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June 2019

Martin Sheen speaking at 2019 commencement

Martin Sheen speaking at 2019 commencement

Celebrating Heroic Strangers on Commencement Day

Influential actor and activist Martin Sheen offers life lessons to Class of 2019


SANTA CLARA, Calif., June 15, 2019 – Surrounded by thousands of jubilant family members and friends who filled Stevens Stadium, Santa Clara University’s undergraduate class of 2019 celebrated their newly-minted bachelor’s degrees along with a heartfelt recommendation to find something in their lives worth fighting for.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are all responsible for each other and the world,” actor/activist and SCU commencement speaker Martin Sheen told them.

“I have been an actor all my life, but activism is what I do to stay alive,” he said.

Quoting parts of Robert Kennedy’s famous “Ripple of Hope” speech delivered on June 6, 1966 in Cape Town, South Africa, Sheen recited the words: “Each time someone stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice they send forth a tiny ripple of hope.”

Sheen received a standing ovation as he asked the graduates and their families to take care of the environment and attend to the least among us: “We are beneficiaries of millions of heroic strangers who have gone before us,” he said, “from every corner of the earth.”

Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez, Sheen first achieved fame with roles in the films Badlands and Apocalypse Now. But to many fans, his most celebrated role is Josiah Bartlet, the fictional U.S. President—and devout Catholic—he portrayed in the television series The West Wing.

Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Sheen is the seventh of 10 children raised by immigrant parents—his father was from Spain, his mother from Ireland; both were devoted Catholics.  Years later, after moving to New York City to become an actor, he adopted the stage name Martin Sheen to help him gain acting parts. “I’ve never officially changed my name Ramon, so I hope that's the name on the degree I just received,” he joked from the dais on Saturday. “If it’s not, I can change it.”

In addition to his work in film and television, Sheen is renowned for his social and political activism. He has campaigned against the death penalty, and on behalf of immigrants’ rights, among other causes. He has been an advocate of justice initiatives and Jesuit apostolic works, including Homeboy Industries, a non-profit in Los Angeles that works to help former gang members redirect their lives.

During his speech peppered with history and humor, he roused the graduating class to their feet with his encouragement and a call to action. 

“The most important needs of any human being are not only food, clothing, and shelter, but the need for justice, healing, and mercy," he said. "Without the latter the former are useless.”

Referencing activity on campus to support faculty unionization, Sheen noted that he has been an active union member all his life and asked the university to allow a vote.  

Sheen also received an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters during the 168th commencement.

He is the father of four children: Emilio Estévez, Ramón, Carlos (aka Charlie Sheen) and Renée,all of whom are actors, as is his younger brother, Joe Estévez.

Valedictorian Eoin Lyons, a political science and finance double major, used the myth of Icarus and Daedalus to implore his classmates to always choose to “fly higher” by standing up against racism and sexism; protecting the environment and remaining true to their values in the face of harmful rhetoric. “Upon exiting the campus, we have to fly on our own, and make choices about what it means to fly too high or too low,” Lyons said. “Today I ask you to put aside that fear of flying too close to the sun.”

Honorary Degrees

Santa Clara University conferred honorary degrees on Barry Swenson, chairman of a San Jose-based real estate development and construction company and his wife Molly. The Swensons have touched the lives of countless San Jose residents through philanthropy that benefits a variety of organizations, especially those that help children.

Gerald T. Wade, S.J., chancellor at Bellarmine College Preparatory, also received an honorary degree for his lifelong commitment to Jesuit high school education. Fr. Wade is known for his ministry to alumni and friends of Bellarmine and other members of the local community.

Graduate Commencement Ceremony

At Friday night’s commencement ceremony for those receiving graduate degrees, keynote speaker Lee S. Shulman urged the 716 graduates to open their hearts to the contributions of immigrants, and to emulate Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant, philanthropist, and advocate for working people. Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and an emeritus professor of education at Stanford, received an honorary doctorate of educational leadership at the event.

“Immigration is like a fresh river that brings new water; new ideas; new inspiration; new forms of art, music, cuisine and thought, to a country that would otherwise grow stale without it,” Shulman said. He then told a story of how, years after receiving great success in America, Carnegie bought a plot of land back in his homeland of Scotland, a plot he had been barred from entering, and opened it to public. “Never let the gates of that park close again,” Carnegie had said, according to Shulman.

About Santa Clara University
Founded in 1851, Santa Clara University sits in the heart of Silicon Valley—the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial region. The University’s stunningly landscaped 106-acre campus is home to the historic Mission Santa Clara de Asís. Ranked the No. 1 regional university in the West by U.S. News & World Report, SCU has among the best four-year graduation rates in the nation and is rated by PayScale in the top 1 percent of universities with the highest-paid graduates. SCU has produced elite levels of Fulbright Scholars as well as four Rhodes Scholars. With undergraduate programs in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, and graduate programs in six disciplines, the curriculum blends high-tech innovation with social consciousness grounded in the tradition of Jesuit, Catholic education. For more information see

Media Contact
Deepa Arora | SCU Media Communications | | 408-554-5121

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Photo by James Tensuan