Photos by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Describing her life as a series of enriching encounters with other cultures, religions, and languages, Isabel Capeloa Gil encouraged this year’s Boston College graduating class to seek out opportunities for what she called “the most challenging dimension of human growth: the experience of difference.”

Speaking at the University’s 143rd Commencement Exercises in Alumni Stadium on May 20, Gil—who last year became the first female president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities—said, “Engaging with those who challenge your right to hold the opinions you hold, your faith and beliefs, your values, is perhaps the most difficult path to follow.”

But Gil told the Class of 2019 that creating the “culture of encounter”—a phrase she credited to Pope Francis—is a means to honor Christian values, uphold “the spirit of our common humanity,” and foster greatly needed leadership.

“To be ethical leaders in this stunningly diverse world takes courage,” said Gil, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. “First, the courage to listen; second, the unwavering defense of the right of others to be heard, even if in disagreement with your innermost beliefs, and to always speak up against abuse.”

Some 4,200 Boston College students received their undergraduate and graduate degrees at separate ceremonies held around campus after the main Commencement event.

At one point in her remarks to the graduates, Gil quipped that “unfortunately, I cannot offer to pay your student loans”—a reference to a pledge made by billionaire technology investor Robert F. Smith at his commencement speech to Morehouse College—“but I strongly encourage those who can to do so,” as the audience laughed and applauded.

In addition to Gil, who also is the rector of Catholic University of Portugal, the University presented honorary degrees to: retired Boston College administrator Dan Bunch ’79, BCSSW ’81; former assistant dean and professor Reverend Robert D. Farrell, S.J., MA ’58, STM ’65; benefactor and former Boston College Trustee Thomas D. O’Malley P ’87, P ’89, P ’00; and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson.

In his welcoming remarks, University President William P. Leahy, S.J., expressed gratitude to the graduates for bringing “new life to Boston College with their talents, energy, commitment, and generosity.” He extended the same appreciation to the graduates’ parents, spouses, family, and friends whose support “had such decisive impact”; to BC faculty and staff for their roles in helping students “develop their intellectual gifts and personal talents”; and to alumni and friends for “generous gifts of time, advice, and financial resources.”

Contemplating the array of global challenges—violence, war, poverty, illiteracy, intolerance, inequality, and partisanship—Fr. Leahy said every age has faced its share of “daunting problems,” and that the 2019 graduates possess the tools and qualities to help resolve pressing issues of our time.

“You have benefited from a Boston College education emphasizing the liberal arts and provided in an atmosphere of care and faith shaped by the Jesuit, Catholic intellectual and religious heritage.”

We live in a world that is as diverse as it is beautiful and fragile. Take risks and dare to become role models for those who come after. Listen to the sounds and the voices around you. Often, the challenge of borders is a challenge of ignorance.
Isabel Capeloa Gil

Gil made the case for greater gender diversity in positions of authority: Women make up only five percent of world leaders; barely 33 of the Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs; and only 12 percent of universities in Europe and North America are led by female presidents. But there are countless examples of women who have displayed courage and initiative, she said, citing Sister Maura Lynch, a doctor and a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary dedicated to women’s health in Angola and Nigeria; Saudi women’s rights activists Loujain Al-Hathloul and Iman Al-Nafjan; Pakistani education advocate Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize; and Missionaries of Charity founder Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  

“Women are thought leaders, innovators, extraordinary trailblazers and superlative professionals in business, academia, politics. Profess these stories as your own and do not let talent go to waste.”

Throughout her address, Gil spoke of the importance of stories “we tell about who we are, as human, social,  and political beings,” reflecting triumphs, disappointments, hopes, fears, and the other elements that define human existence. Our stories are never fully told, she said, and must be improved upon, transformed, and revised, so they “enable a sense of purpose and instill meaning” in our lives. 

Patrick Byrne

Professor of Philosophy Patrick Byrne, a founder of the University's signature PULSE service-learning program, received the 2019 Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J., Award.

Gil recounted how, as a child of Portuguese parents living in the Macao region of China, she and her friends often observed the activity in a Buddhist temple a short distance from their Catholic school. The temple’s monks allowed the girls to watch their rituals and invited them to share a meal, Gil said—and thus over time came to seem less strange and mysterious. This example of the culture of encounter proved to be an influence on her professional and personal life.

“We live in a world that is as diverse as it is beautiful and fragile,” said Gil. “Take risks and dare to become role models for those who come after. Listen to the sounds and the voices around you. Often, the challenge of borders is a challenge of ignorance.”

Concluding her remarks, Gil invoked the memory of actor Leonard Nimoy—who briefly studied drama at BC—by voicing his legendary “Star Trek” catchphrase: “Live long and prosper.”

Sean Smith | University Communications