Environmentalist and explorer Alexandra Cousteau (COL ’98) encouraged graduates to take control of their own legacies, maintain a sense of wonder and preserve the planet in a commencement address to the Georgetown College Class of 2016 in McDonough Arena on Saturday.
The graduation was held in McDonough Arena instead of on Healy Lawn due to rain. The College’s commencement was split into two ceremonies in order to accommodate the graduates and their families, with students with last names beginning with letters A through K attending a ceremony at 9 a.m. and students with last names beginning with letters L through Z graduating in a ceremony at 11:30 a.m.
Cousteau, the granddaughter of famed French oceanographer, filmmaker and conservationist Jacques Cousteau, delivered her address at both ceremonies. Cousteau was selected as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2008, and has been involved in conservation advocacy in the past decade.
University President John J. DeGioia offered remarks at the earlier ceremony but did not take part in the later ceremony, as he was attending the concurrent graduation for the School of Nursing and Health Studies in the Leavey Center Ballroom.
Cousteau, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, said the graduating students stand prepared to lead the future, calling attention to the students’ families.
“You began at their bosoms and on their laps; they carried you when you were too tired to walk. You are the living embodiment of what they hoped for the future. They made a person — you — and sent you out to learn and observe and become ready to inherit the future,” Cousteau said.
Cousteau reflected both on her grandfather’s influence on her childhood and on the way her time as an undergraduate at Georgetown affected her. She urged graduates not to let their families’ histories and expectations define them, but to instead actively seek to shape the legacies with which they are left.
“I grew up seeing my life play out in the context of continuing my grandfather’s legacy, continuing his work, furthering his ideas, settling his unfinished business. But it was here at Georgetown that I started to find my own voice, that I found my own passions, interests and causes, that my own path started to appear,” Cousteau said. “I realize now that legacy is something you inherit, yes, but it need not be something you passively receive and accept.”
Cousteau said exploration must be defined — and approached — differently in a time when technology gives people instant access to the rest of the world, contrasting this to her grandfather’s experience.
“We have a radically new relationship with information and the technology that provides it. We carry in our pockets access to the vast accumulation of human knowledge. … Given this great wealth of access, discovering something never before seen is a good deal more difficult, but discovering new ways to look at what we already know is an exploratory attitude anyone can practice,” Cousteau said.
Cousteau urged the graduates to try to look at the world once again with a childhood wonder, recounting her own experience of being enthralled as a child by tadpoles and their transformation into frogs.
“To gaze with this kind of wonder brings an indescribable comfort, a sense that all there ever was, is, or will be, is actually a part of one grand thing. You — all of you — are part of one grand thing,” Cousteau said. “To remain aware of this, to see through those eyes, is a way to guard yourself against the disillusionment, detachment and apathy that do so much harm to the human spirit. If you can retain the ability to look at the world with that sense of wonder, you’ll come to know it in a deeper and more profound way than you might have thought possible.”
Cousteau pivoted from talking about the importance of maintaining a sense of wonder about the world to discussing the environmental problems the planet faces. Taking steps to protect the environment is urgently needed, according to Cousteau.
“This world badly needs our protection right now. My own sense of wonder for this planet, and all her various little miracles, is matched only by my increasing sense of panic for what we’re losing. … I fear that at a time when technological advances have made the citizens of the world more socially connected than ever before, we have become distracted from the connectedness we share with every micro and macro organism on this planet. For human beings and the planet we share, the situation is dire,” Cousteau said.
Cousteau said the graduates’ generation will help decide the future of the environment.
“A part of your legacy is this uncertain future. Nothing short of a total shift away from our carbon-based economy can address the planetary emergency we all face,” Cousteau said. “Yours is the generation that will impose a radical reconsideration of how we live in this world, how we consume resources, how we restore natural capital, how we protect the future from the excesses of the past. You will be the brave architects of this new world.”
After Cousteau’s speech, the 789 graduates of the Class of 2016 received their diplomas from College Dean Chester Gillis.