Speeches

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Commencement 2003Commencement 2003
Ithaca College, May 18, 2003

Thank you, Maureen [Devine, senior class president], and all of you -- class officers and members of the class of 2003, parents and friends -- for your wonderful gift [of approximately $26,000], and thanks to the class officers for your wonderful leadership this year. I hope that the experience was rewarding for you, and I know that your leadership skills have been enhanced by this experience. The Ithaca College annual fund is a critical component of our giving program and we appreciate your generous support. You have left your mark at Ithaca College -- the beautiful clock for the academic quad will be a meaningful legacy for you when you return and for all the students who follow in your footsteps.

So Senior Week is over. Hard to believe. It provided a culmination to your years here as well as an opportunity to appreciate the friendships to which Maureen referred. The close friendships you developed here will last a lifetime. This is a wonderful aspect of the College experience, and I join Maureen in encouraging you to stay in touch with your wonderful friends in the near term and for the long term.

Graduates, I know you feel that the time has flown, and so do we. You joined the Ithaca College community just a few short years ago. At that time we welcomed each of you into our College family, and we shared your excitement for the possibilities and opportunities that lay ahead for you. At your fall Convocation, I shared my hopes and dreams for you and your time at Ithaca College. During the intervening years, and shaped by a multitude of people and experiences, you have become the individuals you are today. I am confident that you are different in many ways from who you were when you arrived on campus as first-year students.

Regardless of what program or discipline you studied, I hope you leave here having developed good lifetime habits of mind that will continue to serve you well in the years ahead. Ithaca College's liberal arts tradition has provided you with critical thinking and reasoning skills, intellectual breadth, and a capacity to deal with an infinite range of information and knowledge -- including that yet to be discovered.

This morning, when you came through the procession, you were given a special medallion by members of the Ithaca College Community Alumni association, that is, alumni of the College who work at the College. This tradition -- the presentation of medallions by our alumni -- is an important symbolic gesture. Today Ithaca College alumni, almost 50,000 strong, welcome you into their ranks. Through your aptitude and diligence, you have earned your place here. Your new role as an alumnus includes several specific responsibilities.

  • First, carry the knowledge and skills learned at Ithaca College into the world to improve the welfare of humankind by whatever means you are able.
     
  • Second, let others know, by your example, of the commitment to excellence that is the hallmark of Ithaca College.
     
  • Third, support your fellow alumni and current students through the many opportunities available here on campus and those sponsored by our alumni across the country.
     
  • Fourth, and finally, support the next generation of scholars at Ithaca College by volunteering to offer guidance and opportunities to our young people. We look forward to all of the contributions you can make to the well-being of future students, just as the contributions of past students have contributed significantly to the quality of your experience here.

We are proud of Ithaca College graduates, the group you joined today. The contributions they make and the successes they achieve are stupendous. I am very confident that you will continue in this long-standing tradition of excellence.

I want to take a pause in my remarks about the medallion. I want to give you graduates a chance to thank a very special group of people who've helped you reach this milestone. Will each graduate please stand and turn around and express your appreciation to parents, grandparents, families, and friends for their support. Your accomplishments are the reflections of their dreams, their sacrifices, and their support.

Returning to the medallions: on one side of your medallion is the official College seal, recognizing the history, tradition, and mission of Ithaca College. While this side of the medallion has remained constant for virtually every graduate since we began the tradition, the other side includes a quotation unique to your class.

This year the quotation is from Mahatma Gandhi -- a spiritual and political leader whose life's work was dedicated to peace, justice, and nonviolence. For family and friends in the audience, the quotation reads: "Be the change you want to see in the world." I thought it fitting to select a quotation that offered each of you a simple yet powerful message -- a message that conveys both opportunity and responsibility.

Whether you realize it or not, you have had the privilege, during your time here, to share and experience diverse and divergent perspectives and points of view. This is truly a unique aspect of life in the academy. Unfortunately, our world does not always reflect or appreciate this. Nevertheless, you have the opportunity to serve as the inspiration for critical, thoughtful, and civil dialogue. You also have the responsibility, as educated citizens, to continue to be informed, to continue to share your thoughts, and to continue to invite and listen to the perspectives of others -- even when those differ from your own -- and to find your special role for making this world a better place for all.

Important moments such as today are appropriate times to pause and look back as you also look ahead. As you continue to dream and plan for your future, you need to think about what you learned in coming to this point. Today, as you prepare to close one chapter of your life and begin another, I offer these few thoughts within the context of Gandhi's words:

First, develop the gifts you have or want to have. Identify the skills and talents that you enjoy using and those that express the real you. Know what you love and what you do well. Keep thinking, "What are my gifts; what are my interests?" And then ask yourself, "How can I use these and share these with society?"

Next, identify your ideals and put those to work. Each of you has ideals as well as talents. Know what you believe in. Too many people only know what they are against. The world needs your energy and your wisdom now and in the years ahead. You are now, or soon will be, the "they" you have spoken of so often during your years here, when you have said to one another, "When are they going to do such and such? Why in heaven's name did they do that?" You are now the they who will and must be responsible for setting the tone, establishing priorities, and, through your actions and contributions, ultimately shaping our world -- from the micro level of your local community, to your workplace, and to the broader reach of the nation and world. You will live out this responsibility by your everyday actions and beliefs.

So, what do you stand for? What's important to you? Think for a moment: if you were up here instead of me, what would you tell this audience about your list of the most vital issues facing us today -- issues that you feel need our attention? Would it be the environment? The economy? Health care? Youth? The aged? Education?

If your list of issues is very long, it can be overwhelming and even discouraging, as you may feel that there is just "too much to be done." However, to have a list that is too short, or no list at all, reflects a lack of interest or commitment to society beyond yourself. So, what is on your list? What beliefs will guide your work, your community service, and even your use of free time? How will you keep those issues before you in the years ahead?

And finally, find nourishment for your whole person. Whatever your work or life role may be, do it well and remember your responsibility to others. At the same time, think about what your life will be beyond that and remember your responsibility to yourself. Who else are you, beyond your work or your life work: a skier, a musician, an avid reader, an ice cream lover? Do things for yourself that give you satisfaction; be good to yourself, and surround yourself with interesting ideas and good people.

You need not address all these questions and challenges today. Rather, I ask you to keep them in mind in the days and years ahead as you chart your course and find your own ways to have an impact. Above all, as you look ahead, do not pressure yourselves to determine What will I do with the rest of my life? Because What will I do with the rest of my life? is the question that you should always keep before you. Answers will be revealed as you continue to explore, question, and experience life. The ability to find comfort and confidence in this ambiguity does not suggest that you are without direction, but rather that you are always charting your direction and always making choices.

The most important thing we have in life is time. How do you want to spend it? What difference do you want to make? The choice is yours. Keep Gandhi's words with you as your guide: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

In closing, I would like to share a short story with you that I feel connects well with Gandhi's words. It is a story once told by Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer was a black woman, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, and one of 20 children. Never enabled to pursue her right to a full formal education, she was nonetheless educated. She was wise and visionary. As a civil rights worker and grassroots leader, she inspired many people -- black and white, young and old -- to work for a more humane society. She once told this short story about a wise old man:

This old man could answer questions that were impossible for others to answer. One day, two young people, thinking they were very clever, said, "We're going to trick that old man today. We're going to catch a bird and we are going to carry it to him and we're going to ask him, 'This that we hold in our hands today -- is it alive or is it dead?' If he says, 'Dead,' we're going to turn it loose and let it fly. But if he says, 'Alive,' we're going to crush it." So they walked up to the old man and said, "This that we hold in our hands today -- is it alive or is it dead?" And the old man replied, "It's in your hands."

As you begin another chapter in your life story and you look out into the unknowns of a complicated world -- a place in need of powerful hope and leadership -- you hold opportunity in your hands. Cherish it, use it wisely and humanely, and enjoy yourselves in the process.

Graduates, as we draw this ceremony to a close, thank you for choosing Ithaca College. You have truly enriched our community through your contributions, your perspectives, and your fun-loving personalities. On behalf of the entire Ithaca College community, I wish you well in all that lies ahead. We will miss you! And in the words of Garrison Keillor, from that famous radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."

All the best!