Valedictory to the Class of 2012
Washington & Jefferson College
May 19, 2012
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 showed up on rainy Saturday mornings in your Jay-Walker shirts to greet prospective students, challenged us to adopt an ethic of sustainability, represented the college at NCAA tournaments and international Tae Kwan Do competitions, published your research in internationally renowned journals, and shared your stories of travelling alone in Japan, journeying to Peru, or confronting the HIV epidemic in Africa? 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. As part of that ceremony, 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. Then you learned Whichi Coax.
And now it is time for you to help us fulfill the W&J mission by sharing your knowledge and by acting as responsible citizens who demonstrate uncommon integrity. It is time for you to take the mission statement that guided you while you were here and translate it into action in the so-called “real world.”
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?
Your evolving self could not have been nurtured in a vaccuum or sitting alone in front of a computer screen. It required you to spend time interacting with a wide variety of other people—your classmates, your roommates, your professors, and the people you served in the community as big brothers or as volunteers at the Women’s Center. It could not have occurred online or in the midst of a crowd—your growth was catalyzed by the intense human interaction you experienced at W&J.
Through your classes and working with faculty and one another, you have learned how to analyze a painting, how to assess a business plan, how to use an atomic force microscope, and how to read Machiavelli. In addition to the specifics of invertebrate anatomy or Spanish subjunctives, you also learned to think about complex problems, to distinguish fact from opinion, and to persevere when you faced a challenge. All of these skills will be essential for you in the future. For example, in this election year, you will need to be able weigh conflicting assessments of political candidates. Your W&J professors will not be there to guide you as you are assaulted by newspaper headlines, exaggerated advertisements, and endless tweets. You yourself will need to assess whether the information you are receiving is trustworthy or not. Are people being judged fairly? Quoted accurately? Take time and think about these questions with the kind of thoroughness that you have applied to the questions posed to you by Dr. Dodge or Dr. Shiller or Dr. Malinak.
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. 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.
And you are ready to do this, because at W&J you have learned how to work hard. I have seen you late at night, pouring over the books in the library or arriving home exhausted after a long day of student teaching. I have watched you repeatedly practice intricate plays on the soccer field and spend late nights in the computer labs working on a program. At W&J, you have learned strength and you have learned perseverance. When you think that the problems you face are too tough, call upon the inner strength you have developed here.
It is this perseverance that will give you the courage to act, to solve the problems that bedevil us all. It takes courage to stand up for your beliefs, to run for office, to lead a company, to teach your children. It takes optimism, an ability to trust your knowledge and your ethics and know that you are doing the right thing. All of our honorees today exemplify this kind of courage and perseverance. Imagine how many “dead ends” Dr. Swanson must have encountered as he worked to develop his groundbreaking software. Think about what Reverend Williams must have experienced as one of only two or three African American students at W&J, then on the faculty at Harvard. Consider how many times Mr. Clash applied for and was rejected from puppeteering jobs until he found himself working on Sesame Street. Imagine the endurance it must take for Governor Whitman to try again and again to create important social changes for this country.
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.