Dr. B. Cameron Webb
Commencement Address, May 18, 2019
University of Virginia
Thank you, so much Mr. Rector, for that kind introduction. To President Ryan, the Board of Visitors, distinguished faculty, proud alumni, and most importantly to the members and guests of the University of Virginia Class of 2019, thank you so much for the blessing and the honor of allowing me to join you today for this momentous occasion.
I’m overwhelmed right now. This weekend has been a long time coming for so many of us gathered here. Think about all of the hours that you’ve invested—the late nights that turned into early mornings. Think of the countless moments of anticipation and excitement mixed in with moments of disappointment and frustration. Think of all the incredible twists and turns as the seasons have passed. Think of how you’ve watched people grow and evolve—sometimes for the better, and let’s be honest, sometimes for the worse. But now that this weekend is finally here, we get to face the most pressing question of all: what the heck is going to happen on the series finale of Game of Thrones tomorrow? Who will sit on the Iron Throne?
Also of great importance this weekend, about 3,000 of you in this audience are graduating from UVA, finally getting the degrees you’ve worked so hard to earn! Let’s hear it one time not only for the UVA Bicentennial Class of 2019, but also for the village of family and friends who helped make this moment possible. Congratulations!
As a UVA alum, it is impossible to be here—on the Lawn for Finals Weekend—and not be transported back to your own commencement. In 2005, the speaker for my graduation was Dr. Vivian Pinn—a physician, scientist and longtime leader at the National Institutes of Health. Not only has she absolutely earned her place in the pantheon of UVA graduates—she even has a building named after her over at the UVA School of Medicine.
In the years after my graduation, I actually got to know and became friends with Dr. Pinn. A couple of weeks back, I had the chance to speak with her about her own UVA Commencement experience and dig a little deeper into the wisdom she shared with my graduating class.
When revisiting her Commencement remarks, I was particularly struck by one paragraph that completely confirmed the message that I was already thinking of sharing with you all today. Dr. Pinn described the human genome project and noted the sobering discovery that we humans have nearly the same number of genes as a fruit fly. But then she reminded us of some important human characteristics that differentiate us from fruit flies. “We can learn from the past, live in the present, and keep an eye on the future”, she said.
Here—14 years after she made those remarks, I believe that this moment, this day, this graduation accomplishment is best experienced through the lens of that uniquely human relationship with time. Today—as you punctuate the transition out of one phase of life and into another—you have the rare opportunity to seamlessly connect where you were, where you are, and where you will be.
For those of you in the College, I want to take you back to the last time you were here as a group. Sunday, August 23, 2015—1,364 days ago—you were all sitting on this lawn for your Opening Convocation and Honor Induction. The arrangement was a little different, as you all sat facing the Rotunda—the “temple of knowledge” of our little academical village. You may also remember a gift that was left for you on your seat. For each and every member of your class, the UVA Alumni Association left a shiny new nickel, like this one.
I know, I know…two dollar bills get all of the hype when it comes to Thomas Jefferson currency. But, nickels are actually super interesting in their own right:
1. How they are the only American coin with a forward-facing presidential bust.
2. Or how the name is a little misleading, because they’re only 25% nickel and 75% copper.
3. How they actually cost more to produce—about 7 and a half cent—than they’re worth.
4. Oh, and my favorite—how, for the past 14 years, it is illegal to melt them or to carry more than $5 in nickels out of the country because of how valuable their metals can be given the rising prices of copper and nickel.
Coins, in general, are cool. The study of coins is called numismatics. Quick…how many sides are there on a coin? So contrary to popular belief, all coins have three sides, rather than two. There’s the obverse or the front side (“heads”), and then the reverse or the back side (“tails”). But that oft-forgotten third side is the edge—the outer border that runs around the entire circumference of the coin.
So why did I just spend so much time telling you about nickels, about coins? Well, it’s because you can get a lot out of this moment, this day—your graduation from UVA—if you think about it as being a lot like that nickel you got at your Opening Convocation.
On the obverse, the front side, you are staring in the face of Mr. Jefferson and the illustrious University he founded. That’s where you were during your college days.
On the reverse, the back side, you are looking at Monticello. That’s the manifestation of the life Mr. Jefferson had the vision, the creativity and the drive to create for himself. That’s where you’re headed—where you will be.
But on that third side, on the edge, it’s blank. It’s completely unassuming, seemingly only a transition space from one side to the next. But when you stand that nickel up, or spin it around, you realize that there’s actually some substance there. Today—in this moment—I want you to realize that you are standing on the edge of a nickel, and that there’s a lot of power and potential in that space. As Dr. Pinn put it—living in THIS present means that you simultaneously have the occasion to learn from your past while keeping an eye on your future.
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Let’s start with learning from your past.
How can you use this moment to reflect on your years on these Grounds and really connect with their impact on you? What did you glean from your time staring Mr. Jefferson and his University squarely in the face?
I had the honor of living in a dorm named Webb in my first year at UVA—named for the same person for whom the dorm Watson-Webb is named. I was the Webb in Webb. But I say that it was an honor, because that dorm is named for my great, great grandfather. I’m just playing y’all. That’s utterly and completely untrue. I have no known familial relationship to Professor Robert Henning Webb. That’s all just a little alternative fact that I used to tell my suitemates back in 2001.
But I bring up Webb dorm and my suitemates, because a big part of where you’ve been these last few years was building important and lasting relationships through shared experiences, through commiseration, or even long-running inside jokes.
Like how I met Orren on the basketball court at Slaughter, and 6 years later he was the first person I asked to be a groomsman in my wedding.
Or how I met Mia in my peer advising group through OAAA and—years later when she had her daughter—she gave me the great honor of being one of Nevaeh’s godfathers.
Or Leigh-Ann, who lived in Dunglison—the girl I begged to study with me for Chemistry because she was so smart and studious…and attractive—how Leigh-Ann is now my bride of 10 years next Friday, the mother of our two kids—Avery and Lennox—and how she is still way smarter than I am. The bonds that you have built through your relationships can continue to deepen still with time, if only you continue to value and nurture them like you have during these years.
Beyond socializing, there certainly was an education that you received during these years. In fact, back when you arrived at UVA, the only experience that you knew for certain that you were going to get was an education. You may not have known precisely which subject you would study, but you could reasonably expect that these years would yield some depth of exposure in some field of inquiry.
But today, as you look back, at where you were, what did you learn over these years? Not your scores on exams or the masterful papers you wrote. Not what’s on your transcript. What did you really learn?
Through your coursework, you tackled the substance of what would become your degrees in Government or Economics, African American Studies or Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology. But each semester—every day—through your struggle and your success, your challenge and your commitment, you earned so much more. You earned a degree of humility and a degree of sacrifice. A degree of perseverance and a degree of thankfulness. A degree of self-reliance and a degree of self-awareness. A degree of swagger and a degree of sophistication. While you deepened your knowledge in your respective fields, you also sharpened the person you were into the person you are.
Finally, what did you accomplish while you were here—what’s your UVA legacy? We all inhabit these spaces on Grounds for but a moment, for a season. We are fiduciaries of an ethos, stewards of our University’s ideals. But in your time here, you led, you created, you helped UVA evolve into its next and better self. You stood united against hatred and bigotry and you spoke up for greater inclusion and awareness. YOU helped make history energizing our men’s basketball team along their path to becoming National Champions! You did these things not as individuals, but as a collective body. You proved the power of unity of purpose and passion.
When you look at that diploma you will receive in a few hours, remember all that it truly stands for. Remember how you walked onto these Grounds surrounded by complete strangers, but you are departing with a whole new set of family members and lifelong friends. Remember how you turned tragedy into triumph, showing the world time and again who we are and what we stand for. Remember how you came in full of potential but walked out as scholars and innovators and activists and champions. Remember that this chapter of your life is closing, but that this ceremony is called Commencement because this is just the beginning. Remember that YOU…are just getting started!
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Next up, let’s talk about today. Let’s discuss where you are currently, in this moment. That “standing on the edge of a nickel”…the space that you can easily overlook and to which you don’t often pay attention, but a space that has more substance and function that you realize.
There’s a word that I used not infrequently in my days as a medical anthropology major here at UVA. Liminality. Derived from the Latin word meaning “threshold”, it is the transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms of conduct, dress, etc. Look at yourselves. Herded into this lawn wearing that formless gown and that awkward—though expertly decorated—cap. THIS is liminality.
One thing that is well accepted, is that there is a transformational power in this transitional period—in this liminality—if you only recognize the moment.
In the years since I graduated from UVA, I have had quite a few of these transitions: from undergrad to graduate school, grad school to med school, med school to law school, law school back to med school, med school to residency, residency to the White House…are you completely confused by my professional trek yet? It’s ok, so am I sometimes! But I want to focus in on one transition in particular to illustrate how powerful these moments can be if you really focus in on them.
You heard earlier that I was a White House Fellow, but that only tells part of the story. I was actually a White House Fellow in a presidential transition year—2016 to 2017. So I walked into the White House knowing that I would be switching mid-year from one Commander-in-Chief to another.
For those first 5 and a half months, working in the Obama White House was really amazing. In my work on President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, I had the opportunity to meet with so many incredible people: Kobe Bryant, Al Sharpton, Jay Ellis, Kofi Siriboe, Eric Holder, DL Hughley, the entire Detroit Pistons team—I mean, I did meet with some non-black people, too, but I’m doing this one for the culture, ok? #FirstBlackPresident
One week, I even sat in rooms with President Obama, himself, on four different occasions. In one week! I was truly living my best life!
After the election, I knew along with the rest of America that I was in for a pretty significant change. I spent the next few weeks preparing myself for the transition, as I had learned to do so many times before. Then, on the night before inauguration, I spent time sitting in the West Wing reflecting on my values and grounding principles. I thought through scenarios of how I could still have an impact…and meet cool people. More than anything, though, I grounded myself in my sense of duty, knowing that my passion and voice for social justice could be my greatest contribution to the building once the Trump administration began in January.
Harnessing that liminality—focusing in for that transition completely held me down. It grounded me through the very first day of the administration when my desk was cleaned out—my belongings thrown away because they thought that I was leaving with the rest of the Obama folks.
It steadied me when I was moved to sit in a desk in the hallway outside of the office to which I was assigned due to the “highly sensitive nature of their work.”
It sustained me in the 6 weeks I spent sitting in that hallway, always told that they had no work for me to assist with, culminating in their asking me to seek another office assignment.
Finally—two months later in March—I found an office where I could contribute, where I was valued as a colleague, and where I forged genuine friendships. I worked on drug pricing and I even worked to find ways to continue some of the important work from My Brother’s Keeper.
But without my reflection in the midst of the transition—without grounding myself somewhere in between the Obama and Trump administrations—I never would have made it to that point. More than that, I never would have known how to be myself and have an impact once I got there.
While that example focuses on a unique type of transition within a particular role, many other transitions will see you complete transformed, going from one role or station to a completely different one. In many instances, you will acquire something on the other side of the transition. It may be a degree, a new title, a higher salary…or it may be privilege that you acquire.
Before you get uncomfortable or excited that I’m about to transition this speech into a discussion of white privilege, keep in mind that privilege is bigger than that. While racial, gender and body privilege are unique in how they can be assessed by appearance alone, the truth is that we all need to have an ear to listen when we talk about role of privilege in shaping experiences in this country. Keep in mind that—in addition to my being black—you’re looking at a young, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, Christian, American man with two professional degrees, and who grew up in a 2-parent household. For my purposes this morning, let’s operate on the premise that privilege is privilege, and you will all acquire your newest form of privilege in just a few hours: the privilege that comes with being a college graduate.
I know, you’re looking at me like “ha! I have the privilege of these loans!” You might even balk at my use of the term privilege because of how hard you’ve worked to earn it. I get that. But the truth is that the privilege that comes with being a college graduate plays out in a lot of unexpected places.
After all, only 31 percent of adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree, that’s less than 1 in 3. You know, compared to a high school graduate, you’re nearly half as likely to be unemployed and will earn over $22,000 more each year…an income gap in your favor that will only grow in size each year. In a couple of hours, you’ll become 11% more likely to own a home and gain 6 additional years of life expectancy than someone with only a high school degree. The privilege that I’m describing with regard to your identity as newly-minted college graduates is that society gives you an outsized benefit for that status. More than that, it gives you that benefit often at the expense of someone else’s opportunities or well-being…and cycles continue.
So in this transitional period, this last phase of your rite of passage, in the midst of your liminality, what will you do? What transformational energy will you harness? What commitments to yourself will you make as you learn from your past and look to your future. Will you be willing to set aside your newest privilege and, instead, stand up, speak out, and commit yourself to prioritizing equality and justice? The choice always will be yours. How will YOU act? Who will YOU be?
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And that brings us to the final side of our coin. The reverse. The back side. Tails. Going back to our nickel, it’s the side with a depiction of the west façade—the iconic back of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Just as Jefferson spent over four decades designing, dismantling and reimagining his estate, how will you conceive, execute, and inhabit the future that awaits you?
I want to build on the historic symbolism that defines UVA Commencement for a second. We talked about how, at your Opening Convocation, you sat as a class facing the Rotunda—the “temple of knowledge” for our academical village. Today, though, you sit facing in the opposite direction. Remove Old Cabell Hall and the South Lawn from today’s backdrop and you realize that the notion was to have you facing out into the world that awaits you.
The road ahead will not always look like those paved streets at your back—Emmet Street or University Ave. They won’t always be lined with the comfort and convenience—and fun—of the Corner. Instead, the road ahead will look a lot like the environment that has surrounded you through your UVA experience—a lot more like these Blue Ridge mountains or even Monticello (which means “little mountain”). Believe me, there will be mountains ahead. Not a single, indomitable mountain to climb, but a series of seemingly sloping hills, sometimes with beautiful scenery from a distance, but often tiring and treacherous when you try to traverse them.
I remember one particular mountain just before I returned to UVA in 2017. No, not figuratively, it was a literal mountain! I was on a trip to South Africa with a group of White House Fellows, and we decided to hike Lion’s Head mountain in Cape Town, with its summit at about 2200 feet—takes about 90 minutes to climb.
The way up was fantastic. I was surrounded by friends and full of energy…taking in the scenery. We get to the top, snap some pictures, post on Instagram, done and done. Shortly after starting the hike back down, I get to a scramble and carelessly go to descend. I slip, I tumble down the scramble—about 30 feet or so—and my careening body amazing comes to a stop just 2 or 3 feet from the edge of the mountain. As I lay there in pain and disbelief, a French passerby mutters something about me being a stupid American. I get up, dust myself off, and I limp back down the mountain feeling absolutely awesome.
I learned something from that tumble, something hit me—and I’m not talking about one of the many rocks that hit me on my way down. I realized that I slipped and fell because I was wearing some worn out Nike’s with no grip. That I moved quickly and carelessly. That falling felt terrible, and that I would be better prepared the next time. I realized that—when it comes to mountains—you really have to know how to climb, or else you’re more likely to fall.
These mountains ahead of you are similar. You have to know how to climb—and with what tools—or else you’re more likely to fall. Let’s be real, you’re going to fall sometimes anyway, but what can you do to minimize the risk, or to make your tumble a little more forgiving?
On their website, REI has a great list of the 10 essentials for safety, survival and basic comfort for mountain climbing. We’re talking about true mountain climbing and not the little hike that I still couldn’t pull off without injury. Their list includes navigation (like a map or compass), sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire, a repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration, and emergency shelter. If you were new to mountain climbing, this list—or one like it—seems like a pretty good place to start to give you your best chance for success.
Well, for you, I wanted to offer a few recommendations as the tools you can take with you as you navigate the mountains ahead. I feel blessed to have achieved what I have in my 14 years since UVA, and I wanted to give you the BCW guide on how to climb.
First, be authentic. It’s a lot like navigation, actually. Know your true north. Whether it’s a fork in the road with opportunities in front of you, or difficult decisions to make about how to move forward in new or challenging spaces, keep in mind that you never have regrets if you stay true to yourself, true to your values, and true to your dreams.
Second, find mentors. I think this would be the illumination on REI’s list. While there’s no other person who shares all of the unique components that make you you, there are always people who have climbed mountains before you, who can give you some insight on how to best tackle yours. Do yourself a favor, keep those folks around to help light your path. Believe me, you’ll save yourself a lot of time by avoiding the missteps they made while they climbed.
Third, iterate. This is kind of a mix of those first-aid supplies and your repair kit and tools. Like I said before, you are going to fall. You’ll take your lumps. Both you and the tools you bring with you may seem broken at times. But, in order to move forward, you have to patch them—patch yourself—up and try again. You’ve already learned that nothing worth having comes easily. As you push farther and farther, you’ll have to remember to take care of yourself, adapt on the fly, and to always be ready to try again.
Fourth, cross-pollenate. Naturally, this is the nutrition, right? Diversity of thought is such an incredible driver of individual and organizational success. People in different places…think differently. I moved from Charlottesville, to North Carolina, to Chicago, to New York, to Washington, DC all before coming back to Charlottesville. Along the way, I picked up so many new and different ways of tackling problems. Sure, you can find diversity of thought in one place—but you can find a lot more if you look in new and different places. Don’t be afraid to branch out and take advantage of learning opportunities wherever they may be!
Finally, lift as you climb. I’m talking about reaching back to lift someone else along while you are still on your way up. This would be that provision of fire on REI’s list. Sure, this sounds like added work, like extra credit, but it’s actually life-bringing. You learn so much by looking back, by reaching back, and by helping someone else along. That’s one way you can put your privilege—including your privilege as newly-minted college grads—to work making life better for others. After all, as Pharrell said yesterday, that’s the only way to make life better for yourself. It’s also one way you can keep in touch with how far you’ve come in order to give yourself the fire to keep moving on your own journey.
Be authentic. Find mentors. Iterate. Cross-pollenate. Lift as you climb. I’m not saying it’s a sure thing for success, fulfillment and a peaceful and happy life, but I do think that by keeping these concepts in mind, you really increase your odds for safety, survival and basic comfort while you climb.
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My time up here has long since run its course and I know that you have hats to throw and hugs to give. Diplomas to receive and selfies to snap. But in closing—I just want to share with you the great optimism that I have for you all as you move forward.
We have so much to be grateful for in our lives, in our nation and in our world. I want to lead with that because I believe it in my heart. In so many ways, more people are living better lives around the world than at any previous point in human history.
But I also have to acknowledge the enormous challenges that we still face in our nation and in our world.
1. Like how we face a crisis of economic mobility in this country, where the odds are no better than the flip of a coin as to whether or not your generation will earn more than your parents have.
2. and how men continue to perpetrate unconscionable physical and policy assaults against the bodies and the rights of women.
3. and how our failures to protect our environment endanger not only future generations, but hundreds of millions of people around the world right now.
4. and how unacceptable disparities in health persist because of injustice in how and where we are born, grow, live, learn, eat, play and pray.
5. How wealth and power remain concentrated in the hands of too few, and out of reach for too many.
But as Frederick Douglass once said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” While you hear me run though that list of societal ills, remember what you’ve been hearing from your parents and your professors and your employers over these past few years. If power concedes nothing without a demand, power better watch out—there has never been a generation more demanding than yours!
Take that spirit and direct it toward something positive, toward something productive, toward improving our society and mending the unnecessary divides. Toward being the change and building the world in which we should be living. Be slow to speak, but quick to listen; be thoughtful, contemplative and inclusive. Reject the notion that you have to play out this entire game so you can eventually change the rules. Rather, partner and plan well so that you can create new games that are fair for everyone.
Because if you stand on the edge of your nickel and you capture the transformational power of the moments that await you, you can and you will accomplish anything. We have never seen the likes of you, and the world will never be the same.
So here’s to you, the Class of 2019. First of your name. Kings and Queens of the Wahoos and the First NCAA Tournament Championship. Lords of the Bicentennial and Protectors of the Lawn.
If you don’t get that reference, you have a lot of Game of Thrones to watch before tomorrow night!
Thank you for all that you’ve done, and all that you will do. Best of luck, and journey well!