President Farish, Mrs. Farish, Trudy Coxe, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, distinguished guests and parental units – and if I may do this without embarrassing her, my special friend, Mary Woodward – but most of all, members of the Class of 2012, good morning and I’m so happy to be with you.
I want to begin by thanking you for this invitation and to be here for the honorary degree, which I will treasure. As our graduates this morning can testify, a degree is indeed a precious thing that requires years of work and is hard to earn. So you can imagine how pleased I am to receive one just for showing up.
As a professor and the mother of three college graduates, I love academic surroundings and it’s a special pleasure to visit this fine university. After all, Roger Williams is one of the rising universities in the Northeast featuring an outstanding new president, a host of options for study abroad, a commitment to community service, a beautiful waterfront campus and a Commencement process led by bagpipes. So, what’s not to like? Especially on this amazingly gorgeous morning!
To the parents who are here, I suspect that your emotions are a little bit mixed. You feel both incredibly proud that this moment has finally arrived and yet also astonished at how brief the interval can seem between diapers and diplomas. To the alumni, today’s ceremony will in fact bring back memories of your own college years, which in my case took place about halfway between the invention of the iPod and the discovery of fire.
But above all, this is an occasion to honor you, members of the Class of 2012. As the Commencement speaker, I feel a particular responsibility because I am the only obstacle remaining between you and your degrees.
Now the theory behind a Commencement address is that an older person will share the wisdom of his or her generation with the young based on the older generation’s superior insight into life. I’m not sure that there’s a young person alive who actually subscribes to this theory. In fact if I were sitting where you are today, I might well have some very serious questions.
For example, if older people are so smart, why haven’t we done more to create good jobs so that this year’s graduating class could look forward with less anxiety and more opportunity? Why have we stood by and allowed such an unconscionable gap to grow between rich and poor in our own country and overseas? Why in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence have we done so little to safeguard the environmental health of our planet? Why do our politicians so often remind us of kindergartners who refuse to share the swings? And why are older people in general so clueless about wireless communications?
It would be natural then, if in addition to the excitement of this graduation day, you’re feeling a little sorry for yourselves because the world you’re about to inherit is a troubled one. But to those who see this imperfect request as unfair, in the words of Bradley [Bermont, RWU Student Commencement Speaker], get over it! Every generation has its burdens.
In mine, we faced the possibility that Cold War tensions would bring us to the threshold of nuclear conflict. School children routinely practiced hiding under desks as if that would provide an effective shield against the deadly effects of radiation. At the same time, our country was only beginning to heed the call of a young Baptist minister who urged us to confront the ugly reality of racism. There followed years of struggle including Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination, leaving behind both a challenge and a dream.
As for women back then, we were still expected to exist primarily as satellites of men. The United States had few women ambassadors, but they were all single. If they got married, they also got fired because it was thought that no woman could possibly cope with the twin duties of family and job. As you might suspect, this did affect my own options. Until long after I left college, I couldn’t imagine ever becoming Secretary of State. And it’s not that I lacked ambition – it’s just that I’d never seen a Secretary of State in a skirt. Now, my youngest granddaughter, when she turned seven two years ago, said, “What’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie being Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretary of State.”
I mention this ancient history only to show that the Class of 2012 is far from unique. The human condition requires that we struggle. And whether you’re an individual, a county or a generation, you will be tested and forced to choose your own path. But not every test or choice is the same.
Over the past four years, you have sharpened your capabilities, identified the areas of study that intrigued you the most, gained vast amounts of knowledge and become familiar with people who are much different from you, whether they live across the ocean or in a dorm room down the hall.
But you’ve also learned how to ask questions and acquired, I hope, an unquenchable thirst to learn more. Because the college degree you will soon receive is more a beginning than an end, recognizing less what you have already done than what you are now prepared to do.
It used to be that when coming of age most people had a fair idea of where they would live and what careers they would pursue, many following their parents’ footsteps or finding a niche in a stable profession. However, today stability is an alien concept. In the past decade alone, many of the brand names that flourished when you were younger – from Toys ‘R Us to Blockbuster and MySpace – have fallen under hard times. Meanwhile, such fields as law, business, engineering, healthcare, journalism and education are being transformed.
So as you look ahead, you realize that the demands of the workplace will continue to change and that maintaining a certain level of knowledge is no longer enough. Whether your primary goal is personal success, community service or a combination of the two, you will have to keep learning because there’s always more to know. For this you should be grateful because the quest to learn more is a vital part of what it means to be alive.
It is what prompts us to look at an ocean and want to find ways to preserve the miracle of life within it. To create an innovative work of art that will excite experts and non-experts alike; to design a building in a style not previously attempted; or to develop fresh strategies for taking on the international axis of evil – poverty, ignorance and disease. The desire to do everything you can with the time you have will, if you let it, enable you to reach new frontiers no matter how far from home you actually travel. But as you explore the world in this era of constant change, I advise you also to bear in mind what does not change.
And here I must confess to feelings of envy. I teach at Georgetown University. Now, this is a great school but it was named for King George II – a pompous man who disliked books almost as much as he loathed children and whose only true love was the mirror. Roger Williams, on the other hand, was a spectacular human being, dedicated to the quest for truth, compassionate toward others and gutsy as they come. Because of his convictions he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and compelled to flee alone in the midst of a January blizzard.
Now, it may be hard for us to relate to Roger Williams – we know him best as a statue or in portraits with his 17th century clothing and long white hair. So it might help to envision him as someone more familiar, perhaps Orlando Bloom in a starring role. Then we can picture him trudging through the wind and snow until being saved in the nick of time by Native Americans whose only language only he among other European settlers had bothered to learn.
We can observe him insisting that Massachusetts rightfully belonged to the Wampanoag and Narragansett, who were entitled to compensation for any land that was transferred. We can hear him declaring that no government could dictate to its citizens what to believe about matters of conscience and soul. And we can imagine him founding a colony of independent thinkers called Rhode Island, for a time the freest society on Earth.
Roger Williams could have pursued a comfortable life. Instead, by defying bigotry and despotism, he lived a memorable one. He never stopped asking questions nor did he ever fail to do right by others when pursuing his dreams. I can offer you no better model for living than that.
In closing, let me say to the Class of 2012 that is has not been my desire to place the weight of the world upon your shoulders, for that will always be your parents’ job. But I do hope that when you accept your diplomas you will do so determined to make the most of life despite the problems handed down to you by my generation. And that you will use your learning and skills to keep pace with technology while also understanding that there is no technological answer to the tests that matter most.
I invite you to live each day with the knowledge that your actions and choices truly do count and that every challenge surmounted by your energy, every problem solved by your wisdom, every soul awakened by your passion and every barrier to justice brought down by your courage will inspire others and enrich your own journey on this Earth. Thank you very much for making me a member of your class.