Caroline Kennedy urges Vanderbilt graduates to be ‘active citizens,’ embrace democratic values in Graduates Day address

Caroline Kennedy drew on inspirational remarks that her father, President John F. Kennedy, delivered at Vanderbilt University in 1963—urging “educated men and women” to reject racial bias in the midst of the civil rights movement—when she spoke virtually to the Vanderbilt 2020 graduates and their families on April 30.

Kennedy, a bestselling author, attorney and former U.S. ambassador to Japan, was the 2020 recipient of the prestigious Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal. Kennedy’s Graduates Day address had been postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She began by congratulating the 2020 graduates for coming through a very difficult year. “You may feel that you’ve missed out on some of the college experience that you hoped for, but I know that when you look back on this time, you will realize that you learned much more than you thought,” Kennedy said. “You developed the resilience that you would not have acquired in an easier time, and that you’ve grown and changed will serve you well as you navigate your life’s voyage.”

She noted that Vanderbilt students were fortunate to be at an institution that put their health and well-being at the heart of its COVID-19 response. “Vanderbilt has been a model for the nation, and you’ve been here when this institution played a leading role in solving the greatest global health challenge of our time,” she said. “I hope you go into the world with a sense of pride in that historic accomplishment.”

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente, who introduced Kennedy, noted that Graduates Day is an annual tradition being conducted in a unique way this year. She thanked Vanderbilt Law School graduate Ed Nichols and his wife, Janice, for endowing the Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal, which is awarded by Vanderbilt to those persons who define the 21st century and exemplify the best qualities of the human spirit. The award is usually bestowed the day before Commencement.

“Now, as promised, we’ve come together again to celebrate not only your graduation, but your remarkable courage, character and commitment—both to our Vanderbilt community and to the world of humanity at large,” Wente said.

Earlier, Chancellor Daniel Diermeier welcomed the Class of 2020 to the first virtual Graduates Day, kicking off the weekend’s 2020 Commencement ceremonies, which are taking place in person and remotely. “The fact that so many graduates are joining us a year after their degrees were conferred is a profound testament to your commitment,” Diermeier said. “You faced uncertainties that no Vanderbilt students had ever faced before, and you did so with fortitude, resilience and compassion.”

Brief reflections on the past year followed with Rachel Mills, BA’20, former president of the Interfaith Council; and Lakshmi Charita Veerapaneni, BA’20, David Blum, BA’20, Zain Khera, BA’20, and Arianna Nimocks, BA’20, representing Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, respectively. Also welcoming the Class of 2020 were Tim Warnock, BA’84, Vanderbilt Alumni Association president; Christina Rentschler, BA’20, Senior Class Fund overall chair; Joseph Blake, JD’20, former president of the Vanderbilt Bar Association; and Frances Burton, BA’20, former Vanderbilt Student Government president.

Through her remarks, Kennedy traveled back in time to her father’s speech at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field in 1963. It took place during a period of violent resistance to desegregation and a few weeks before he proposed landmark civil rights legislation.

“In words that are applicable today, he (President Kennedy) said at Vanderbilt, ‘The nation, indeed the whole world, has watched recent events in the United States with alarm and dismay. In these moments of tragic disorder, a special burden rests on the educated men and women of this country to reject the temptations of prejudice and violence and reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which our free society depends.’”

Kennedy emphasized that the moment when individuals are called to active citizenship differs from person to person. “At Vanderbilt, you are fortunate to have had the path laid out before you,” she said. “The Nichols Humanitarian Fund is just one example of the many ways the values of the community and the opportunities offered here have allowed you to learn and experiment so you can be effective in this work. The goal is to find a way of serving that is rewarding to you personally and that helps to solve a larger social problem.”

Kennedy cited her aunt and father’s sister, Eunice Shriver, who was inspired by the struggles of their intellectually disabled sister, Rosemary Kennedy, to increase research and services for those with intellectual disabilities and their families. This included establishment of what is now the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Kennedy said her own path to active citizenship took off with the devastating 9/11 attacks on New York City, where she resides. “I decided to volunteer in the New York City public school system because I believe that education is the most long-term issue facing our country,” she said.

Kennedy gained a new perspective on the United States when she served as U.S. ambassador to Japan under President Barack Obama. “Problems that affect us locally, like immigration and climate change, need global solutions,” she said. “We need to be able to work across cultures to tackle those challenges.”

View Caroline Kennedy’s Graduates Day address.

She concluded her address with the story of how her father, who served in World War II, developed an extraordinary friendship through correspondence with the captain of a Japanese destroyer that rammed and sunk his PT-109 boat, nearly drowning Kennedy and his crew.

“One of the most moving moments I experienced as ambassador was meeting the Japanese captain’s widow, who showed me a photo from President Kennedy who had signed it to her husband, to Capt. Kohei Hanami, ‘late enemy, present friend.’ My father’s correspondence with Capt. Hanami was just one of countless individual acts of reconciliation that built the U.S.-Japan alliance into the strongest in the world. It illustrates what happens when you reach out to others in search of our common humanity.”