Valedictory to the Class of 2009

Valedictory to the Class of 2009
Washington & Jefferson College
210th Commencement
May 16, 2009

And so 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 four years, watched you grow and change.  Your leaving will be truly painful.  What will we do without those of you who have represented W&J at Carnegie Hall, challenged us to adopt an ethic of sustainability, led the J-walkers, escorted prime ministers, published your research in internationally renowned journals, and shared your stories of backpacking through Europe or aiding earthquake victims in China?  You will be sorely missed by those of us who have taught and guided you.  You will leave a hole in our hearts.

During your four years at W&J, I hope that you have learned about yourself and explored your ability to think on your own, not simply adopting the ideas of those around you.  I also hope you have consciously tested your strength of character when you had to make difficult choices, when you had to do what was right and not just what was easy or popular.  But, more than anything, I hope that your college education has ignited a fire in your soul, that you have discovered a heart-felt passion and learned how to nurture it, whether that occurred in your major or in a single course you took, whether you found your passion on the Zuni reservation, while building for Habitat for Humanity, on the athletic field, or in the library.  Finding your passion isn’t just about enjoying a class, it’s about finding something that you can do with such dedication and joy that time itself seems to stand still.  It’s caring so deeply about a question or a cause that you will not let any obstacle stand in your way as you pursue it.

Arnold Palmer found passion in the game of golf. Nothing stood in his way.  And Reverend Gomes is passionate about exploring the mysteries of theology, even if he faces criticism.

The media calls you Generation Y and describes you as essentially passive, expecting that your employers will pamper you and that the universe has an obligation to give you what you want.  I have certainly seen you belie this characterization when you pursue your passions. I have seen you working in the lab on Saturday mornings in order to prepare for lessons for middle school students.  I have seen you spend hours preparing a Model UN presentation, and watched as you pour over accounting problems.  One of you competed on a national level for the right to go to Paris so that you could do cancer research there.  Another campaigned tirelessly for recycling on campus, refusing to give up hope, even when group after group ignored you.  One of you completed her degree while a single mother raising a child with special needs.  And one of you, on your first trip outside of this country, managed to find your way independently to dozens of Holocaust sites of Europe, decoding train schedules, and bus routes to see firsthand what you had read about in books.

It is easy to overcome obstacles, to fight for what you believe, to persevere, when you are pursuing that which you care about, when you are pursuing your passion.  But what happens when you are offered something you might not care about so deeply?  I have heard about a student who, when offered the opportunity to discuss possible employment in New York, decided not even to meet the potential employer because the half-hour drive from Northern New Jersey was just too long.  Another student requested and was offered a medical internship, but never followed up, leaving the potential employer in the dark.  This is the kind of behavior that closes doors rather than opening them.

The world you live in teaches you not to care.  It bombards you with information and you must close your ears and your eyes in order to remain sane.  It confuses you with trivial information that twitters around you—Your phone announces: Bob is eating ice cream, Sarah is bored.  You are surrounded by superficiality.  The news media spends more time on the lurid stories of movie star romance than it does on the volatile situation in Pakistan that threatens the lives of thousands and the stability of the planet.  How can you sort all this out?  How can you make sense of it?  Somehow, you must separate the trivial from the essential and then give yourself time to think, time to let yourself care about what is important and dismiss that which is trivial.

Despite the fact that you are bombarded by superficialities, you must learn to treat the world around you with respect, to treat it as important, even if it’s not catering to your passion.  When you have an interview, even for a job you think you do not want, you need to dress as if you wanted this job more than ever.  When someone offers you advice, you need to care enough to listen.  Why?  Why care about these things?  Simply put, because you never know.  You never know when a stray meeting will produce a lifelong friendship.  You never know when you will go to an interview for one job and be offered another.

Opportunity will knock on your door, but you must answer.  You must take the initiative; you must reach out. I remember the comments made by Michael Jordan when a sports reporter asked him how he could score so many points game after game, and he said, “I just take lots of shots.  If you don’t play, you can’t win.”  The same is true in life—if you don’t play, you can’t win.

Life will not always be easy for you. As Reverend Gomes told you last night, “Frustration is not the exception to the rule--it is the rule.” Sometimes, you will have to persevere, to dig deep within yourself to find the will to care, the will to persevere.  That is when you will learn what you are made of.

Am I saying that you must pursue every opportunity that comes your way?  No, probably not.  But when you do choose to close the door on an opportunity, do it with respect and not silence.

Four years ago, when I welcomed you to W&J at our matriculation ceremony, I pointed out that few people here would know you, and, as a result, you could be whatever you wanted to be—the genius, the jock, the artist. As you leave W&J, once again, you are facing a transition where you will have an opportunity to remake yourself.  Take this opportunity to re-assess yourself.  Go forth and recommit to pursuing life with passion and with integrity.  Make yourself vulnerable enough to care deeply about people and about ideas.  Turn off the cell phone and the television occasionally so that you can hear yourself think and have the time to reflect on what is truly important.  Listen to the people around you—even those with whom you disagree.  As I have said so many times, you can learn from them, too.  In short, as I implored you four years ago, go forth and create a self you can be proud of.

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.  I think we should also take a moment to thank your families who believed in you, who sacrificed to give you the kind of individualized education that lays the foundation for future success.  Please join me in a round of applause for the families of our graduates.

Dr. Tori Haring-Smith