Dean Weil's 2019 Commencement Remarks

May 19, 2019

David Weil at commencement podium
Dean David Weil standing at the podium at Heller commencement

Good morning and welcome to the Heller School for Social Policy and Management commencement ceremony. Please be seated. 

My name is David Weil, and I am the Dean of the Heller School. I’d like to begin by thanking the graduating class for a fantastic year. Of all of the things I do as dean, getting to know students is by far my favorite. And, to the many loved ones here in the audience—thank you for raising such incredible people, for supporting them through their graduate studies, and for joining us today.

I would also like to acknowledge a member of our faculty who is retiring and was awarded emeritus professor status: Professor Mari Fitzduff. Mari, please stand. Thank you for your service and dedication to Heller and especially to the conflict resolution and coexistence program.

Today we celebrate the scholarship of 197 newly-minted Heller alumni, including 12 doctoral graduates and 185 master’s graduates. The group before me represents over 30 countries and speaks over 40 languages.

Our capacity to welcome students from so many nations and communities is a gift and a strength. Each of you brings to Heller not just your personalities, professional experience and cultural traditions, but also your intense devotion to a specific social justice cause. 

It should surprise no one here that Heller is a unique community of idealistic individuals, deeply motivated to make the world a better, more equitable place for all of its inhabitants. It’s a big task. Fortunately, we have a history of social justice heroes who have come before us, to inspire and instruct us. 

I encourage each of you to take a moment to consider who your own social justice hero might be. It may be a world-famous civil rights organizer, an emerging entrepreneur, a community leader from your hometown, or someone from your personal life.

I’d like to tell you about one of mine: my grandmother, Rose Shapiro. She came to New York City from Russia in 1905 at age 15. Like many Jewish immigrants at that time, she lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in very difficult circumstances and worked in the garment industry, where she witnessed the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. From that experience she became a life-long supporter of labor unions, civil rights struggles, and the necessity of assuring rights for vulnerable workers and vulnerable people in general. 

Despite having lost much of her family in Russia who perished in the Holocaust, and the difficulties she faced in her life in America, she never turned inward or became embittered. Instead, she was an inexhaustible optimist who taught her children and grandchildren that meaning and purpose comes from weaving social justice into our lives. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my grandmother. Her example inspires me and keeps me moving forward.

I bring this up because social justice work, while often rewarding, is always difficult and is never finished. We need inspiration to center us when we lose balance, to feed our souls when we are drained, and to remind us to never, never, never stop.

Graduates of 2019: I implore you to never stop striving. Find your social justice hero and honor the work that came before you. Be inspired to take bold steps of your own, and when you succeed, pay your success forward to someone else.  Just as you were inspired by someone, your work as you begin your next chapter will be an inspiration for others, including all of us in the Heller community. 

Goodbyes are bittersweet, but the good news is that you are valued Heller alumni for the rest of your life. Please don’t venture too far - each of you continues to play a critical role at Heller - supporting the next batch of students, as well as participating in a global network of Heller alumni, each one committed to social justice. 

The world needs you more than ever. Congratulations, all!