The following address was delivered virtually on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.
Read the Ohio State News article to learn more about Dr. Johnson's virtual commencement address.
Hello, and welcome to our newest Buckeyes!
My name is Kristina Johnson, the newly appointed 16th president of The Ohio State University — and proud to say that we are freshmen together! Or, for our transfer students, you can also consider me a new transfer. I met many of you yesterday during my walk around campus, and I was so energized by the hope and excitement about the days ahead.
All of us — students, faculty, staff, administrators and yours truly — began this year by taking The Safe and Healthy Return-to-Campus online training and then signing the Together As Buckeyes Pledge — promising to follow university guidelines and to do everything possible to protect ourselves and those around us from COVID-19.
We are asking you to physically distance, to wear a face mask and to take every other science-based measure to stop the spread of the virus so that we can give you that very special Ohio State experience — and keep Oval beach open, allow those walks around Mirror Lake and, as soon as it is safe, participate in all the events that bring us together.
But, no question, there are sacrifices attached to this moment — ways in which your first year in college, or your first year here, will be very different from your expectation and made more difficult by extraordinary circumstances.
I know how that feels. Like John Hideo Houston, of which Houston Hall is named, I, too, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma while in college. And for the better part of that year — through surgeries and months of radiation therapy — I wasn’t able to make much academic progress.
But the following summer, I was able to return full time to my studies and research, and I am so glad that I did not give up. In fact, I learned something really important: Accomplishments mean so much more when you have to work extra hard for them and overcome adversity to reach your goals, like graduating from college.
Fast forward to May 2024 — you will remember this year and take extra satisfaction and joy from the sacrifices you made to earn your Buckeye diploma.
While some of you may find yourselves in individual circumstances that will require real resolve as you pursue your education, all of you are going to be tested by this utterly unique moment in the history of our country — as we battle overlapping challenges that include a global pandemic; the dire need to end racism; intolerable inequities and discrimination; the slow-motion disaster of chaotic climate change; and the extreme economic distress of the immediate moment.
This moment without precedent will define you as a generation — and offer you the opportunity for greatness.
Before he died last month, Congressman John Lewis saw such hope in the Black Lives Matter Movement, and in young people around the country calling for an end to racism and brutality, that he wrote a letter to be published on the day of his funeral.
In his letter, he passed the torch to all of us: “Though I may not be here with you,” he wrote, “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart, and stand up for what you truly believe.” He added, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last, and that peace finally triumphed.”
Starting today, we are going to ask all of you to answer the highest calling of your hearts, and to take care, not just of yourselves, but of your entire community — truly to be Together As Buckeyes, as we weather this extraordinary time.
If you do that, you will always be the class who started their Ohio State careers in the midst of a pandemic, but who, because of their caring and thoughtful behavior, beat back COVID-19. Yes, Big Ten conference sports were postponed, and our student-athletes could not play this fall — yes, student-performers could not gather audiences — yes, in-person classes could not be taken for granted — but we, by focusing on our responsibility to others, made that time as short as possible and brought back the full joy of college life.
You will be the class who, because of your love and respect for others, became a force for anti-racism and equality of opportunity, and who helped to make the highest ideals of our American democracy a reality.
You may even be the class that turns the tide on climate change and so many other issues that trouble this world.
Finally, you will be the class that is held up as an example for every new Buckeye to follow — because, in the midst of extreme uncertainty, you found a way to fully embody what is best about Ohio State.
Our alma mater “Carmen Ohio,” which expresses our highest aspirations so beautifully, was written, by the way, by a freshman. Legend has it, Fred Cornell was on the ride home after a particularly discouraging football loss in 1902 or ‘03 when he began thinking deeply about what Ohio State means. “The seasons pass,” he wrote, “the years will roll. Time and change will surely show, how firm thy friendship, Ohio!”
That was a very wise freshman: a commitment to others that holds firm through both disappointment and triumph is what we are about — as a land-grant university dedicated from its founding to the advancement of our nation; as an institution determined to lead in education, scholarship, research, clinical care; and in performance, including athletics; and as a community that consistently embraces people of every imaginable talent and background. As Buckeyes, we come together here with goodwill, excitement and joy to make the world better.
So, stand firm in your own friendship, protect your community and stop the spread of the virus.
Extend that friendship to every member of Buckeye Nation — stand up for what’s right — and you will feel a sense of pride in the things you were able to accomplish — even in the most challenging time — that will lift you up throughout your lives.
I am already proud of you. Have a wonderful semester, and go Buckeyes!