President's Valedictory to the Class of 2006
May 20, 2006
And so we come to the end of our commencement ceremony. But, as you know, "commencement" does not mean "end" but rather "beginning." You are about to "commence" on your life's journey after college. We hope that you have learned a few things in your time with us. Not just the history of great ideas, the principles of organic chemistry, the beauty of poetry, or how to read Picasso or listen to Bach, but that you also have learned some "life lessons"—how to live in a community of diverse individuals, how to negotiate conflicts without verbal or physical violence, how to discipline yourself so that you can work hard even when there might be temptations to play, and how to take time to play when you've worked long enough.
More than anything, I hope that your college education has ignited a fire in your soul, that in your four years at W&J you have discovered a heart-felt passion and learned how to nurture it. This isn't a simple thing to do—it's not about just finding a major or enjoying a class, it's about finding out who you are. That is what links all our honorees today—they each had a passion and they followed it.
I remember well interviewing a graduating senior from another college who was a biologist. She had grown up in Iowa, in farming country, and she loved bees. She was describing to me her trip to India to try to find a very rare kind of bee. She told me that after weeks of searching, one day she finally found that bee. "It was dead," she said with tears welling up in her eyes," but it was so beautiful, and it was MY bee." Now, we can laugh at her enthusiasm, but we have to admire her passion. That passion took her around the world to study bees, it eventually took her to graduate school, and, I suspect, it will soon take her to a leadership role within the field of biology. Maybe even a Nobel prize. She loves her subject so much that it does not matter if others care about it—she does. And she will pursue it—doggedly. I wish the same discovery for you.
For some of you, it may be a traditional academic field—you may have been captured by chemistry or by German or by painting or the history of the underground railroad. For others of you, it may be a question: how does American end its reliance on foreign oil? How do we reform welfare? Is green tea a cure for cancer? For some it may be an athletic pursuit or a musical instrument—the search for the perfect golf game, for the fastest mile, for the voice of the jazz saxophone. Why and how you have discovered this passion is not important—what is important is that you listened when it called. Passions are not discovered through rational and orderly procedures—they grab you and won't let you go.
It is not an easy thing to do—to discover your passion. It is, quite simply, hard to think when you are being constantly bombarded by information, by advertisements, by entertainment passing as news, by the suspenseful fantasy of "reality shows." Your e-mail boxes are stuffed, your voice mail runneth over, and you are surrounded by demands that you feed the children, that you kill germs with spray disinfectants and anti-bacterial soaps, that you soften your clothes, treat your allergies, buy a big car, buy a small car, take a cruise, moisturize your skin, look younger, relieve your headache, relieve your backache, and treat your allergies. Information (and a good bit of misinformation) is dumped in huge piles on your real or virtual doorstep. No wonder that you shudder when you open your e-mail box. My son no longer listens to his voice mail—he just notes who the sender is and returns the call or not. Too much information. Too many demands. In response to this cacophony, you do the reasonable thing—you muffle the onslaught of information coming your way.
But in such a protective stance, how do you open yourself up to passion? How do you allow yourself to fall deeply in love with a subject, with a question, or even with a person? I would say that you need time to reflect and to listen to your own feelings, your own beliefs. College is a conversation—we come together from our various backgrounds to talk together and to learn from one another. As you leave W&J, I hope that you will take this art of conversation with you. That you will continue to converse with others and so to learn about the world around you, but that you will also learn to internalize that conversation to analyze your own evolving thoughts and beliefs. Perhaps one of the most frightening questions we ask ourselves is "What next?" "What do you want to do when you graduate?" "What do you want to do in five years?" You will discuss these questions with your family and friends, but also discuss them with yourself. Take time to think. Take time to listen to your own feelings, not colored by others' expectations. Take time to know yourself. If you listen to yourself, you will find your passion—or it will find you. And that will give you the self-confidence to pursue your ideals doggedly.
I hope that your college years have given you a time and place to practice this art of self-reflection, a breather from the press of the world so that you could reflect and talk about serious matters. I hope that while you were with us at W&J, you caught some of our enthusiasm not only for this remarkable College but also for our individual passions. Just ask Dr. Easton about theatre and you're in for a hour-long description of his recent trips to New York or London. Just ask Dr. Scott about Russian or Dr. Dodge about the Cold War or Dr. Breltic about the chemistry of beer, or Dr. Meyers about Kenya or Dr. Gregor about apple orchards, or Dr. Long about ghosts and you're in for a treat. You will see their eyes flash and their lungs fill as they prepare to share their passion with you. Stay true to your passion—it will give your life meaning. It will give you confidence and drive. And remember that at W&J there will be people who understand just how important green tea or bees or the underground railroad is to you, so stay in touch. If you have not yet heard your passion calling to you, then just keep listening. Listen to your own thoughts, and you will discover that which is yours. You will discover your bee.
And so, thanks to the magic of language you are all transformed today from college students to college graduates. You are the same people who woke up this morning and yet different. I want to thank you for sharing your lives with us, for allowing us the inexpressible joy of seeing you learn. During the receptions that follow this ceremony, I hope you will take time to thank the individual faculty who guided you-pushed you, prodded you, ran to keep up with you—as you made your way through W&J. George Lucas said that the first film in his Star Wars series almost didn't make it to the theatres. It was a miracle, he said, that the film was made at all because they had "too little time, too little money and were trying to do more than is humanly possible." I am sure that your college career sometimes felt that way to you—too little time, too little money, and trying to do more than is humanly possible. But you, too, have achieved great things. I hope that you will continue to challenge yourselves to do more than is humanly possible, to be better than you can be, and to make the world a more peaceful, healthy, prosperous, and loving environment for all of us and for your children for generations to come.
On behalf of the entire Washington & Jefferson College community, it is my great pleasure to extend congratulations and heartfelt best wishes to each and every member of the Class of 2006. We are proud of you—proud of your accomplishments and proud of what you have become here. I hope that you will always remember this commencement day with a sense of fulfillment, pride, and thanksgiving.
You will go forth from this place today in many different directions, with many different dreams, but remember that W&J College will always be with you in spirit. We have become a part of your lives as you have become a part of ours. We will be eager to hear of your adventures and we wish you the very best of all good things that life can bring.