President Daniels: “Never underestimate the power and impact your actions can have day in and day out”

Remarks prepared for delivery by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels at the university-wide launch event on May 23, 2022.

Under truly perfect skies with moderate temperatures, with a fiery spirit, boundless pride, and the delay that allowed two, not one night, of partying before the start, I’m thrilled to be able to say, “Hello, class Johns Hopkins of 2022!”

I’m so thrilled to be here with everyone – live – at our historic Homewood lot.

To our alumni and trustees; to our faculty and staff; to our parents, family members and friends; our distinguished speaker, Samantha Power; and especially to our graduates… welcome to the start of Johns Hopkins University for the big, big class of 2022!

You, Class of 2022, are a brave and persistent group who have kept the flames of student life burning during a time of incredible and unprecedented disruption.

You know that MSE level A should never look like this: [Picture of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library’s A-Level with crickets chirping in the background]

… But always like this: [Clip of party from The Office]

You’ve embraced the rich and complex flavor profile of FFC’s infamous “cheeseburger soup,” the secrets of which I swore I’d never reveal.

And some of you are even brave enough to cross Brody during the finals.

(Fortunately, there are no jumbotron visuals that will be shared for this particular Class of 2022 milestone).

We know that your class has had to show real courage to face a once-in-a-century pandemic that has turned life upside down on the planet and here in Hopkins. And if that weren’t enough, your undergraduate experience coincided with a cascade of political and social upheaval at home and abroad.

But there is no doubt that you have all acquitted yourself remarkably well under these immense pressures. This has not been easy.

It takes a lot to be up to it.

Not everyone has their moment, but some do. And they do it with astonishing audacity and courage. With iron determination. With an unearthly calm.

At this time, of course, we can only marvel at the determination shown by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

A year ago, probably few people in this country could have named the president of Ukraine.

Today, for good reason, it is omnipresent.

Since March, Zelensky has spoken emotionally on behalf of his country at the United Nations.

He has addressed parliamentary bodies around the world, including our own Congress.

And earlier this week, he even visited that most august body…the Association of American Universities, where he addressed a group of university presidents and provosts, myself included.

At this meeting, President Zelensky continued his campaign to consolidate the Western coalition and underline the incredible stakes of the battle he and his fellow citizens are waging.

It was inspiring to see the strength of his character up close; a force that has summoned the best of its people and brought so many across our planet to praise it not only for its courage and tenacity, but also for the way it has rekindled our sense of what is possible for democracies of the whole world .

Yet watching Zelensky speak also reminded me that, by his own admission, he is simply a person who does his job to the best of his abilities. Indeed, during his own inauguration in 2019, with ominous prescience, Zelensky reminded his fellow Ukrainians that “the president is not an icon” or “an idol”.

It’s easy to forget, as he seems to have set the land speed record for the unlikely transformation from slapstick comedian to national president to world hero.

But while heroes, both of our time and times past, can inspire us, we also know their stories can paralyze us.

Our reverence for our heroes makes their choices, their actions seem otherworldly and elusive. It dulls our own ability to see how we too are capable of making choices – hard choices – that have heroic dimensions.

Choices that are made quietly and without fanfare. Choices that are inspired by our deepest principles and values. Choices that can result in hardship, loss, or suffering for us, yet benefit others.

Such choices should not be underestimated.

In fact, I owe my life to such heroism.

Now, some of you may have heard me reflect on the story of my family’s dramatic journey from Poland to Canada on the eve of World War II. History is clearly a touchstone for me and for my siblings.

As a child, I understood this story as a story of pure good fortune. And today, I hear it a little differently, because, as is so often the case, there is always more to the story.

Here’s how it goes.

In the fall of 1938, my grandfather lost his teaching job in Warsaw, Poland, and reluctantly decided to apply to join his two siblings who had already made the trip to Canada.

Although the odds were very high against him, in late 1938 he learned that he had single-handedly secured one of less than 5,000 visas the Canadian government would grant to Jewish refugees during the 12-year period of the German Third Reich.

Plans have been drawn up.

My grandfather left for Canada at the beginning of 1939, settled in the new country, then, a few years later, sent for my grandmother and their three children, my aunt, my uncle and, of course, my dad.

Had the plan been followed, my father, then a 7-year-old boy, would surely have been one of the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

But for the intervention of a single woman.

A travel agent, who was completely unknown to the family.

A travel agent who helped my grandfather’s Canadian family book their passage.

A travel agent who, after learning that my grandfather had obtained one of the valuable visas granted to European Jews by the Canadian government and convinced that the whirlwind of events rocking Europe would be cataclysmic for its Jewish population, urged the family to reconsider the plan.

The travel agent advised my grandfather to delay his passage, to appeal directly and urgently to the Canadian government for four more visas. Then, quite extraordinary, when the visas were granted, and it was clear that the family did not have the financial capacity to pay for the four additional steamer tickets, they personally lent them the money for secure their flight.

For decades, this travel agent, at least for me, remained nameless.

Until one day about 20 years ago.

I remember that day very well.

I was having lunch with an older university colleague at a beer garden in Toronto. After a heated conversation focusing on a range of different legal topics, he abruptly changed the subject and almost out of nowhere asked if there was a special story about how my family came to Canada. Also, by any chance, was a travel agent listed in this account?

It turned out that the college colleague sitting across from me was the grandson of this travel agent.

Her name was Dorothy Dworkin.

Ms. Dworkin, I learned, was an almost legendary figure in the Canadian Jewish diaspora.

After immigrating from Latvia at the turn of the 20th century, she became a nurse and cared for Jewish women from across the region. Later, she founded Yiddish newspapers and participated in the construction of Jewish hospitals. And she has always sought to support her community, including bringing immigrant families to a safe harbor.

Dorothy Dworkin was living proof that heroism doesn’t always have to be larger than life.

It can manifest itself in the offering of wise counsel. Or discreet financial assistance. Or a decision to speak (or act) in defense of others.

But under the right circumstances, these seemingly mundane actions possess the potential to profoundly change the trajectory of other people’s lives. The lives of people you know and, as in the case of my family, the lives of those you don’t know.

Today, class of 2022, you are about to leave us.

Some of you are starting your first job, others are pursuing higher education where you will meet new people, new communities, new opportunities to make an impact.

And if the past few years are any indication, the world will keep throwing challenges at you that force you to stand up for your most cherished values, beliefs, principles, and dreams.

My hope – and the hope of so many of us here at Johns Hopkins – is that you will remember in these times that heroism takes many forms.

Be inspired, not intimidated by the stories of others.

Never let the impostor syndrome we all suffer from get the better of you.

You have the courage, the fortitude and the humility necessary to face the moments of history that are offered to you.

I know, we all know, because we’ve seen you do it.

Our world needs all kinds of heroes.

And he needs each of you.

Class of 2022, congratulations again. We are so proud, and Godspeed!

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