Valedictory to the Class of 2010

Valedictory to the Class of 2010
Washington & Jefferson College
211th Commencement
May 22, 2010

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 raised money for medical supplies and delivered them to Haiti and to Ecuador, those that have explored the fortified churches of Transylvania, challenged us to adopt an ethic of sustainability, published your research in internationally renowned journals, and shared your stories of interning at the American embassy in Berlin? 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. Four years ago, on a hot August day, you and your parents gathered on this very spot for matriculation. Most of you were experiencing your first day in college, your first day at W&J. At Matriculation, we talked about the College's mission, you signed the mission statement and you receive the pin that you are wearing today on your commencement robes, the pin that signifies that your life will help us fulfill our mission-then you learned Whichi Coax

When I spoke to you at Matriculation four years ago, I told you that entering college gave you a rare opportunity to think about who it is you wanted to be. Because most people at W&J were meeting you for the first time, this was a chance to reshape yourself. And I advised you, "Create a self that you can be proud of." Take a moment and try to remember that day. Remember who you were then. What did you believe? How did you interact with people who held ideas different from yours? What did you think about art? About science? About history? What were your personal goals in life? What did you know about the world? Now, compare that image with who you are today. What do you know now? What do you believe? What do you know about the world that you didn't know then? How do you interact with people? What do you value? What kind of a self have you developed during your time in college?

I am taking you through this exercise because you are about to make another major transition, a transition to life after college. Once again, you have the opportunity to re-make yourself. Transitions like this can be a little scary. After all, over the last four years you have learned how to succeed in college-how to feel at home here. With this new transition, you may well feel some discomfort again. But this is normal. After all, when you work your body physically you know that once you are comfortable running a ten minute mile it's time to work toward a nine minute mile. It's the same thing in life. When you get comfortable, it's probably time to challenge yourself again.

So as you go forward I hope you will set your sights high. As Chaplain Saif and Governor Kean have told you - anything is possible. Although the challenges they faced must have seemed insurmountable at times, they persevered. Just as Roger Ferguson and Sylvia Earle persevere in their struggles to understand the global economy and ensure the health of our oceans.

You may have thought I was exaggerating when I have said on so many occasions that we're counting on you to find a cure for AIDS, to create energy sources that do not foul or deplete our fragile planet, to find a way to feed the hungry, aid the homeless, to negotiate ways for us to live in a more peaceful world. Now, when you were freshmen you must have thought, she's got to be kidding. She's not talking about me. Maybe somebody else-but not me. Well, I was talking about you. And I know you are ready. You know how to persevere. You know that sometimes you learn more when you fail than when you succeed. You've developed a strong work ethic. I've seen you working late in the laboratories. I've watched as you've carried stacks of books home from the library. I've seen you return exhausted from a day of student teaching. You know how to wrestle with a math problem, how to design experiments that reveal the mysteries of our brain, and how to speak Chinese.

You are prepared to begin the daunting work of improving our world - the assignment that Governor Kean gave to you. Because we are counting on you. There is no they who will preserve the planet, educate our children, and tame the economy. No they to whom we can pass these problems - you will have to take them on. Each and every one of you in your own way. And to succeed in this task you will need to practice what I think is the most important skill we have taught you at W&J - the ability to work with those who disagree with you. Whether it is about the interpretation of scientific evidence, the effectiveness of government policies, or the existence of God. For if we cannot talk about contentious issues from a position of respect, our democracy cannot thrive. I remember well the two roommates I met here in 2005 - the two most politically active students on campus who were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. They were always debating with one another in The Commons and in the Library. I asked one of them, "Do you think you'll ever convince your friend of your point of view? Will you ever change his mind?" "No," he said, "I don't think I'll ever convince him, but I have to keep trying because I respect him." It's been a long time since that kind of attitude was evident among our media commentators or our political leaders on either side of the aisle. We've lost the art of civility. It has been drowned out by attention-seeking talk show hosts and by the desire to win rather than to govern thoughtfully. We count on you to find it again.

I hope that at W&J you have learned to respect your ideological opponents and not to vilify them. And I am convinced that you have. In fact, some of you have already begun to promote this ethic-this kind of civic discourse-by bringing local high school students to W&J to explain to them that constructive leadership of the kind that keeps our democracy strong relies upon the ability to converse with your opponents rationally and respectfully. You have shared with those young students the importance of the W&J motto, Juncta Juvant-together we thrive.

As you go through the larger world, remember this motto. Be true to it. We are counting on you. We are counting on you to be bold, to be thoughtful, to be respectful, and to be courageous. Go forth and create a self that you can be proud of. Congratulations Class of 2010!

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 you are 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 success. Please join me in a round of applause for the families of our graduates.