Growing up as the son of an oncologist, Matt Wu ’17 was familiar with the long, downward spiral faced by many cancer patients. He viewed death solely as a negative experience.
When he arrived at Union from Bellevue, Wash. and started taking Leadership in Medicine classes, the biology and sociology major began learning about hospice and the comfort it affords the afflicted.
In his sophomore year, Wu began volunteering weekly at Schenectady Community Hospice. There, he developed close relationships with more than two dozen patients and their families. But it was a couple, including an alumnus, who had a profound impact on Wu.
Selected to be the student speaker at Union’s 223rd Commencement Sunday, Wu shared the inspiring story of the couple and its message for the 475 members of the Class of 2017:
Love lots. Love always. Love your community.
Referring to them as Rick and Ella for privacy reasons, Wu spoke of how the couple used to stroll through Jackson’s Garden when they were younger. How Rick’s time at Union was cut short when he joined the Navy to fight in the Korean War, but not before he proposed “so that no other bastards could while I was gone.” How he returned two years later for his degree and his bride.
They were together for 70 years, four children and eight businesses. When she went to hospice with Alzheimer’s, Rick remained at her side. He would repeat often to Wu what Ella believed: Love lots. Love always. Love your community.
Ella died during Wu’s junior year. But her lesson applies to the graduating class, Wu said.
“Union is about community,” Wu told his classmates. “It is the professors who gave me advice in the classroom and in life; my family who flew all the way out here from Seattle to support me; my friends who would drive down to New York City with me to get a slice of pizza; and of course, Rick and Ella, who taught me what’s really important. Look around, and cherish those relationships that have shaped you into the person you are today. The most important thing in life, more than money or success, is those kinds of people that will be with you at your bedside.”
The featured speaker was John Sexton, the president-emeritus of New York University. Sexton served as president from 2002 through 2015. He is NYU’s Benjamin Butler Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus of the Law School.
During his 15-minute address, Sexton knitted together a series of stories centered on his mentor, Charlie Winans, a teacher at his high school, Brooklyn Prep. Each story was sprinkled with Winans' wisdom, which can serve as a road map for students as they move on beyond Union.
“Play another octave of the piano,” Sexton said. “If there are notes you haven’t touched, reach out and touch them. If there’s a food you haven’t tasted, or a place you can get to you haven’t been, if there’s a book you haven’t read, if there’s music you haven’t heard. Play another octave of the piano.”
He urged the class to build on their time as a family at Union to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.
“You leave here as communitarians, or what I call possibilitarians,” he said. “Use Union as the North Star as you go through life, use the memories, use the lessons, use the network.”
Sexton received an honorary doctorate of laws degree.
The College also awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree to Tyler Jacks, a cancer research pioneer. Jacks is the director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
At MIT, Jacks has pioneered the use of gene targeting technology to study cancer-associated genes and to construct models of many human cancer types, including cancers of the lung, brain and ovary. He was nominated by Scott Kirkton, associate professor of biology.
In his charge to the graduates, President Stephen C. Ainlay cited a number of academic and community accomplishments achieved by the class, from prestigious awards and fellowships such as Fulbrights, to their capacity to care for others.
“As I told you in our first meeting together in Memorial Chapel, we hand-picked you because we believed you would thrive at Union and because we believed you’d leave Union a better place for having been here,” Ainlay said. “Well, we can now look back on your years at Union and I can tell you that we were right about you.”
He also applauded the class for its ability to model intellectual tenacity and resiliency at a time when the world seems fractured. He said the students proved themselves to be anything but fragile members of what critics call the orchid generation.
“When the politics and sometimes injustices of the world beyond our gates demanded the attention of our shared learning community, you modeled the ideals of this College,” he said. “Reaching out to one another, engaging one another in constructive and civil dialogue, and affirming our shared humanity. Instead of dividing our community, you sought to bring it together.”
In his baccalaureate remarks on Saturday afternoon, Ainlay touched on the vision of the future forecast by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman.
It will be a world marked by artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, autonomous cars and other technological developments. Friedman insists that the people who will thrive and lead in this century will be those who can adapt, have the wherewithal to change to keep pace and are intellectually agile.
Union, Ainlay said, has prepared the Class of 2017 to thrive in that world.
“As physics majors, you’ve also danced; as engineers, you’ve also played music; as visual arts majors, you’ve designed in 3-D labs; as humanists, you’ve given physical form to fictional manor houses; as social scientists, you’ve examined the ways in which new technologies are changing social institutions,” he said. “All this has equipped you for the challenges ahead; all of this has equipped you to ask the right questions; all this has equipped you to make a difference. This is what Union hopes for its students. This is what Union expects of its students.”
Two members of the Class of 2017 received public recognition: Valedictorian Emily Su, a biology and economics interdisciplinary major from Los Angeles, and salutatorian Kathryn Evans, a Classics and Spanish major from Contoocook, N.H.