Amid Pandemic, Dean Begg Tells Class of 2020: "You Are Our Hope"

Editor's note:

The following is the text of the opening remarks delivered by Dean Melissa Begg at a virtual commencement held by Columbia University’s School of Social Work for its 2020 graduates, on Wednesday, May 20.

May 21, 2020

Congratulations to the Columbia School of Social Work Class of 2020—you’ve made it! You have achieved a remarkable milestone during a most remarkable year. I know you didn’t do it alone. Let’s take a moment to give sincere thanks to your family, friends, and loved ones—those who encouraged you, sustained you, and sometimes even sacrificed for you to reach this point. It’s their achievement, too—and I know they share in your joy today.

It’s been a remarkable year for me, too—and not just because this was my first year as dean of this outstanding school. Over the past three months, COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on all of us for so many reasons. I would like us all to take a moment to pause and honor your fellow student and friend, Susan Chuang, who lost her life to COVID in early April. As our tribute page has shown, Susan also left an indelible mark on all she met and touched—let us keep her spirit and her passion and her kindness alive in our hearts.

Over the past few months, the great pandemic that many had predicted and feared finally came to be. COVID has ravaged our communities, in New York City and elsewhere—especially among our siblings in the African-American, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. It has torn away any remaining masks and band-aids over the gaps in the social safety net. It has brought into startlingly clear focus the problems caused by lack of access to healthcare and uneven access to economic opportunity. It has rendered painfully apparent the structural inequalities in our society, perhaps more than anything else has done in recent decades. It also makes abundantly clear the need for social work, attention to social welfare, and renewed dedication to social justice—and I’m heartened today because you stand ready to take action against injustice, to combat racism and discrimination, to provide support and partnership to those in need, and to promote policy change that will reduce needless suffering. You are our hope because of your commitment, ingenuity, and empathy.

I think that this past semester has proven how vital empathy is to the social work profession. You prove its importance every day. In the face of great pain, most people turn and run in the other direction; you, as social workers, will run towards it.

We have borne witness to great distress and sadness, yet you, our graduates, have demonstrated tremendous resilience in the face of significant challenges. Your efforts, along with those of our talented faculty and staff, have brought us to this point. What enables this resilience? What will you take away from these defining events? Which memories will be most important to you in the coming years?

These thoughts, about memory and empathy, caused me to take a quick look at the research that evaluates the relationship between these two traits. But first, let me share a memory that involves a lot of empathy—back from when I was a teenager

At age 16, I became very ill—not life-threatening, but enough to keep me in bed for about a month. What I recall most is staring at the ceiling above my bed—and what impresses me about that memory is that I stared at that ceiling for hours and days and weeks on end—and I was not bored. That’s how sick I was. But here’s my other strong memory from that period—the sight of my father in a garden chair in the corner of the room. The garden chair was truly hideous, with these turquoise-and-white stripes, no doubt picked up on sale at the local grocery store. Every night, my father would pick up that chair and bring it to my room, and read the paper at the end of my bed. He would read as I continued my relentless study of the ceiling. He knew I would not be in the mood to talk or listen, but he wanted to be present with me, to make me a little less lonely. It was loving and calming and reassuring, and as you can see, I never forgot.

What is the connection between empathy and memory? Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that there are two kinds of empathy—cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy refers to the conscious, intellectual effort of imagining how someone else feels in a particular situation. Affective empathy is the actual ability to feel as that person feels. Both types are, I am sure, highly prevalent among social workers. And both types relate to short-term and long-term memory in different ways.

It turns out that emotional stimulation can enhance the formation of long-term memories. For short term memories, the picture is more complicated. Empathic pain can exert a facilitating or an impairing effect on working (or short-term) memory; while the ability to take another’s perspective has been shown to improve it.

Why does this matter? I would argue that it matters a great deal now. Having empathy can improve our tendency to engage in pro-social, helping behaviors. Helping behaviors are empathic responses designed to relieve suffering in other people—exactly what social workers do day in and day out. And given what we are now experiencing with COVID-19, we want and need to promote these behaviors widely for the good of one another.

Let’s take it one step further. Why does this matter to you, right now? Memory helps to fuel imagination, and imagination allows us to conceive of a better future. And conceiving of that future is the first step to achieving it. You have all formed intense memories of your time here at Columbia Social Work, memories that are deeply influenced by COVID and its consequences. You must use these memories to re-imagine the future—a future in which empathy and equity are paramount. Though you may feel discouraged, don’t give in. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” You can bring a kinder, better future to reality.

This brings me back to another memory, again of my father. This one takes place decades later, with a man in his 90’s and a daughter in her 40’s. The ugly turquoise-and-white chair is long gone, thankfully. But the man, my father, has suffered tremendous memory loss due to dementia. He stares at me and says, “It’s funny—I look at you and I don’t know who you are, but I know when I look at your face that I love you.” Further proof of the strong connection between empathy and memory, and proof that the most important memories will persist beyond all expectation.

Your memories of this time will persist. Your abilities and confidence will grow. And you will make a huge difference out there. Because we need you to. We have much to do, and you now have the knowledge and skills and compassion to do it.

I want to leave you with this inspirational directive from President Barack Obama:

Keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice.
Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world.

Graduates, I believe in you, and I am so very grateful for you. Thank you, and again, congratulations!