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Zelensky is surprise speaker at Johns Hopkins commencement ceremony

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to graduates in a live stream.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky addresses graduates at Johns Hopkins University during a commencement ceremony on Thursday. (Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)
4 min

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky surprised graduates at Johns Hopkins University’s commencement on Thursday, speaking to them in a live stream about his country’s fight to restore freedom and the students’ own futures.

“I will not be too long,” said Zelensky, telling the crowd that time is of the essence, more valuable than even oil, uranium and lithium.

“Some people realize this sooner, and these are the lucky ones,” he said. “Others realize it too late, when they lose someone or something.”

As they look back on their years in college, and ahead to the rest of their lifetimes, Zelensky asked the graduates, “Will you be able not to waste this time of your life?”

These are difficult questions for everyone, he said.

“How you answer them is how you live.”

Zelensky’s appearance as the school’s graduation speaker was a closely held secret, and came after the university’s president wrote him a letter. It was revealed to the crowd when giant video screens at the ceremony displayed images of fields of sunflowers, golden domes gleaming in a city skyline, and the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag flying in the sunlight. Those images were followed by scenes of the destruction that followed the Russian invasion in February 2022, with charred, crumbling buildings, a bombed-out bridge and an overturned tank.

The Ukrainian president’s address comes as the country continues its fight against the Russians, who invaded in February 2022. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed.

Zelensky said he was recently on the front lines, in one of the most fiercely contested areas, with soldiers fighting for freedom and independence. He told the crowd the soldiers’ time is defined by many factors they cannot control, he said, such as where the next Russian missile or drone will hit.

“I am proud that Ukraine is not losing a single day in its defense against Russian terror,” he said. “Every day we do everything to become stronger, to give more protection to people and to save more lives.”

Zelensky also praised the United States for its support of Ukraine. The president, Congress, “and most of all the American people have, like the generation before that, risen to this occasion and are leading the free world to secure freedom in Europe,” he said.

He told the Johns Hopkins graduates he had no doubt they would all become great doctors, lawyers, engineers, leaders of new technologies and businesses. He also said he was certain that some would feel the call to serve and “become members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, and yes — yes, maybe president one day.

“Of course, after President Biden — of course,” he said, smiling. “Please … we don’t need surprises.”

He told the graduates that “this century will be our century, a century where freedom, innovation and democratic values reign,” and a century in which tyrannies would vanish.

“But all of our tomorrows, and the tomorrows of our children and grandchildren depend on each of our todays,” he said.

As he concluded, the audience of about 10,000 people rose in sustained applause. Zelensky smiled from the giant video screen, and softly said, “Thank you.”

Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels announced to the crowd that Zelensky was being awarded an honorary doctorate.

“Your vision, tenacity, and unwavering belief in the power of democracy and freedom have been a constant source of inspiration to the people of Ukraine,” and to of others around the world who support his cause and ideals, Daniels said.

Daniels later said in a statement that hearing from Zelensky at graduation was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for 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.”

Earlier this week, Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, spoke to graduates at Boston College. “Freedom is not a given. Opportunities are not a given. Democracy is not a given,” Markarova, who appeared in person, told the audience on Monday. “We all have many battles to fight in, many obstacles to overcome, many challenges to see through. And where we’re all together, we’ll get strength to do it.”