Valedictory to the Class of 2008
Washington & Jefferson College
May 17, 2008
And now we come to the time when it is traditional for the president of the college to offer a valedictory to the graduating class-that is, to say goodbye and, of course, to offer a few words of advice in parting. I have known you all for almost four years, watched you grow and change. Your leaving will be truly painful. What will we do without those of you who have led our cheers, managed our conference-winning hockey club, led the J-walkers, represented W&J at Carnegie Hall and the Harvard MUN, published your research in internationally renowned journals, and shared your stories of backpacking through Europe and Argentina? You will be sorely missed by those of us who have taught and guided you. You will leave a hole in our hearts.
But this is a natural transition, and we must let you go. The world you will enter is not an easy one. It is a world where cyclone-ravaged countries struggle with a history of isolation that thwarts the delivery of international aid, a world in which the very economic development that promises to raise the standard of living worldwide also threatens to destroy our fragile planet, a world where war is no longer waged between two clearly marked armies, but erupts on street corners and explodes through roadside bombs. It is not an easy world, and it is natural to feel powerless.
But let's put this in perspective-the world you will enter, the world in which you will raise children and build businesses and create research agendas--that world is not unique in its problems. The young men who graduated from W&J when the two colleges joined in 1865 faced a future in which they had to mend the bloody rifts of civil war, sew together a nation, and determine how the black and white citizens could live together harmoniously. The Great Depression makes our current economic problems seem minor. Writing in1919, W.B. Yeats captured the sense of powerlessness he felt in the aftermath of World War I, writing "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .and everywhere the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity." As with all poetry, these words encapsulate an enduring truth.
But, just as earlier graduates from W&J faced racism and responded by writing civil rights legislation, just as they faced economic uncertainty and went on to found multi-national companies, and just as they confronted diseases that seemed incurable and went on to defeat them, so you, too, are well prepared to face the world. All you have to do is to find the conviction to do it. Conviction is the enemy of powerlessness.
Like learning, acting on conviction isn't comfortable, it isn't easy. Having conviction may make you lonely at times-times when you are working late in the lab, chasing down a potential error, when you devote yourself to defending those that everyone else believes are guilty, when you do what you know is right rather than what is popular or easy. I hope that W&J has taught you this kind of integrity and perseverance. I hope we have given you the courage to do good, even though doing so may not necessarily be comfortable.
In writing recently about his mother, the columnist Thomas Friedman remembered her saying that the pessimists are usually right and the optimists are usually wrong, but most of the great changes in the world were the work of the optimists. I know that at W&J, you've learned the power of optimism.
Certainly our honorary degree recipients exemplify the optimistic exercise of conviction. How easy it would have been for Helen Thomas to say, "There are no prominent women in political journalism, I think I'll give up." Instead, for more than forty years, she quizzed presidents on behalf of the American people. How easy it would have been for Prime Minister Barzani to have accepted civil conflict as inevitable in his part of the world and to have resigned himself to the old ways of violence rather than pushing forward to the new ways of peace. How easy it would have been for Eboo Patel and Emilie Townes to accept religious intolerance rather than devoting their lives to cross-faith dialogue. How easy for Dr. Pellegrini to have given up when he struggled to afford college rather than diving in, working hard, and, as a result changing the lives of countless patients and their families.
At a women's leadership retreat here at W&J, one student asked me, "What do you do when just don't want to go to work in the morning?" I read this question as equivalent to, "What do you do when your optimism is flagging, when, in Yeats' terms, you lack conviction?" My answer is that if you deeply believe in what you are doing, if your jobs and your friendships and your family are important to you, you will find that everyday you want to wake up and face the complexities of the world. Making the world and your role in important takes dedication and focus. Strive to achieve that focus even as the world around you pummels you with text messages, with advertisements to eat this, moisturize that, drive this.
I hope that W&J has taught you that kind of focus. As I have listened as you explain the difficult research you are doing to understand stream ecology or the way gender and power interact or how to prevent civil wars, I believe that we have taught you perseverance. As I have watched you play lacrosse in the snow, working together as a team in bone chilling cold, I believe that we have taught you optimism. As I have seen you in the library late at night, head bent over a book, straining to understand a difficult text or watched as you worked and re-worked a painting until it was truly good, I think we have taught you to have the courage of your convictions.
W&J has given you a supportive environment in which to learn these skills. Now you will go into a less supportive world, one that will not necessarily be focused on your individual success. But you are prepared. You are ready. Go forth with optimism, with wisdom, and with the strength of your convictions. We are counting on you to find a cure for cancer and to forge a society that ensures the welfare of all citizens, and to bring us peace and prosperity.
President Tori Haring-Smith