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Virginia Johnson

Thank you, President Smith. And thank you my dear Sandra for this honor. Thank you. Graduates, I salute you as you pass a major milestone.

Your hard work and perseverance have brought you to a high vantage point in your young lives. I urge you to savor this moment as there is so much more ahead. Reflect on the journey to this achievement and recall the many steps that brought you here.

As you stand in the wings ready to move forward in the next act of your life the skills and habits that you have honed will serve you well in the ongoing discovery and development of your being. Arthur Mitchell, the dynamic and distinguished founder of Dance Theater of Harlem used to exhort us, all of us dancers to just be, to work hard with rigor and passion. And then when it came to performance to just be in our strength. It took me a while to figure out what Arthur Mitchell meant by being.

I came at last, to understand that he was speaking about value, creating value in one's self. You may or may not garner wealth or high position. You may or may not change the world through your efforts, but the equality of your being is yours, yours to shape. Being is integrity. It is imagination. It is compassion, creativity, and awareness. Your being is a well that you will draw from throughout your time on Earth.

It has taken me these 70 odd years to realize that the external pursuit of value was a powerful driver in my life, but that it was art that made it possible for me to embark on the inner personal journey towards value. Art is an act of life. And for me, it is a means of understanding and sharing my place in the world.

And while I have had the privilege to live a life in art my message is to all of you. One does not have to be an artist for art to be an essential part of shaping your being. Art is the human expression of the experience of being alive. These days, there's a tendency to see art as an add-on, but the impulse to art is far richer. Art is a series of conversations, statements, and responses.

One conversation is the one that the artist has with his or her own experiences. Another is the one between the artist and society and the traditions and morays that sustain it.

And now in a global world, art is a conversation between cultures. In African traditions, art is the very fabric that holds a culture together. In 19th century Europe, some argued that art did not have any purpose beyond its existence as individual expression. In 21st Century America, art has come to be seen as a commodity or an entertainment, but more than decoration or distraction, art is a tool of our humanity.

One that is desperately needed as we traverse the roiled waters of the present moment. Now that you are graduates, the habit of setting goals and monitoring progress towards their completion is even more essential. I have no doubt that you are here today because of the goals you set weeks, months, years ago in the past.

Keep the practice going, and while you are at it, remember to include an experience of art from time to time. When we pursue a path, we make choices. It is a necessity. There are doors we do not open because we know where we want to go.

At this precious moment in your lives, I encourage you to open an unexpected door from time to time and invest in a discovery of art. We are creatures of habit, but the world is rich with possibility. Venture forth. Thank you.