Nearly 5,000 people gathered at the Rhode Island Convention Center for the New England Institute of Technology’s commencement on Sunday. Like most college and university graduation ceremonies, there was a headline speaker. At NEIT, it was Martin Sheen, known for his appearances in movies like “Wall Street,” “Apocalypse Now” and his portrayal of the president of the United States on the television series, “The West Wing.”
“It was a really powerful speech,” said NEIT spokeswoman Susan Groh. “He had the audience in the palm of his hands.”
Sheen began his speech with some humor, talking about his “identity crisis” – Sheen has played several United States presidents, both real and fictional, and has often been misidentified as an actual former U.S. leader.
Robert Shapiro, former Warwick school superintendent and a trustee of NEIT, said Sheen recounted a time he was mistakenly identified on a plane.
“He was sitting on a plane when someone said, ‘Mr. President, you’re not on Air Force 1. Is it in the shop?’” said Shapiro.
Although he briefly spoke about his career on the big screen, Sheen mainly talked about his activism.
"While acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive," said Sheen.
Shapiro said one of the most powerful topics Sheen covered was that of immigration.
“All of us were immigrants at one time,” said Shapiro. “He pointed out that so much of the spirit of America today seems harbored against immigrants.”
Sheen said he has always been proud of being a first generation American. Born Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez, Sheen was the son of a Spanish father and an Irish mother.
“I often wonder how my parents would relate to the current wave of immigrant bashing that seems so vogue in certain quarters across the land these days,” said Sheen. “A growing chorus of conservative voices, some even coming from official circles, blame innocent immigrants for every conceivable form of wrongdoing and lawlessness without just cause, and they target them for deportation, dividing families and destroying communities. These arrogant voices need to be reminded that arrogance is ignorance matured and that we continue to be a nation of immigrants."
In addition to speaking out against discrimination against immigrants, Shapiro said Sheen talked to the graduates about pursuing whatever interests them.
“He said we should go after something that is our passion,” said Shapiro.
For Sheen, pursuing a passion was about serving others.
"I came through the ’60s clinging to the absolute certainty that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, and that non-violence is the only weapon to fight with," he said.
Shapiro said Sheen talked a lot about social issues, a topic that struck a chord with Shapiro.
“When he spoke, he spoke very passionately,” said Shapiro. “He discussed what he really believed. It was inspirational.”
Sheen said the three most important needs of “every human being on Earth are not food, clothing and shelter, as much as the need for justice, healing and love.”
“Without the latter, the former are useless,” continued Sheen. “It is the gross inequality of food, clothing and shelter that divides us, but it is the absolute necessity of justice, healing and love that can unite us. Clearly we need a far more realistic understanding of who we are and why we are here."
Sheen, a high school dropout who did not attend college, has been active on the political scene, advocating for equality and peace. NEIT presented him with an honorary doctor of humane letters on Sunday.
Sheen said everyone has within them the urge to help someone else in need.
“This yearning, I believe, is a manifestation of our true selves and leads us to the very first small conscious acts of personal heroism, which often brings rejection from the crowd and satisfaction from the heart,” said Sheen. “But this yearning can be very costly. If it were not so, we would be left to question its value … And no one has ever made a contribution of any real worth without self-sacrifice, personal suffering and sometimes even death."
Shapiro said the speech was very well received.
“Students gave him a rousing applause,” said Shapiro. “They did relate very well to him.”
Shapiro, who is no stranger to big name commencement speakers, said Sheen was very personable and humble, and was not just great on stage in front of the crowd, but behind the scenes as well.
“I had the opportunity to meet with him afterwards,” said Shapiro. “He was very gracious and very relaxed.”