It is a profound pleasure to be here with you today celebrating the glorious occasion of your graduation. And we’re celebrating three other things as well. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. It’s also the first time that a Social Work undergraduate has been chosen to deliver the address at the university-wide commencement, as Jessica Mason did earlier this rainy morning at Yankee Stadium. And it’s your first commencement over which your dean, Lynn Videka, has presided. Having been on the search committee that recommended Dean Videka to President Sexton, I can vouch for both the incredibly strong pool of candidates who applied, and Lynn’s stellar accomplishments in administration and research that made her our unanimous first choice. I am honored to be with her on the stage today, as well as with our trustee and Silver’s benefactor, Connie Silver, whose extraordinary gift along with the dedication of a gifted faculty is helping to make NYU one of the leading lights in Social Work and Poverty Studies in the world.
When I was asked a few days ago to step in on behalf of our president and provost and Diane Yu, I had to ask myself, what can a scholar of Italian literature offer graduates in social work? - other than to say, “In bocca al lupo,” an idiomatic Italian expression for good luck, and one that literally means, “In the mouth of the wolf? – possibly an abbreviated version of what was once something like, “take care of yourself as you go off into the mouth of the wolf!”
Two things, however, came to mind. One Italian woman I’ve studied over the years, Saint Catherine of Siena, was, I realize, a 14th-century social worker. Her relentless concerns for her prossimo or neighbor, her many hours counseling and administering to the physical and emotional needs of the thousands of pilgrims who poured into Siena en route to Rome to reside at what was until 1900 the largest hospital in Europe, helped to create a model for many others, especially women, who dedicated themselves not to a life of cloistered prayer but to social action. What motivated Catherine, of course, was religious faith. Yet in the medieval Italian comune – and still today in northern and central Italy - we see elaborate systems of social support sustained largely by neighborhood organizations and commitment to the community, building on strong family structures to create networks in which very few people fall through the cracks. The punchline, I think, is twofold: here’s another reason, in addition to the wine and food, for all of you to go to Italy. And: to be a social worker, you don’t have to be a saint – but it helps.
The other thing I’d like to offer you from an Italianist’s perspective is this. Yesterday morning I gave my last exam, to a group of 80 students, mostly in the College of Arts and Science, some of whom ran from the exam to change into their graduation robes. One of them told me that he’s now confronted with the question, “How can I make the world a better place?,” having spent four years in that wonderful limbo of a liberal arts degree, taking courses in Italian, history, philosophy, music, and sociology, and now going off to an uncertain future. You, it seems to me, have already not only asked that question, but answered it. Whether you’re an undergraduate, an MSW, or a PhD, you’ve spent your time at NYU studying and training for a career that will take you out into communities to work with your prossimo – your neighbor, whether right here in NYC or on the other side of the world – and especially with neighbors who are the underprivileged, exploited, and most vulnerable of society. Given the events that have dominated this new millennium so far, we need your passion, your dreams, and your expertise more than ever. As you go off into the mouth of the wolf, know that we are here – your dedicated teachers, your admiring parents and families, your fans in university administration – to support you and cheer you on.
And one last bit of advice: when someone wishes you good luck - “In bocca al lupo:” the correct response isn’t “grazie,” or thanks, but – crepi il lupo” - to hell with the wolf!
Congratulations to the class of 2010 and your families.