Final Exercises 2005: Pinn Speech

Dr. Vivian W. Pinn
Commencement Address, May 22, 2005
University of Virginia

Thank you, President Casteen and dignitaries, distinguished faculty, accomplished alumni, and members and guests of the University of Virginia who are assembled here on this marvelous day of celebration.

We are here to honor the graduates in the Class of 2005 of the University of Virginia. Congratulations! Today is yours, for each and every one of you to enjoy and to cherish. You have earned every right to be proud of your accomplishments as you receive your degrees and become a permanent part of the rich legacy and the continuing evolution of academic and social principles of this university.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share this glorious day and these ceremonies to recognize your accomplishments. I am pleased to join you, as you rejoice in the completion of your studies here at UVA. And, let me also join you in acknowledging and thanking those who are sharing in your celebration today, with pride and probably some degree of relief: your parents, spouses, families and friends, and the faculty and staff of this institution. They have provided the emotional, financial, spiritual, and academic support to help you achieve this moment, and I know your gratitude must compete with your joy on this day.

It seems remarkable to me that it was so long ago, on a sunny day in the spring of 1967, when I was out there where you are now, on the lawn, waiting for these exercises and the speeches to be over and to have my degree in hand. I don’t remember who the speakers were-I just remember being with my classmates, wondering where in the crowd my family was, and then going through the receiving line of the deans and administration, and being reminded by my father to just contain myself until my diploma was in hand! I never thought, at what was then mostly a university of men, that some 38 years later I would be accorded the honor of giving the commencement address at this university of Thomas Jefferson, where traditions have been born and carried forth, world leaders have studied and taught, and so many men and, more recently women, have left to make their marks upon the future of the world in which we live.

I am grateful to this institution, UVA, as I hope you are. Yes, I recall many challenges to my own sanity and passion for my medical studies during the sociopolitical era of the 1960s-the challenges of traditions that did not include women as members of the undergraduate community, in a city where people of color were not yet welcomed in many quarters, and where I was the only woman and person of color in my medical school class and among few across the university. However, as they say, it was a learning experience, and I look back with gratitude for what those experiences and the intellectual wisdom and academic preparation from this university have provided me over my lifetime in facing the imperfect but improving communities of the world.

These experiences have provided me with a valuable foundation for my profession and my life. I learned then, and have confirmed as years go by, that we can either dwell in the smallness of slights or difficulties, or rejoice in the larger meanings of life’s experiences, and build a positive, constructive, and worldly view of the barriers we have faced, and the satisfaction of having overcome them.

I know that you have faced your own challenges in reaching this day, but you have obviously been successful! Today you become graduates of UVA, and add to the legacy of our university through what you have done, while here, and what you will do, once you leave. The continuing, deep traditions of intellectual excellence and the more recently embraced standards of diversity of opportunity and inclusion can, and should, guide you as you face the challenges of your chosen careers and your lives.

Some traditions are good and deserve to be preserved. Others, well, maybe it is good they have changed through the convictions of progress and wisdom. I recall, for example, the traditional dress code that required students to wear ties and jackets to class when I was a student-ties even in the human anatomy lab! Of course when the entire class was told to wear ties, I never knew just what that was supposed to mean for me! Take a look at us now, in caps and gowns and hoods. We are decked out in the traditional academic outfit of the Middle Ages, the traditional uniform common to the early universities in Salerno, Paris, Heidelberg, and everywhere else in Europe. But what did you wear for your last class sessions?

Traditions do continue, but traditions, though we treasure them, should not bind us to obsolete notions or blind us to new truths. We need to be open and adaptable. And that is true not only in the fields of medicine and science, which I know best, but also in all other disciplines. Sometimes it may be difficult to do away with an idea or a belief that cannot be substantiated, or that has grown obsolete or no longer serves your best interest. Sometimes you have to resolve or accept the contradictions between tradition and the future. Just think, when the human genome was finally unraveled, a challenge so ably led at the National Institutes of Health by a UVA graduate, it turned out that we have far fewer genes that anyone had guessed-no more than about 40,000. That was, to some, a blow to our esteem as Homo sapiens: creatures as complex and smart as we must have a lot more genes than that to be, well, us. The even greater blow to our esteem was the realization that we don’t have that many more genes than the fruit fly. But we can’t deny the evidence. Or, our intelligence to have discerned this truth.

Fortunately, as you may have noticed, we are not fruit flies, and that is why we can learn from the past, live in the present, and keep an eye on the future. We see such contradictions and advances in knowledge frequently in medical science--when some long-held assumptions about treatments of diseases are proven to be no more effective than placebos, or maybe even more harmful than helpful. And when facts from research dispute long-held beliefs, the resistance may be strong and long, until the newly learned wisdom can finally be accepted.

Isn’t this need to be open and adaptable true in the fields in which you will be embarking in your careers? Won’t there be room for new discoveries and modern advances to expand knowledge? Isn’t it also true in your own personal lives? As we outgrow our childhood and adolescent fantasies, we can change the goals and courses of our lives with decisions that may contradict what we long believed to be right or to be our destiny. But isn’t that a major point of an education, especially the type of superior education you have received here: to make sense of things that seem contradictory or untenable or just out of synch with the way we once felt as we expand our horizons and our knowledge? Contradiction can be a sign that the present always contains some of the past. And when we question that past, we move forward with new truths into the future. Where would our understanding of the cosmos be without what we learned from Kepler and Galileo? Where would economics be without Adam Smith? Where would medicine be without Lister and Osler? Where would literature be without Homer and Cervantes? But surely, we have seen brilliance and advancement in these fields since the times that they walked the earth.

As I glance out at you and think back to almost 40 years ago, I wonder how much you take for granted that many of us could only hope for back then. And I wonder what the future will be for you in another 40 years and how will you, as individuals and as a collective generation of UVA alums, have influenced our communities, our nation and our world. As I think of all the schools and disciplines and degrees and honors represented among you today, I cannot help but think that also among you are those who will be in the history books of tomorrow, and those who will compose them. Who among you will be the Michelangelo of tomorrow? The one who will have found a cure for AIDS or breast cancer? Who will have solved the problems of poverty and the environment; have mediated world peace-or maybe even peace across the galaxy?

It is also likely that many of you may not be prominently named in history or text books, but will nevertheless have made an important difference in the world in less acclaimed ways: differences for your families, for your communities, for your fields of endeavor, and for the common good, through your moral convictions and dignity. As Helen Keller phrased the value of the efforts of each one of us: “The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Be heroes and heroines with either mighty shoves, or many tiny pushes, whether publicly or privately recognized, for you possess the learning and the integrity and fortitude to do so.

As graduates of the year 2005, your mission, not impossible, is to promote the vision and reality of a life worth living, of a humanity worth celebrating, and the reality of mutual respect and equity of opportunity for the diverse peoples of this audience and our world. For by living your lives with rules of dignity, you earn dignity. In words ascribed to Aristotle: "Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them."

Your education at this institution has provided you with a sound preparation for earning dignity. Don’t let difficulties make you small, a complaining spectator of life-but rather let a vision for your own life make you great, vital participant of life.

What I am asking is that you always keep faith in yourselves and an open mind about what you are and what you can do. Reach for the stars if you want to rise above the mud and muck! Be prepared and willing to consider new opportunities that may come your way. When I came to UVA in 1963, I had no idea that I would become a pathologist-of all medical specialties, as my father often said, and absolutely love that field of study-or that my career would take the paths that it did. The Office I now direct didn’t even exist at the NIH or anywhere else. And women’s health simply meant a visit to the gynecologist. How things change. And in your areas of expertise and pursuits, there will be many new options and pathways for you.

Louis Pasteur stated in a lecture in 1954, “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Well, you have completed your curriculum here, so you obviously have a prepared mind. So let your destiny be determined by your free, receptive, and prepared mind for whatever chances may come your way.

I know that you will be guided by the wisdom you take with you from this beautiful campus and its traditions, by your passion for learning and achievement, and your intellectual and conscious appreciation of the responsibilities of your own destinies. You can, and will, I am sure, make moral choices, demonstrate courage, act with compassion, and embrace responsibility.

In the words of Thurgood Marshall, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a graduate of the University of Virginia:

“The privilege of attending so fine a university as this one must bear with it an unceasing responsibility to use your knowledge and training for improving the lives of others.” (May 21, 1978)

Graduates, the future is yours-the world of tomorrow is in your hands. We are all proud of you, and we are counting on you to make our world a better place. My challenge to you is to carry forth the traditions of excellence, with dignity, as you determine your destiny and that of our world.

I congratulate you, the Class of 2005, and I wish you magnificent dreams, fulfillment of hopes, and an abundance of accomplishments.

Thank you.