This address was delivered virtually.
Hello, Harvard class of 2021.
I wish that we could be doing this in person to celebrate, but as we know it's just not possible right now.
If we were together, I would tell a few jokes about Socratic teaching, and by now, knowing that you would never have to sit through another Socratic class again, you might even laugh.
We would dress up. We would also take selfies. And I would have a chance to tell each one of you how happy I am for you.
Hey, look, I dressed up anyway. And if anyone wants to take a selfie right now, I am totally good with that. Someday, maybe at your five-year or 10-year reunion, we can redeem the virtual selfie for a real selfie, and we can smile and shake our heads over just how extraordinary this time was.
The way I see it, anyone who is a graduation speaker has two jobs—keep it short, which I can do. The other job is to try to give some advice that might be helpful along the way, which I will try to do.
Here is a quick version of my advice—have courage.
And here is the slightly longer version.
I spent most of my grown-up life in the classroom, as Sarah said, first as a special education teacher and then as a law professor.
Now, I loved it. I truly loved it. Helping students discover what they can do and watching as they spread their wings and learn to fly is thrilling. And that's true whether you're teaching four-year-olds or teaching 24-year-olds.
I never wanted to leave teaching. In fact, I would still be there with you. Walking into contracts class on the first day, putting my books down, looking up and saying, "What is [inaudible]? Mr. Kennedy?"
But I'm not doing that. And this is what I wanted to talk to you about today. I want to talk about my hope that you will be carried to an unexpected place. A place where you will find work that you love, work that gives you purpose, and just possibly work that makes the world a better place.
So just for a minute, let's talk about that bigger world.
For the last four years, we have all witnessed something we never imagined we would see—an ugliness threat that threatened and still threatens to consume us all.
Now, in reality, the seeds of that ugliness were planted generations ago. Carefully watered and nourished, and growing ever since.
Massively widening income and wealth inequality. Growing corporate power, hollowing out the middle class, shredding a social safety net that was already too thin. Restricting, even reversing, the gains of the civil rights era. Refusing even to acknowledge the existence of structural racism. Entrenching a badly broken criminal justice system. Accelerating the climate crisis. And with the demand for loyalty to the Big Lie undermining democracy itself.
Yeah. It's a grim list to talk about on graduation day. But this list is why the world needs you.
So what should you do?
For some, perhaps many of you, what you do is already set. Many of you will join large law firms, or businesses, and in all likelihood you will prosper.
But graduations are about dreaming big. So let me suggest something different, something that requires courage.
Step off the path.
So let me tell you a secret. I take pleasure in the successes of all of my students. Well, at least most of them. There are a few exceptions.
But the students of whom I have been the proudest are those who have had the courage to take risks and try something that is truly consequential.
The reason is simple.
What you do matters. A law degree, particularly this law degree, is a powerful tool. How you use it is up to you. You may choose to use it quite profitably, helping clients who are already rich and powerful, get richer and more powerful. It is your life and your choices.
But my own advice is to respectfully ask you to consider other paths where the need is great. I ask you to consider other paths precisely because you have so much to offer.
Armed with nothing more than a law degree, and not a Harvard Law degree, I became a teacher, a researcher, an advocate, an expert witness, and author of amicus briefs and books, a statute drafter, and assistant to the president of the United States charged with setting up a consumer agency, a senator, and a candidate for president.
Now, I'm not telling you that to show off. Not at all. I just want you to think about all that is possible. My list is small compared with all that is open to you.
And here is where courage comes in.
I know that you worked hard and planned hard to make it to law school. I know that many of you didn't grow up with the expectations of coming to a place like Harvard.
As the first in my family to graduate from college, I know that taking on something like this was hard. I know that many of you came to law school through nontraditional paths. And as someone who was married, had a baby and a mortgage before I started law school, I know what nontraditional feels like too.
I also know that like me, all of you, every single one of you, counted the months, the weeks, the days until you would arrive at this graduation. And I know that now most of you already have jobs lined up. And for many of you, the future looks predictable and secure and that it feels like a reward for all of the effort that you've put in.
Even so, I urge you to consider leaving that behind. I urge you to consider a life that is open to public service, open to taking on the troubles that are bearing down on us, open to tackling the crises that are still in the making and we don't even see yet.
It takes courage, real courage, to step off the path that you have laid out for yourself.
There are so many paths out of law school that are steady, dependable and not scary. Law firms will pave a road from here to a fancy office, in a fancy building, in a fancy city. Businesses will line up for your talents. Judges will offer clerkships that will let you delay real life for another year or two.
But think about doing something scary. Think about striking off on your own. Think about not following the expected path.
Think about government services, or nonprofits, or NGOs.
Think about taking a chance, trying something different, trying something big.
Have courage, take a risk, because our nation and our world needs you.
And have courage for another reason—because—and here's the amazing part—for all that you give, you will receive far more.
For this point, I'll tell you one last secret. I stepped off the path nearly 10 years ago, as Sarah said. I gave up the classroom and the students and climbed into a political pit for which I was unprepared.
But no matter how many times I wondered how I had gotten myself into this, every single day, no matter what, I've awakened in the morning thinking about what I will get to do today. Not have to do—get to do.
And that's been true on the days that I've won and it's been true on the days that I've lost. Because every day I've known that the work I do matters. Creating more opportunity for other people matters, fighting to right wrongs and demand accountability on behalf of other people matters, combating climate change matters, tearing down systemic racism matters, battling to save our democracy matters.
And no, I haven't solved every problem I've encountered. And I've made mistakes. But I have stayed after it every day, persistently. And I've awakened every single day ready to go back into the fight that I believe in. And it's been worth it every single day.
So when the day comes five or 10, or 20 years from now, when you're getting together with your classmates, or when that moment comes late at night that steals upon you and you wonder about how you've spent your professional life, I guarantee you will smile a deep-down smile over the parts of your life that you have spent in service to others.
So that's my advice—have courage. Courage because life is fragile, courage because our nation and our world needs you, courage because you will live a richer life.
Make your families proud, your communities proud, your teachers proud, but most importantly, make yourself proud and choose courage. I know you can, and I wish you well.
Harvard Law School. (2021, May 27). Class Day 2021 Speaker: Senator Elizabeth Warren [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxMO9LqFpIA