Change the world, former surgeon general tells Vanderbilt seniors

“Your presence matters,” MacArthur “genius” and former U.S. surgeon general Regina M. Benjamin told graduating Vanderbilt University seniors on Senior Class Day, the day before Commencement will transform them into alumni.

“You never know who’s watching you,” Benjamin said. “[rquote]Just by being there and making sure you’re doing well and being good at what you do, your presence matters.”[/rquote]

Benjamin, who completed her four-year term as surgeon general in 2013, received the Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal from Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos at the event. The medal is one of the university’s highest honors, given to individuals who define the 21st century and exemplify the best qualities of the human spirit. It was created and endowed by Vanderbilt Law School graduate Ed Nichols and his wife, Janice, in honor of Edward Carmack and Lucile Hamby Nichols.

The medal is presented annually at Senior Class Day and carries a cash award. Benjamin announced that she was donating the cash award to the Bayou Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, which she founded.

View photos from Benjamin’s Senior Class Day address at Memorial Gym.

Benjamin addressed graduates and their friends and family in Memorial Gym. The gathering was one of several over a three-day period that culminates with Commencement, scheduled for 9 a.m. May 9 on Alumni Lawn.

“Today I want to remind you and your families of the service side of your Vanderbilt values,” Benjamin said. “The humanitarian values that have prepared you to follow Cornelius Vanderbilt’s vision, for you to strengthen the ties that should exist between all sections of our common country, between the rich and the poor, the educated and under-educated, the Christian and non-Christian, and so on.

“You are now prepared to go out and change the world. You’re prepared to make a difference.”

Benjamin, who was named a fellow by the MacArthur Foundation in 2008, was the 18th surgeon general of the United States. She provided the public with information on how to improve their health and the health of the nation, oversaw the operational command of 6,500 uniformed public health officers, and served as chair of the National Prevention Council — 17 cabinet-level federal agencies that developed a national prevention strategy.

“While I left the position last summer, I didn’t leave the mission,” Benjamin said.