The sun shone brightly over Ryan Field on Friday, June 21, as Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch addressed the graduates, students, families, faculty and staff at Northwestern University’s 161stAnnual Commencement.
Bunch, who is the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., became the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Monday, June 17. He is the first African American to hold that office. Prior to that, Bunch was the president of the Chicago Historical Society.
Bunch received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. “You play a key role in illuminating our past,” said Jonathan Holloway, provost of the University.
Nigerian born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Adichie is known for her novels, “Purple Hibiscus” and “Half of a Yellow Sun.” “Your brilliant writing has changed the way we think about the world,” Holloway said.
Graduate Faalon Efini Andrews introduced Bunch and described him as “the writer of our stories, the amplifier of our voices.” “With the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this guy from New Jersey gave a voice to those who were anonymous,” Andrews said. “Because the work of talking about how race matters, about how race divides, about how race shapes the world is far from being done.”
Bunch said a college like Northwestern University was transformative for his family, who were sharecroppers in North Carolina. “Thanks to a college like Northwestern, they were able to attend college,” he said. “They changed their lives and the trajectory of our family.”
In his speech, Bunch told the graduates to think beyond themselves and to fight the good fight.
“Remember, there is a greater good that transcends individual gain or personal achievement,” he said. Bunch advised them to find ways to make America better.
“Always point yourselves in the direction where you can do good; because as your life is going to unfold, it’s going to zip by, you’re going to have to learn to embrace ambiguity and change,” he said.
Bunch said he never could have imagined he would open a museum on the Mall. “A museum that allows us to use African American culture as a lens to understand what it means to be American,” he said.
Bunch told those assembled that help comes from unlikely places and the goodwill of good people can change a person’s life. He also told them not to be afraid to reach out in times of need. “With this diploma comes the responsibility to use your skills, to use your creativity, to use your education to live a good life, and that good life means being in service to someone else,” he said.