Ithaca, NY--Gail Sheehy, renowned political journalist and author of four widely read books on advancing through life's passages, shared her insights on milestone events in an address at Ithaca College's 106th Commencement.
"There's a revolution in the adult life cycle," Sheehy told the 1,318 new graduates and their guests at the May 19 ceremony. "People are taking longer to grow up and much, much longer to grow old. And the emergence of this extra life cries out for new models and myths and mentors."
Sheehy, whose 1976 best-seller "Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life" was named in a Library of Congress survey as one of the 10 most influential books of our time, compared these passages to the way a lobster sheds its protective but confining shell. Though the process leaves the animal exposed and vulnerable, it also opens the way to fresh possibilities and new horizons.
"This is where most of you are now," Sheehy said. "You've been in a nice, protected, somewhat isolated community for four years. You formed many bonds. It's both exciting and a little scary to leave that protective shell, but if there's one thing I've been convinced of in 30 years of interviewing and studying people who made passages, it's this: These periods of disruption are not only inevitable, they're desirable because they are growth."
In a world where 9-year-old girls are developing breasts, 12-year-old boys are taking guns to school while 30-year-old men still live at home, and women in their 40s are just starting to think about pregnancy as 60-year-old women are having egg-donor babies, Sheehy offered the new graduates four rules for finding success:
Use your 20s to try everything you can. Reserve the absolute right to change because a lot of what people learn in their 20s is what not to do.
Pay your dues. Be prepared to learn new skills, stay open and flexible, and keep educating yourself.
Don't be afraid to fail, and preferably fail early.
Don't be afraid to dream.
"Oftentimes people will tell you, 'No.' They'll say you're not good enough. They'll say you're too short or too thin or too slow or too nice. They'll tell you a thousand times until the 'no's become meaningless. They will tell you 'No,' and you will tell them 'Yes.'"
The ceremony began with Herman E. Muller Jr. '51--who is stepping down after eight years as chairman of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees--welcoming the new graduates to the fold of Ithaca alumni.
"As I retire from my role as chairman of the board, I know I will look back on many fine memories," Muller said. "This is truly a great institution, and I have considered it an honor to help provide leadership over the years."
In addition to honoring its new graduates, the College also recognized the accomplishments of faculty members. Associate professor of biology John Confer, saxophone professor Steven Mauk, and associate professor of physical therapy Michael Pagliarulo were cited for earning awards of excellence in scholarship, teaching, and service, respectively. In addition, emeritus status was conferred on retired faculty members Jan Saltzgaber (history), Lucille Schmieder (biology), and Mildred Brammer (biology).
The graduates also heard from senior class president Margaret Booze, who joined with her fellow class officers to present College president Peggy R. Williams with the class gift of $13,793.
"Today and every day we are given gifts," Booze said. "Many of us have big plans for what we are going to do to change things for the better in this world, and big plans are good to have. They guide us. They help us fulfill our dreams. But making the world a better place doesn't require big plans. The easiest and most effective way is to go out into this world and show your gratitude by passing on the good things that come your way. We all have the ability and the opportunity to change the lives of those around us."
President Williams, in her closing remarks, reminded the graduates that they arrived on campus the same time she did and that she delivered her first freshman Convocation address to this class four years ago. In that speech she included a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson--the same quote inscribed on the medallions the new graduates had been given to welcome them as Ithaca College alumni: "We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seemed to have ascended; there are stairs above us...which go out of sight."
"At significant times in your lives you will find yourself on those stairs," Williams said. "As you move forward and upward, I hope that you will continue to learn from experience and apply what you have learned here at Ithaca College."
Sometimes the steps in life's journey will be steep and bumpy; sometimes the steps will be gradual and smooth, she noted. But whether the journey is easy or hard, the president admonished the graduates to have faith in their abilities and have confidence in those who will support them when they need it most. Above all, Williams said, never stop dreaming.
"You now stand on these stairs with knowledge and experience, ready to take the next step. Looking back, you have a sense of satisfaction in your many accomplishments, and looking forward, you have that returned sense of excitement and anticipation for what is to come. As for today on those metaphorical stairs where you stand, I encourage you to seize this special moment, reflect, project, and most of all, celebrate."