Acknowledging these past years were far from what students planned when they started in college as freshmen or in their first year of graduate school or doctoral programs, the award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson gave a rousing call to arms to the thousands gathered at Ryan Field Monday, June 13, for Northwestern University’s commencement.

“The circumstances in which we find ourselves require us to step out of our comfort zone and to stand up for what we believe in,” Wilkerson said.

Graduates throw their caps into the air after officially joining the ranks of Northwestern alumni. Credit: Adina Keeling

“Our era has enlisted all of us who believe in justice and in the beauty of this planet to rise to this moment, forced us to become unwitting advocates of science, history, of knowledge itself, and the meaning of democracy.”

In the last two years, the graduating Northwestern students have experienced a complete upending of their day-to-day lives thanks to a global pandemic, unprecedented political upheaval and unfathomable gun violence, Wilkerson said.

“I cheer you on as I grieve what you’ve lost and what might have been, but you’ve learned far more than what can be contained on any syllabus,” she said. “You learned that you are stronger than you imagined and more resilient than you might have ever known.”

Undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students who completed their degrees at Northwestern this spring gathered with friends, family and faculty for the college’s 164th commencement on Monday. The ceremony followed a weekend of convocations and celebrations for each of Northwestern’s individual schools and student groups, and the entire class came together on a sunny June morning in Evanston for commencement.

University President Morton Schapiro, who is retiring this summer, presided over his final commencement exercises Monday, and Wilkerson gave the keynote speech to graduates, professors and families in attendance.

Wilkerson spoke about what students can expect as they go off into the world, from inequities to breaking new ground. In 1994, when she was the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, Wilkerson became the first Black woman in American history to receive the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for her coverage of the 1993 midwestern floods.

She later went on to write the bestselling books The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Graduating student Pranav Baskar introduced Wilkerson by telling the story of his own grandmother’s struggle with the caste system in India. Many years ago, she wanted to be an economist for India’s administrative service, Baskar said. But her father forced her into an arranged marriage as a teenager, and she became a housewife by the age of 21.

But Baskar also added that his grandmother’s sacrifices brought him to Northwestern and enabled his dreams to become a reality several decades after his grandmother’s dreams died.

“To me, my grandmother’s history is elemental to how I got here,” he said. “And, in fact, I’d wager to say that many of us here, immigrants, students of color, first generation and low-income students, have similar narratives about the dreams that had to die and the grand visions that had to be squashed so we could stand here today.”

In her speech, Wilkerson talked about how America’s inequities represent a modern-day caste system, where people of color, low-income people, LGBTQ+ individuals and more are disenfranchised and do not have access to the same kinds of opportunities that wealthy white Americans do.

Wilkerson also shared the story of when Martin Luther King, Jr. first compared the caste system in India to the social order of the 1950s in the United States during a trip he took to India in 1959. While there, he visited a high school for students in the poorest caste, known as the “untouchables,” and the principal introduced him as “a fellow untouchable from the United States.”

Only then, according to Wilkerson, did King see the parallels between the U.S. and the ancient caste system so deeply entrenched in Indian society.

More than 60 years later, Wilkerson said, some of the same forces still keep Americans in poverty and desperation, unable to afford health care and stuck in a world that does not see them as deserving of opportunity.

Students gave Wilkerson multiple standing ovations during and at the end of the speech, and Schapiro officially conferred the status of Northwestern alumni on the graduates following her keynote address.

“May you bloom in both darkness and in light, and may God bless you, Class of 2022, as you go forth into a world that awaits you,” she concluded. “Congratulations to you all!”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...