Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Lifelong learning and perpetual improvement: Brandeis celebrates the Class of 2024

May 19, 2024

Photo credit: Dan Holmes and Gaelen Morse

By David Levin, Senior Research and Features Writer

Campus was alive with jubilant celebration as Brandeis held its 73rd Commencement Exercises for more than 1,400 undergraduate and graduate students on May 19.

Graduates in caps and gowns stand in line as they wait to be seated at the Commencement ceremony

Filmmaker and historian Ken Burns, H’24, delivered the keynote address during the morning’s undergraduate Commencement ceremony. Literary scholar and former Brown University president Ruth J. Simmons, H’24, addressed graduate students at a separate Commencement ceremony in the afternoon.

Brandeis awarded five honorary degrees. Burns, who is known for his extensively researched documentaries on American culture, received an Honorary Doctorate of Creative Arts; international women’s rights advocate Ruth Halperin-Kaddari received an honorary Doctorate of Laws; and Simmons and civil rights activist Roy DeBerry ’70, GSAS MA’78, PhD’79, each received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Rabbi David Ellenson, z"l, who was internationally recognized for his research in Jewish thought, ethics, and history, posthumously received a Doctorate of Humane Letters. Ellenson died in December 2023 shortly after learning that he would receive the degree.

“Persevering and adapting”

In all, 752 students received bachelor’s degrees — 532 of those with honors — in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center, where President Ron Liebowitz saluted graduates for persevering in their education during the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic.

“For many of you graduates today, this is your first opportunity to walk the stage, as your high school graduations were canceled due to COVID. Today's your day to celebrate all you have accomplished in what have in many ways been unprecedented times,” he said.

“You know perhaps all too well that your college experience began under the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic. You persevered and adapted to new ways of learning, and when the pandemic came to an end, you were determined to create and re-create community, a slow and challenging task that tested all of us — but I believe it has prepared you in unseen ways for the kinds of challenges you will face in any endeavor following Brandeis,” Liebowitz said.

Ken Burns speaks from the podium
Ken Burns, H’24, addresses graduates during the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony.

The sentiment of perseverance and preparation continued with Burns’ Commencement address. He noted that students' experience on campus and in the classroom at Brandeis reminded him of key ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

“We seem resolutely dedicated to parsing the meaning between individual and collective freedom; what I want versus what we need,” he told the graduates and their families. “We are also dedicated to understanding what Thomas Jefferson really meant when he wrote that mysterious phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Hint: It happens right here in the lifelong learning and perpetual improvement this university is committed to.”

As graduating students begin their own lives in a nation that is deeply polarized, it will be especially important for them to maintain the spirit of open discussion and honest dialogue that they honed at Brandeis, Burns noted.

“It's clear as individuals and as a nation, we are dialectically preoccupied,” he said. “Everywhere we are trapped by these old, tired, binary reactions, assumptions, and uncertainties.”

During a lifetime as a historian and filmmaker, Burns said he has seen how those divisions play out both in the past and present — and he offered graduates a valuable lesson that he learned about navigating them along the way.

“Whenever someone suggests to you, whoever it may be in your life, that there's a ‘them,’ run away,” he said. “Othering is the simplistic, binary way to make and identify enemies, but it is also the surest way to your own self imprisonment.”

Burns concluded his address with additional words of advice, encouraging graduates to remain curious, commit to lifelong learning, and immerse themselves in nature as a way of providing perspective on their own human experiences.

“Be in nature, which is always perfect, and where nothing is binary,“ he continued. “Its sheer majesty may remind you of your own atomic insignificance, as one observer put it, but in the inscrutable and paradoxical ways of wild places, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.”

Ianna Gilbert, wearing a cap and gown, speaks from the podium
Undergraduate speaker Ianna Gilbert ’24

Moments after Burns concluded his speech, undergraduate speaker Ianna Gilbert ’24 stepped to the podium to offer her own words of encouragement to her fellow graduates — and to remind them of the power each of them has to change the world through their own actions.

“We ought to illuminate the path for others with our unique strengths, skills, and various passions,” she urged her classmates. “As we leave this campus and head into the world, it's important that we recognize the impact we can have. As we continue to be resilient and embrace change, remember, these are unprecedented times. Yes, growth requires us to ride the wave of change, but guess what: This is our time to shine.”

Gilbert went on to recognize the leadership, wisdom, and curiosity of her classmates, as well as their willingness to advocate for themselves and others around them.

“As we turn the next page in our book, we can be delighted knowing that we have the opportunity to make a difference in the world,” she said. “This institution has crafted critical thinkers, problem solvers, and natural leaders: All things that will be needed in the world ahead of us.”

“This is only the beginning of the accomplishments you will make in the years ahead”

Several hours after joyful graduates and their families emerged from the morning exercises, Gosman filled up again with family members, friends, and the degree recipients of Brandeis’ graduate schools.

Ruth Simmons speaks at the podium
Ruth Simmons, H’24, delivers the address at the Graduate Commencement Ceremony.

In her Commencement address, Simmons urged graduates to pursue their work with hope — even in the face of worldwide conflict and political division.

She recalled receiving her diploma at a time similarly rife with uncertainty and volatility. Drawing parallels to Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement, and the significant societal upheaval she experienced as she came of age, Simmons called on graduates to pursue Brandeis’ values of justice, equality, and free expression throughout their lives.

“We continue to struggle with what it means to share a country with individuals and groups vastly different from who we are, from what we want, from how we believe, and from how we see the world,” Simmons said. “Yet, if we are to thrive as a nation, we must come to value the role of difference in exploiting the rich reservoir of knowledge and perspectives available to us. We can best achieve that with a conscious and robust process of opening our minds and hearts to others.”

“I see possibilities in the way Brandeis inspires all of you,” Simmons added. “Each of us is called on to defend the principles that undergird our freedoms. That is, in every feature of our work and our lives, we must uphold a commitment to fairness, inclusion, and justice. Anything less is to accept the worst of all possible worlds.”

Peter Thabet smiles as he stands at the podium
Graduate speaker Peter Thabet, BIBS MBA’24

In his graduate student address, Peter Thabet, BIBS MBA’24, a native of Cairo, Egypt, offered his classmates advice derived from his studies at Brandeis International Business School.

In his speech, “Three Business School Lessons Not About Money,” Thabet encouraged healthy risk-taking, embracing collaboration, and using one’s gifts for the betterment of the world.

“I invite all my fellow graduates and honorary degree recipients to recognize this investment that has been made in us, an investment we crown today with our beautiful caps and gowns,” Thabet said. “Let us all commit to turning this investment into tangible developments wherever we go, in our professional endeavors, in our relationship with friends and family, and in our contribution to the planet.”

Brandeis conferred 163 master’s degrees and 59 PhDs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; 189 master’s degrees and 11 PhDs in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management; 189 master’s degrees and five PhDs in the Brandeis International Business School; and 101 master’s degrees in the Rabb School of Continuing Studies.