YMCA of the USA President and CEO Kevin Washington told Sawyer Business School graduates that “social responsibility is everyone’s responsibility” and challenged them to restore the supply of “kindness, respect, inclusiveness and understanding” in American society as he spoke at Suffolk University’s Business School undergraduate commencement ceremony.

Washington received the honorary degree Doctor of Commercial Science at the ceremony, one of three Suffolk commencements held on Sunday, May 22, at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront.

“As graduates of a top-notch business program, many doors will open to you. And beyond some of those doors will be opportunities that many people in Boston and other communities across this country can’t fathom or even dream about. Opportunities for professional advancement, opportunities for financial security, opportunities, frankly, for a better life,” said Washington. “You’ve worked hard to earn this prestigious degree, and you deserve the rewards that will come as a result. But I hope you will feel a sense of responsibility to help those who don’t have those talents, who haven’t received the support you’ve received, and who haven’t had the opportunities you’ve had.”

While Washington said that most people think of money when it comes to giving, he pointed to volunteering, contributing to a civil society and mentoring as important ways to take responsibility for others.

Life-changing mentor

Washington told a personal story of Bill Morton, the mentor who changed his life by introducing him to the YMCA when he was a 10-year-old growing up in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood.

“Before I met Bill, the chances that I would be standing here today delivering a commencement address to Suffolk University as president of the YMCA were nil, were nonexistent,” said Washington. “I’m here because of him. I am here because he wanted to be a caring adult in my life. Because he made it his responsibility to look after me and so many other African-American boys in South Philadelphia. If you become a mentor, you could become somebody’s Bill Morton. You could become the most influential person in his or her life. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Washington also pointed to the importance of relationships.

“Kindness and respect and inclusiveness and understanding are the linchpins of a just and civil society, and unfortunately, they are in short supply in our country today. I am asking you to replenish the supply.”

Inspirational history

He also cited as a source of inspiration the story of Suffolk University founder Gleason Archer—a man whose education had been supported by a wealthy benefactor. Archer was asked to “pay it forward” in return, “and boy did he ever,” said Washington, noting that Archer opened his home to students who otherwise might not have had access to higher education.

“That spirit of service is what built this university. One hundred and ten years later, Gleason Archer remains an example for all of us. Social responsibility is everyone’s responsibility…. That’s my challenge: Make social responsibility your responsibility. The hard work you have put in here, and the top-flight education Suffolk has given you in return will afford you exciting opportunities. Go out and seize them. And whatever you get for your efforts, please remember to give some of it back.”

Washington has led the national YMCA organization since February 2015 after serving as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston. In his four years in Boston, Washington doubled membership to more than 40,000 households and brought a common purpose to the region’s 13 branches. He has served as a member of the YMCA of the USA board of directors and chaired an advisory committee that guided the development of the national organization's new strategic plan. As president and CEO, Washington sees the national YMCA as being focused on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. He has been involved with the YMCA since he was in grade school, and time spent on his favorite Y activity—basketball—led to a scholarship to Temple University, where he received a bachelor’s degree. Shortly thereafter he began his YMCA career as a youth program director in his native Philadelphia.

Responsibility comes with the degree

University President Margaret McKenna, who began her remarks by saying that the Class of 2016 is her favorite Suffolk class – and her first – said: “I have been so lucky to have shared this year with you.”

Like Washington, she stressed the importance of social responsibility and noted that Suffolk students give nearly 40,000 hours a year in service even as they balance jobs and coursework.

“You are ready, I am convinced of that, and we need you to fill a variety of roles,” said McKenna. She noted that the world faces troubling issues including violence, inequality and a deteriorating environment.

“The degree comes with a responsibility to make a difference,” said McKenna. “One of my models in life is Nelson Mandela, and Nelson Mandela’s name, in his native language, means shaker of trees. It means troublemaker. I welcome you to the world of troublemakers. We need you to make trouble in the world to make this a better world. I hope that you will do that.”

The Sawyer Business School undergraduate Class of 2016 is made up of 643 new alumni.

The University conveyed a total of 2,337 undergraduate and advanced degrees during weekend ceremonies.