the days when countries could go it alone in pursuing their national interests. National interests have to engage international interests.

Today, we live in a world where knowledge and freedom have replaced cotton and slavery. Today, we—living in the United States and elsewhere—are as much affected by what happens in Afghanistan as by what is happening to our next-door neighbor.

Whoever argues that universities just prepare young people for jobs is wrong, though its true that universities impart skills, which can be used for economic development.

Whoever argues that universities are places for student activism are wrong, though its true that students, from the times of the French Revolution to South African Apartheid, have been at the forefront of social change.

For me, universities today are there to prepare global citizens. And I feel the responsibility of being a global citizen as the heaviest of all. It is the responsibility of making history every day of our lives.

I stand before you representing the citizen without boundaries, the citizen of the future. That is you.

Lawrence Colburn, U.S. Army veteran, one of three American heroes at My Lai massacre.
Most of all, I’m a witness. That seems to be my lot. Merely a witness to the actions of an extraordinary man, Mr. Hugh C. Thompson Jr., who taught me that to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves, those who are innocent, those who are weak, is the proper, moral thing to do.

These are hard speeches to follow in that I’m not a speechwriter—this is off the cuff—but if the opportunity presents itself to you [graduates], travel, take risks, try new things. It will help all of us possibly break down cultural barriers that divide us, and it will enrich and enlighten you all.


Hugh Thompson, U.S. Army veteran, one of three American heroes at My Lai massacre.
I’d like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong. We were country people, born and raised in Stone Mountain. [It’s] just a little thing called the Golden Rule; you try to live by it, and you’ll be OK.

I want to caution each one of you students to stay away from the following: Stay away from negative peer pressure. Once you step over that line and start going along with the flow or the crowd, it’s very hard to recover. Prejudice had a big part to play that day [in 1968]. Stay away from it. Revenge was another [emotion] that played a part. If you put negative peer pressure, revenge and prejudice together, you’re not going to have a good outcome. It’s just impossible.

For 30 years, I was a very confused person because what we did that day was, we thought, the right thing to do. But it’s taken 30 years to get the truth out. This was an old subject. It was dead and buried; [I] had nothing to do with bringing it back forward. [But] if our future is based on our history, our past should be accurate and truthful, or our future is not very bright.

It’s hard to put certain things into words. You’re going to have to make many decisions in your life; think about today. Think about your upbringing. Please make the right decisions because we’re depending on you—because you are our future leaders. God bless you all.