Valedictory to the Class of 2011

Valedictory to the Class of 2011
Washington & Jefferson College
212th Commencement
May 21, 2011

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 volunteered in clinics and schools in rural Ecuador, those who have organized conferences to teach leadership to high school students, showed up on rainy Saturday mornings in your Jay-Walker shirts to greet prospective students, challenged us to adopt an ethic of sustainability, published your research in internationally renowned journals, and shared your stories of travelling alone in the Philippines, journeying Beijing, or confronting life on a Zuni reservation first-hand?  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 values, you signed the mission statement, and you received the pin that you are wearing today on your commencement robes, the pin that signifies that your life will help us fulfill our mission—to graduate young men and women of uncommon integrity, competence and maturity who are prepared to make a significant contribution to the world today.  Then you learned Which 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 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 minute and try to remember that day.  Remember who you were then.  What did you believe?  How did you interact with people who held ideas that are different from yours?  What did you think about art?  About science?  About history?  What were your goals?  What did you know about the world?  Now, compare that image with who you are today.  What do you believe now?  What do you know about the world that you didn’t know then?  How do you interact with people now?  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 in your life, a transition to life after college.  And, once again, you have the opportunity to re-make yourself.    Four years ago, you came to W&J not knowing what to expect.  It was scary.  It was lonely.  It was confusing at times.  But you found your way.  You found the courage to make new friends.  You found the courage to paint a painting that revealed your most private hopes and fears.  You found the courage to travel to a part of the globe where you did not speak the language.  You found the courage to stick up for your beliefs and the courage to change those beliefs. With the new transition you face today, you will once again need courage. 

You leave Washington & Jefferson and go into a world that seems unhinged.  Floods ravage Missouri and Louisiana while Oklahoma and Texas wither from drought.   Popular rebellions topple dictators, but provide no new leaders.  The stock markets recover, but millions still cannot find work.  This world will challenge you no what you do--whether you are making laws, raising a family, teaching schoolchildren, auditing financial statements, or healing the sick.  Facing this kind of world can be paralyzing. Nevertheless, face it you must.  And I know that W&J has prepared you for this challenge.

Moments of transition test us and make us stronger.  I remember when my family decided to leave our comfortable life in Rhode Island and move to Egypt.  As I stood in the departure lounge for that flight to Cairo, it felt like I was about to open a door with absolutely no idea of what was on the other side.  But I had walked up to the door and now I had no choice but to go through it.  I remember having the same feeling when I was pregnant with our son and I realized that, like it or not, there was no turning back. I had no idea what birth or motherhood would be like, but that didn’t matter.  It was going to happen anyway. 

These moments of transition occur throughout our lives.  We stand with someone we love, hand in hand, about to say “I do.”  We take on a new job, move to a new city, follow a new calling.  These are exciting times, times when we redefine who we are.  And they take courage. 

All of our honorees today exemplify this kind of courage.  I cannot imagine the courage it took to be among the first women at a college that had educated only men for almost 200 years.  I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be responsible safeguarding a nation terrified by anthrax scares, to challenge our nation’s sense of itself by rewriting history, to walk down death row to face a brutal murderer, or to step onto an Olympic basketball court with the eyes of the world upon you, every one expecting a spectacular performance.

As you pursue your life after college, you will call upon everything you have learned here at W&J. When you least expect it, you will recall that discussion of ethics you had in a Philosophy class, or the insights into religion that you gained from talking with international exchange students, or the lessons about working together that you learned on the soccer field. 

You may have thought I was exaggerating when I said on so many occasions that we are 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, and to negotiate ways for us to live in a more peaceful world.  All these years, you may have thought, “She’s got to be kidding.  She’s not talking about me.  Maybe someone 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 have developed a strong work ethic.  I have seen you working late in the laboratories, I have watched as you carried stacks of books home from the library, I have seen you return exhausted from a full day of student teaching.  You know how to wrestle with a math problem, how to design experiments that reveal the mysteries of our brains, and how to speak Chinese.  You are prepared to begin the daunting work of improving our world.  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 you can pass these problems—you will need to take them on, each and every one of you in your own way.

So carry your knowledge, your integrity, and your courage into the larger world.  We are counting on you.  We are counting on you to be thoughtful, and be courageous.  Go forth and create a self that 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.