Valedictory to the Class of 2013

Valedictory to the Class of 2013
Washington & Jefferson College
214th Commencement
May 18, 2013

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 presented your research at professional conferences on neuroscience in New Orleans and political science in New York, those who showed up on rainy Saturday mornings in your Jay-Walker shirts to greet prospective students, represented the college at NCAA tournaments, painted a mural representing the history of art on the hallway of Olin, founded the Indian Students Association, and shared your stories of travelling alone in China, journeying to Palestinian refugee camps, or studying women’s reproductive health in The Gambia?  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.

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 was nurtured by your life in this special community that we call Washington & Jefferson College.  You changed as you made new friends and left old ones, learned to celebrate victory and grow from defeat on the athletic fields, courts, and in the pool.  You changed because Dr. Leonard challenged you to examine your life goals, because Lisa Hamilton helped you deal with grief, because Dr. Verdun pushed you to complete that Magellan proposal.  Your growth was catalyzed by the intense, individualized human interaction you experienced at W&J. 

The class of 2013 will always remember how it was bound together by a tragedy.  The night as we all gathered on the Burnett lawn, holding candles to ward off the darkness, we acknowledged our common and ever-so-fragile humanity. You listened as Tim’s uncle told you, “Love one another.  It’s that simple.  Love one another.  And remember that things can change so fast.”  That night, like today, you cherished your classmates, your friends, your professors, and the College that brought all of you together in a common enterprise. 

I hope that you will take with you that deep appreciation for life and all that it has to offer.  Dream big.  We encouraged you at W&J, but now you will need to push yourself to travel the world, to tackle challenging research questions, and to produce impossibly complex jazz solos. The alumni who preceded you at W&J have shown you the way.  Think of Denny Slamon, who invented and developed the breast cancer drug Herceptin.  He told me that when he graduated from W&J in 1970, he was reluctant to enter the University of Chicago MD-PhD program, to which he had been admitted.  “I was the first in my family to go to college,” he said.  “I had never been far from home and I knew the University of Chicago would be all folks from the Ivy League and then me.”  Fortunately, his faculty advisor and friend, Dr. Homer Porter, of Dieter-Porter fame, told him to trust his education and trust his ability.  Denny went to the University of Chicago and outscored all his classmates, graduating first in his class.  You have the same W&J education he had.  Dream big.

And if you dream big, you will have to work hard to achieve your dreams, but you learned that, too, at W&J.  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.  Remember the example of Roger Goodell, who did not give up when NFL franchise after NFL franchise failed to answer his letters begging for an internship.  But finally, as you know, the league offered him a position as an intern.  Today, 32 years later, he is the NFL Commissioner.  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.  Take that hard work and determination out into the world with you.

My final bit of advice?  Think about the one person you will sleep with every night and wake up to face in the mirror every day—yourself.  When you were freshmen, I told you at matriculation that at times of transition, when you go into a new community, get a new job, come to a new college or university—you have an opportunity to remake yourself.  And I advised you to create a self you can be proud of.  As you leave W&J, you have another chance to remake yourself, to re-center your values.  Take time to think about the principles by which you will live your life.  Think about the “uncommon integrity” that defines a W&J graduate.  You have lived in an age when government officials have lied to you (Remember Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”), where corporate leaders have been exposed as corrupt (think of Enron and Martha Stewart), where universities hid evidence of rampant child sexual abuse.  Be better than that.  If you make a mistake, admit it and fix it.  But be true to your principles, preserve your integrity, and you will be able to sleep with yourself at night. 

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” 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, as Amirah said, you are ready.

When I remember this class, I will think of you as the ones who brought in a zip line and a Ferris wheel to your street fairs.  You have literally reached for the sky.  Sustain that spirit.  Sustain your love for one another and for this college.  Go forth and once again create a self that you can be proud of.