Commencement 2021 Speech

Tulane President Fitts Virtual Unified Commencement Speech 2021

Class of 2021, family and friends from all around the world – welcome to the Tulane University Unified Commencement ceremony!

Here, now, in the virtual presence of the candidates for academic recognition, the Commencement for our one-hundred and eighty-seventh year is hereby called to order.

Let me begin with a request that no Tulane president, in any of our 186 prior Commencements, has been able to make.

Please turn and hug your loved ones in real time – now, at the beginning of the ceremony.

Just make sure everyone has their shots – then give them a hug!

They deserve it.  They’ve watched your journey to this moment in time … every scraped knee, every loose tooth, every proud moment, and every “teachable” one… 

Today, they get to watch you become a graduate of Tulane University.

I think we’ve all missed hugs this year.

Just think about last summer! Think about when you first came back to campus in August.

We wondered— can we still be a community?

Can we stay close, even six feet apart? 

Or will our sense of community all be washed away by the ever-present hand sanitizer? 

Today is the culmination of one of the most testing times in your life.

Everyone goes to school expecting there to be tests – final exams, essays, multiple choice, placement tests, chapter reviews … but none of us expected any of these tests would involve… our nostrils.

We all grew familiar with that walk to our testing sites and the daily self-check. 

In fact, Tulanians took half a million COVID tests this year!

The Class of 2021 was tested in other ways, too. 

Last year, seven hurricanes threatened Louisiana, including a direct hit by Hurricane Zeta in New Orleans. 

And the tests kept coming! 

A nationwide reckoning on racial justice…

A crash-course in online learning…

An economic rollercoaster…

It seemed like every day, every question, every decision was a new test. 

Life is full of tests – and I think it’s fair to say that the Class of 2021 is the most-tested in all of Tulane’s history. 

But Class of 2021, you are survivors. You are fighters. 

You’ve been through the crucible of a global pandemic. 

You’ve raised your voices in solidarity with racial equity. 

You’ve used this moment to catapult to something greater. 

You’ve discovered what you stand for, and what simply cannot stand.

All the things that tested your bonds only managed to forge them and bring you closer together.

There is no going back to the way things were.

In that way, you are not only the most-tested class in Tulane’s history, you’re the class that’s gotten the greatest education. 

But here’s the thing about tests— you don’t know how you’ve done until they’re over. 

Here’s the good news for the Class of 2021 – you’ve passed the test.

Soon you will get your degree, swap your tassel from one side to the other, and the tests of the past year will be in the rearview mirror. 

But this is not the end of your testing. Far from it. 

In your most challenging moments, I want you to remember what may be the greatest takeaway of this year: You are not alone in this world.

Let me say that again.

You are not alone in this world.

In fact, you have never been more connected.

You are soon to be a graduate of Tulane University— where nothing means more to us than community. 

It’s why we came back to campus this year — because humans crave connection, and education is meant to be a shared experience.

For 200 years, it’s become cliché for graduation speakers to remind students to “keep in touch” and “care for each other” and “make connections”… but you truly understand what that means.

You had your community taken away – and worked so hard, together, to get it back.

We have all missed so much this year.

Personally, I missed football games in Yulman Stadium and high-fiving the entire student section.

I missed sitting down for lunch in the Commons, and meeting with students in-person for office hours.

I missed — as many of you did — spending the holidays with family.

I felt especially heartbroken for the students who spent the holidays in quarantine and isolation.

I visited many of you to deliver holiday dinners, and as I stood in the hallway talking to some of you from a distance, I was touched hearing about all of the creative ways you supported each other this year.

Never before did connecting with friends depend on mutual trust that everyone would wear masks and show up for testing … not to mention washing your hands like you just ate five pounds of crawfish and need to take out your contacts.

The pandemic took our communal rituals away, from birthday parties to holiday gatherings to crawfish boils. 

It even tried to take away Mardi Gras! 

But when there were no parades, there were house floats.

When there was no brunch in the Commons, there were picnics on porches.

Class of 2021 – you are extraordinary – and all the more extraordinary for what you have overcome this year.

And that brings me to the most important test of all – one that you will take every day for the rest of your life: The pandemic taught us that our fates are intertwined – that we have an obligation to others.

How will you use that knowledge to solve the world’s biggest problems?

How will you care for your community and revel in our shared humanity to make our world better?

You can start today with your Tulane family.

Because your class will always have a very special bond.

Cherish those connections.

You will undoubtedly be busy in the coming months and years ... starting new careers, launching new projects, or continuing your education. 

But, never be too busy for those whom you care about.

Remember what you’ve been through together, and what you’ve been through this year to be together.

Remember the angst of returning to in-person classrooms — remember the uncertainty of whether we would finish the school year in-person —

And remember the people who helped you get through it: your Tulane family.

Your class is forever bonded by the lessons of the pandemic.

So please, nurture those relationships. Check on each other. Keep in touch.

And most importantly, make plans to meet back here in New Orleans as often as possible.

And to remind of you of all the reasons why, please join me in welcoming Yolanda Windsay and Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band, as they perform one of our city’s most beloved numbers, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans.”

What a song! ... what a city! ... and what a class.

It wouldn’t be a Tulane commencement without Dr. Michael White and The Original Liberty Jazz Band.

Now, it wouldn’t be a Tulane commencement without music and it wouldn't be a Tulane commencement without hearing from our graduates!

Applications poured in to be this year’s Unified Commencement speaker, and so many of you had beautiful Tulane stories to tell.

So, for the first time, it is my honor to introduce the first of two student speakers representing the class of 2021.

Our first student speaker is Dylan Lucia, who is a 4+1 student in the School of Science and Engineering. He graduated last year with a Bachelors degree in Biomedical Engineering, and today he adds a Masters degree.

Dylan, the podium is yours!



I could go on for hours about the Class of 2021 – Your grit. Your unflinching resolve. And all that you’ve accomplished in the face of adversity … We are so proud of you!

At Tulane, we break down the silos of a traditional academic experience.

The learning, teaching and research that happens here stretches and winds across our 10 schools like the Mississippi River through New Orleans.

Our next speaker embodies that ethos. Today she graduates from both the School of Law and the A.B. Freeman School of Business, receiving a Juris Doctorate and a Master's of Business Administration.

Please join me in welcoming your second and final student speaker, Andrea Ewalefo.



Have you ever seen the bumper sticker around town that says, “Be a New Orleanian, wherever you are”?

Wherever you are at this very moment — whether that’s Idaho, New Hampshire, Shanghai, or a hotel in the French Quarter – you know that no celebration in New Orleans is complete without dancing.

So, stand up, put on those dancing shoes, and please join me in welcoming the ambassadors for New Orleans rock and soul, and owners of the world famous Tipitina’s — Galactic!



It's now my honor to introduce today's keynote speaker.

There are moments that define the fight for civil rights and our quest for a more-perfect union. 

It is Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery. 

It is John Lewis on a bridge in Selma. 

It is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

And it is Ruby Bridges on her way to school, right here in New Orleans. 

At six years old, she made history only a few miles from here, at William Frantz elementary school.

In a critical moment for our nation, she walked through the schoolhouse doors, confronting the spectre of segregation. 

It wasn’t easy. There were threats, taunts, and long lunches alone. 

But she never missed a day of school.

Ruby Bridges has been the subject of a famous Norman Rockwell painting and a guest in the Oval Office.

She has inspired books, songs, and movies.

But more importantly, she’s inspired generations of children to fearlessly pursue their dreams … and generations of adults to reject hatred and bigotry. 

She is an award-winning author, an activist, and the recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal. 

She is an icon of the Civil Rights movement, and the living embodiment of grace in the face of adversity. 

She has dedicated her life to the service and education of others. 

Class of 2021, it is my honor to introduce your commencement speaker, Ruby Bridges.

Ruby, thank you for being with us today and for inspiring our graduates with your words.

As I mentioned in my introduction, you have received many awards in your life including an honorary doctorate from Tulane University.

But there is one award you have yet to receive: the Tulane President’s Medal.

This medal is reserved for people who inspire us with their contributions to the betterment of society.

In one of your books, you wrote, “Experience comes to us for a purpose, and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that purpose is a good one.”

Ruby, thank you for inspiring all of us to experience our lives with purpose and goodness.

It is my honor and pleasure to present you with the Tulane President’s Medal.



Now comes the moment we have all been waiting for.

Graduates, take a second, put your phone on selfie mode – give yourself a good look and make sure those mortar boards and hoods are straight.

Families, friends, roommates, pets – whoever is there with you right now – it’s time to get your cameras ready.

Okay, here we go:

Class of 2021, please stand.

I hereby confer your degrees with all appropriate honors, rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

You may now switch your tassel to the left side of your cap.

You are officially graduates of Tulane University!

Let’s end this ceremony the best way we know how:

On three, Roll Wave…

1 ... 2 ... 3 ... Roll Wave!!!!

Congratulations, Tulane Class of 2021!!!