Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Johns Hopkins University’s class of 2023 at its commencement ceremony via livestream from Ukraine on Thursday morning.
His appearance was a surprise for those in attendance. Only a handful of people at the university knew about Zelensky’s appearance ahead of time, said Jill Rosen, director of media relations at Johns Hopkins, and “no one was certain that it would happen, even up until the last minute,” she said. They had a backup speaker standing by, Rosen said.
Zelenskyy’s speech was broadcast on a giant screen overlooking Homewood Field on the university’s Baltimore campus. Before the speech, attendees were shown clips of war-torn Ukraine, with buildings and bridges decimated by bombs. The crowd erupted in cheers as Zelenskyy appeared on the screen.
Zelenskyy congratulated graduates and called Johns Hopkins “one of the world’s greatest universities.” He told them his remarks would be brief because time is one of the planet’s most valuable resources.
“Some people realize this sooner, and these are the lucky ones. Others realize it too late when they lose someone or something,” he said.
Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, was named Ukraine’s sixth president in 2019. His tenure has been marked by conflict with Russia, which invaded the country in February of last year. Zelenskyy was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2022 and has received international accolades for his wartime leadership.
Zelenskyy told Hopkins graduates he was recently in one of the most dangerous areas of the front line of the war in Ukraine to recognize the “best fighters” there. He said Ukrainian soldiers come from all walks of life, including university students and recent graduates who have similar “hopes and expectations” for life as those graduating from Johns Hopkins.
The fundamental difference, he said, is Hopkins graduates’ greater ability to control their lives at this time, whereas soldiers and all Ukrainians who are “forced to live through this terrible Russian aggression” are contending with the many uncertainties of war.
“We are trying to get a grip on this time in our lives, what’s happening to us,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy added it’s impossible to give advice “on how to go through life so as not to waste time,” but “you have to know exactly what you need today and what you want your tomorrows to look like.”
Zelenskyy praised President Joe Biden, a bipartisan Congressional coalition and “the American people” for their support of Ukraine, and for “leading the struggle to liberate Europe from evil tyrannies” like those “that brought your great-grandparents to the shores of Northern France” during World War II.
He encouraged a Hopkins graduate to become president. “Please, one of you,” he said. “We don’t need any surprises.”
The Ukrainian president said he’s confident “this century will be our century,” when “freedom, innovation and Democratic values reign.”
“All of our tomorrows, and the tomorrows of our children and grandchildren, depend on each of our todays,” Zelenskyy said in conclusion.
Zelenskyy received a standing ovation at the end of his address that lasted several minutes.
According to the Johns Hopkins website, Zelenskyy accepted the invitation to speak “on behalf of his nation and in defense of democratic values that allow peace, opportunity, and freedom to flourish around the globe.”
“We thought our graduates would be especially inspired by an appearance from President Zelenskyy because of what his leadership has come to represent for the world, as global democracy faces growing threats, and what universities like Hopkins can do to serve as stewards of these same values,” Rosen said.
Anne Applebaum, senior fellow at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, introduced Hopkins leaders to officials in the Ukrainian Embassy and Zelenskyy’s administration. Applebaum is a Polish American, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written several books, including “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” about Soviet rule and its impact on Eastern Europe. Applebaum introduced Zelenskyy at the commencement.
After Applebaum connected Hopkins leaders with Ukrainian officials, the university’s president, Ron Daniels, sent a formal invitation to President Zelenskyy. Events unfolding on the ground in Ukraine meant coordinating his live address was “touch and go” leading up to the ceremony, Rosen said.
Daniels gave Zelenskyy an honorary doctorate at the ceremony.
“As a fearless champion of his nation, President Zelenskyy has shown the world what true courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds looks like,” Daniels said in a statement ahead of the commencement.
“To hear from President Zelenskyy at graduation will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Johns Hopkins students at a moment when the stakes are so high for the future of global democracy. I am thrilled that one of our era’s great democratic leaders will reinforce for them the importance of holding fast to one’s principles and meeting with fortitude and humility the challenging moments of history that they will surely face in the years ahead,” Daniels said.