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Commencement 2011Commencement 2011
May 22, 2011

August 27, 2007. That was the day many of you began your college experience by attending our convocation for new students. The day was warm and sunny. I am sure that if you close your eyes you will remember that day as if it were yesterday. At the same time, it probably seems like you began your college career a lifetime ago. So much has changed in such a short time – both within you and in the world at large.

You graduate into a world in which the amount of uncertainty is as great as it has been for a very long time. It is that uncertainty that reminded me of a film called The Graduate, starring a very young Dustin Hoffman in his first movie role. Hoffman plays a new college graduate named Benjamin. His parents are proud and see a sky-high future for him, but Benjamin just mopes around the house after graduating. Everyone around him seems to be so sure of themselves, and so sure that Benjamin will be a great success in life. Benjamin, by contrast, isn’t sure of anything. He is uncertain about what he wants and feels guilty that he does not want the opportunities his parents and their friends try to offer him. All Benjamin knows for sure is that he aspires to something different from the life he sees around him.

In a famous bit of dialog from the movie, a friend of Benjamin’s parents decides to give him a little man-to-man advice. “I want to say one word to you, son – just one word.”

“Yes sir?” replies Benjamin.

“Are you listening?”

“Yes I am,” says Benjamin.

“Plastics,” says the neighbor.

There is a long pause as Benjamin stares at the other man.

“Just how do you mean that, sir?”

The dialog was funny at the time because plastics was already understood to be more the wave of the recent past than the wave of the future. It would be as if the one word of advice today were “microprocessors.”

But the neighbor’s prediction turned out to be more prescient than it seemed at the time. The future may not have been about plastics, but the future itself turned out to be incredibly plastic. Change has become the only constant we can rely upon.

If Benjamin had been a real person, he would have received his bachelor’s degree in 1967 – the year the film was released. He would now be 65 or 66 years old, about to retire. Think what he would have witnessed between the day he graduated and his retirement this year. When Benjamin graduated, the greatest threat to American security was a country called the Soviet Union. The largest corporation in the world was General Motors, the same General Motors that recently emerged from bankruptcy. When Benjamin graduated, no one had ever been to the moon. And, unlike many of you, we know that Benjamin actually listened to the speeches at his commencement because he had no other options unless he brought with him either a transistor radio or a battery-powered record player.

Today, the odds are pretty good that Benjamin is retiring from a job that did not exist in 1967, or that existed but is now performed in an entirely different way using technologies that were not even dreamed of when his career began.

Of course, 45 years is a long time. But consider the pace of change in just the last four years – the span of time most of you have been at Ithaca College. When you were freshmen, there had never been an African-American president of the United States and there was no reason to think there would be one any time soon. When you started at IC, there had not yet been a global financial meltdown triggered by misplaced confidence in financial instruments that few people understood.

The first iPhone came out just before you began your freshman year. Today, as you graduate, you can buy a fourth generation iPhone at your local electronics store. And the blogs are full of rumors about new capabilities that will be added to the iPhone 5, surely coming soon.

I am willing to bet you are looking forward to the release of the iPhone 5—and 6 and 7 and 8. You will joyfully explore whatever new plug-ins and apps they may have. You have not yet reached the generational divide at which one develops a desire to just have technology sit still for a few years so we can get comfortable with our existing gadgets before trading them in for new ones. And here is something very exciting: you might never cross that generational divide. You may be the ones for whom change is so omnipresent that the only thing that would make you uncomfortable would be to find out that there will not soon be another major advance in the way we stay connected with each other. You were born into a world of rapid change, and things have been speeding up ever since.

Benjamin, The Graduate of 1967, was depressed because no one offered him answers about his future that he could believe in. You, the graduate of today, are equipped to generate your own answers. More of you than in any previous generation over the last century will work in small businesses. You may work directly with the company’s founder. You might BE the company’s founder. You will in any case forge your own path rather than following a path laid down by others.

At the August 2007 convocation welcoming you to campus on the first official day of your freshman year, Ithaca College President Peggy Williams posed a rhetorical question: “Who is responsible for your learning in the coming four years?” Her answer: “You are.”

Today, at the commencement marking your last official day as a student at Ithaca College, I want to echo President Williams’s thoughts: You are responsible for your learning and for your success in the years ahead. You are responsible for fulfilling your potential, for being happy, and for making a difference in the world.

I know the statement that you are responsible can be a little bit … terrifying. But the upside of that same thought is that you are able to shape your own destiny. It is in that vein that I leave you with the thought engraved on your commencement medallion: “Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself." Those words were written by William Faulkner, a Nobel laureate who, in an uncharacteristically brief pair of sentences, offers great wisdom for blazing your own path. I hope you will carry this medallion with you through life, and that you will carry with it the determination to strive always to be better than yourself.

I congratulate you on the journey you have taken as students at Ithaca College. I hope you will stay in touch so I can follow your continued journey. I promise to do my part: I will carry an iPhone to make it easy for you to stay in touch, even if I don’t have the latest one. Finally, and above all, I welcome you as alumni of Ithaca College.