Dr. Anthony Fauci led off Ohio State University’s 412th commencement with a confession: He couldn’t remember a single thing that his commencement speaker, whoever it was, said to him.
“The reality is, you will almost certainly not remember what I say,” he said. But he hoped his words, rather than create a memory for students 20 years later, would spur them on as soon as they walked out of Ohio Stadium.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, gave the 2016 Spring Commencement address on Sunday. The ceremony conferred more than 11,000 degrees.
Fauci has served as director of the NIAID since 1984. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 and advised five presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, according to the NIAID website.
A 2003 study from the Institute for Scientific Information indicated he was the 13th most-cited scientist between 1983 to 2002, according to the NIAID website.
When introducing him, University President Michael Drake called Fauci “a true American hero.”
Fauci emphasized learning, leadership and public service during his speech, which was laid thick with his New England accent and dry sense of humor.
“Expect the unexpected,” he said.
Fauci said that in 1968, the U.S. surgeon general, as well as many others in the medical community, were saying that the war on infectious diseases was all but won.
That was the same year that Fauci was on his way to start a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health focused on infectious diseases.
“I sort of felt like I was going to Miami to become a ski instructor,” he said.
However, Fauci’s career in infectious diseases would lead him to work on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and, more recently, on the Ebola and Zika viruses.
Turning to leadership and public service, Fauci posed a challenge to all students graduating.
“Regardless of our career paths, we can not look the other way from pressing societal issues,” he said, citing poverty, disease and gender equality both at home and abroad.
“Some of you will dedicate your lives to this. Most of you will not, and neither should you be expected to,” he said. “One can incorporate public service into your lives, regardless of your career choice.”
Emphasizing again the immediacy of his words rather than the legacy or memory of them, Fauci asked graduates to challenge conventional wisdom. He took a quote from George Bernard Shaw that he said he never liked as a young man, and he likes it even less now and conflicted with it.
“The quote is: ‘Ah, the pity that youth is wasted on the young,’” he said. “Well my friends, prove Mr. Shaw wrong. Take advantage of that youth, and start doing your thing right now, for yourselves and for society.”
The speech proved popular with students.
“It was to-the-point and traditional, but it stood out to me,” said Austin Shirk, who received a certificate of completion from the TOPS program. “I like that it was about doing our part in the community.”
President Drake had a few words for the graduates as well.
“My message to the graduating class today is simply, dream big,” said Drake, who added that even the biggest dreams “are often too small.”
He emphasized the potential that the graduates and the university hold.
“There are two powerful truths that are evident in this gathering: One, is the incredible power of our university and our university community to do good in the world and to make a difference,” Drake said. “The other truth is that we know that we will do just that.”
Javaune Adams-Gaston, vice president for the Office of Student Life, delivered the welcoming remarks. Better known as Dr. J, she called the students’ success in graduating a family affair, wishing all mothers and “mothers in spirit” in attendance a happy Mother’s Day.
Students appreciated the mix of the two special days.
“I’m going to hand (my mom) my diploma as a gift,” joked Laura Cardi, a graduate in communication.
Cardi added that the experience of graduating didn’t “feel real.”
“I’m really excited … but I can’t believe I’m not coming back here in August,” she said.