It was a warm, bright Sunday evening when SIPA’s 2019 graduation exercises began, with students making the short march from Lerner Hall to Columbia’s South Lawn accompanied by the classical strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The formal ceremony concluded about two hours later, with dusk descending as rowdy graduates sang along to “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind.”
Joined onstage by dozens of SIPA professors, Dean Merit E. Janow congratulated the Class of 2019 — numbering 802 students from 78 countries in in seven academic programs — on the faculty’s behalf. She called on the graduates to thank the many friends and family, in the audience and elsewhere, who had helped bring them to this point.
As the assembled students prepare to leave the confines of Morningside Heights, Janow also charged them to bring the fruits of their SIPA education into the world.
“We need your creativity, passion and ingenuity more than ever to drive solutions to today’s problems, whether economic, political, environmental, or social,” she said. “We know that each of you will go on to achieve remarkable things.”
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave the main address. As Chile’s first female president, Bachelet had served two separate terms from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018. In between she became the first director of UN Women, the organization’s entity for gender equity and the empowerment of women. Before becoming president Bachelet had previously served as her home country’s defense minister – the first woman in all of Latin America to hold such a position – and before that its health minister.
In her remarks Bachelet discussed her own challenging journey — from detention in the 1970s by Chile’s military dictatorship, to exile from and then return to Chile, through the emergence of democracy in the 1990s and her own work to help her country embrace a new day, and new institutions that benefit all.
“I can tell you that in times of crisis—when the future is worried and there don't seem to be many good options—you will find that core values will ground you. So that no matter how unpredictable the winds, you will know that the path you shape through life will be one with integrity.”
Here at SIPA, she suggested, the graduates have learned that “no matter how deeply you examine one topic in international relations, that effort will always feel incomplete, because each topic and each country is connected to so many others.
“We are not alone,” she emphasized. “Other people matter. Justice matters. Violence, exploitation, discrimination and injustice have far-reaching consequences. By trying to see matters with full clarity, and understand others’ points of view; by acting with integrity, to advance justice and human rights; by seeking always to build on your love for other people and all forms of life; by looking to construct, and advance—rather than to destroy—you will be shaping a life for yourself that holds steady to your principles.”
As some world leaders lose motivation to address environmental concerns and other important transnational issues, Bachelet said, the task facing graduates is more pressing than ever.
“We need you,” she said. “In a very real sense, it is up to you. Your generation will face the full force of this failure to act. Or, as I am convinced can be done, you will turn the tide and shape a new consensus to resolve these problems. Because money is no excuse; the cost of human rights action, or climate action, is really very little compared to the terrible destruction and cost of inaction.”
She encouraged students to be far-sighted and to live with their great- and great-great-grandchildren in mind.
“You cannot know who those children will be, where they will live, what they will look like, even the languages they will speak…. But you can work for all of them. For their well-being, their freedom, the sustainability of their environment, and for their rights as human beings to live in equality and dignity.”
Former SIPASA president JoAnna Kyle MIA ’19 followed Bachelet with inspiring words of her own.
“Life doesn’t frighten me at all,” Kyle said, quoting the poet Maya Angelou.
She congratulated her peers for facing and overcoming challenges like isolation, anxiety, lack of confidence, and financial shortfalls.
“You worked and hustled far more than anyone should have to be here today,” she said.
“I know you stood up for yourself, your classmates, and future iterations of students, regardless of the repercussions, by advocating for issues important to our class…. I know you stared down your fears of rejection, of failure, of your own mind and body to be here today.”
Dangling from Kyle’s mortarboard was a rainbow-colored tassel – a gift from the LGBT community at her undergraduate college that, she confessed, she was too afraid to wear at her graduation seven years ago.
“I was afraid,” she said. “Afraid to be rejected by folks I cared about. Afraid to be honest with myself and everyone else. But I brought that tassel everywhere I moved, from Washington, D.C., to Japan, and here to New York. Today I’m wearing my tassel — not because I’m not frightened at all, but because it’s more important to face fear, to have courage.”
“In our chosen work we will be confronted with difficult policy choices,” Kyle observed. “We can go along with the status quo, or we can face our own fears as we make and support policy that creates a better world for the disenfranchised.
“May we continue to support one another in facing our fears and living our most courageous lives, to create policies and lead in the only way we know how—with courage—because life doesn’t frighten us at all.”
Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
Photos by Barbara Alper