The 133rd Emerson College Commencement took on both celebratory and reflective tones on Mother’s Day, May 12, with keynote speakers Max Mutchnick ’87 and Debbie Allen.
It began with the undergraduate speaker, Mutchnick, co-creator of Will & Grace and an Emerson Trustee, praising students for helping lead the Boston community through the recent marathon tragedy.
“What vision,” Mutchnick remarked, mentioning how Emerson students Nick Reynolds ’14 and Chris Dobens ’16 created the “Boston Strong” T-shirts that have raised about $800,000 for The One Fund to benefit Boston Marathon bombing victims.
“Emerson students used skill sets most likely learned in college to start healing this city,” said Mutchnick. “They were able to create Boston Strong because they’re Emerson Strong.”
Mutchnick received an honorary degree during the graduation ceremony, held for the first time at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, along with Allen, a well-known television actress, choreographer, director and producer; Rita Dove, former United States Poet Laureate; and Eugene M. Lang, a major educational philanthropist.
“Next month, I’m attending the 75th reunion of my Swarthmore College graduating class,” Lang said. “Looking back to 1938, I can say with assurance my best decisions since then were actions I’ve taken against the advice of people older and wiser than me.”
Allen posed just one question to graduates that she said is routinely asked of political and cultural leaders throughout history, including President Obama and James Brown: “What you gonna do now?”
“Emersonians are known to be talented, creative and driven,” Allen said. “Today’s [ceremony] says you’ve mastered the skills. [However], you have to know who you are so you can find joy in what you do.”
Allen, best known for playing Lydia Grant on Fame, and whose long list of credits include producing the film Amistad and directing and acting in Grey’s Anatomy, spoke about wanting to be a dancer since age 4. After she was turned away from a ballet school in Houston, Texas, because she was black, her mother moved the family — including Allen’s sister, actor Phylicia Rashad — to Mexico, for better opportunities.
“You have to know who you are. Commit, dream, do. It can happen,” Allen said.
Mutchnick said he was especially proud of receive his Doctor of Humane Letters, along with Allen, Lang and Dove, because now his mother can tell her beauty parlor friends, “My son is a nice Jewish doctor.”
The married father of two, who is widely viewed as a cultural leader of gay rights, rattled off a list of advice for graduates but started with honesty.
“One of the best parts of coming out for me,” Mutchnick said, “was that by telling the truth I no longer had to remember anything. There’s a lot of detail work in lying. Once I stopped, I was free. Life gets so much easier when you’re telling the truth.”
Emerson President Lee Pelton urged graduates to continue carrying a strong sense of morality.
“Deep down inside, moral courage is greater than fame or fortune and will outlast both,” he said. “All of us here wish you happiness, but wish you much more than that… Happiness that endures and lasts even when pleasure is absent.”
The Senior Class Commencement Address was given by Patrick McDonald ’13, an Acting major; and the Graduate Student Address was provided by Amy Hansen, MA ’13, a Broadcast Journalism major.
Also, Pelton honored Griffin O’Brien ’13, a Writing for Film and Television major, who died last year in an accident. With O’Brien’s parents on stage, Pelton called the young man, “caring and a very gifted comedic talent.”
“Just when you thought [his script] couldn’t get any funnier, it did,” he said. “He had an inspiring impact on the Class of 2013.”