Welcome and congratulations to the Denison University class of 2014. I find myself wistful today. I am excited for you and for all that you will accomplish. And I will miss you. I want to start by thanking you for being so welcoming to my family and me. And I want to express my respect and admiration for you, both as individuals and as a class.
Over the last few weeks, I have asked seniors for some memories from your four years here. The list I received is way too long to read, but I want to share a few highlights:
Let’s start with the weather! Who can forget that. You had classes canceled because of snow and ice when you had a president from Texas, and classes were held despite minus 15-degree temperatures when your new president had just moved here from Vermont. Your first year, there were hundreds of tornado warnings. And during 2012, the Summer Scholars were asked to temporarily vacate campus after a giant windstorm knocked out power for more than a week.
On a more serious note, there have been successes on top of successes. Students were recognized by prestigious organizations as diverse as Fulbright, Posse, and Teach for America, to name a few. Academic papers were published and presented at national conferences. Amazing research and creative works were completed by students in close collaboration with faculty. Many of your completed senior research that rivalled that of master level students.
There have been athletic victories galore. Your class has helped to win 20 NCAC championships, three conference All-Sports Trophies, and two National Championships. Not to be outdone, today’s graduates have made significant achievements across the arts, from V and P Monologues to a plethora of plays by DITA and the Women's Performance Group; amazing contemporary and African dance including performing with the Dayton Dance Company, original one-acts, and Blue Grass, a cappella groups, Improv comedy, student films, and everything in between.
Since you arrived in the fall of 2010, there has been campus construction, including the renovation of Huffman and a New Cabin at the Homestead with electricity. Ebaugh Laboratories were renovated and expanded. And we have a new state-of-the-art pool and fitness center.
There have been amazing speakers who challenged us, including Madeline Albright; Jimmy Wales; Paul Rusesabangia; John Huntsman; Diane Nash; and Denison’s own Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas.
There have been events that brought the community together—the annual galas; the 2012 national election; Matt and Kim and Wale for D-Day; White Panda, Anchor Splash and many more events sponsored by other organizations; Outdoor Beach Season concerts; a Presidential inauguration and inaugural ball; even naked week; And there has been the tragic loss of three classmates. In those difficult moments you have supported one another and inspired those who watched you respond.
And finally, there has been a lot of fun, along with some odd stuff, including the Somewhere Else Bar; Mainstream Monday; the pizza truck that used to hang out by East Quad; the Pizza Hut cheese sticks, a deer jumping through a window into Slayter, and something called The Sizzler.
Of course this list is far from inclusive. But it makes the larger point that education is the sum total of its parts. Education is what happens at the intersection of the new, the challenging, the fun, the unexpected, the engaging, and the hard, the difficult and the tragic.
It also underscores the importance of community. Yesterday at the Baccalaureate ceremony, I stated that community at Denison is created by the strength of enduring relationships that are formed on this hill.
Many of those relationships are between students and faculty. Our students talk about our faculty with great admiration, and our faculty talk about our students with tremendous enthusiasm, commitment, and joy. The student-faculty relationship, which has always run deep at Denison, endures in remarkable ways.
Relationships run equally as deep between students. Our students come to Denison and forge friendships that last a lifetime and often transcend generations.
And relationships run deep between staff and students. In the true sense of community, our staff members build relationships with students that speak volumes about the values and culture of this college.
The intersection of these relationships gives Denison a special feel. And through these relationships, amazing people receive a world-class education. Last week, a senior faculty member described Denison’s education as being anchored by three core values:
The first is self-determination. The relationships that form at Denison provide a foundation from which students find their voice, becoming the kind of autonomous thinkers the world so desperately needs. A graduating senior said to me, “the relationships gave me confidence, which allowed me to feel that it was okay to be vulnerable and to take chances.” Another student said to me that forging relationships with such a wide array of individuals helped her understand that people think differently, and she had to learn to think for herself. Denison relationships help students come to know who they are, what they value, and the kinds of lives they want to lead.
The second is community. The relationships that form at Denison help students realize that life is a joint activity. Many of our joys come from our interactions with others. Much of the learning and success comes from support and engagement with others. And perhaps most importantly, we all have an obligation to others and to a larger world. When congratulating a student for being named to a high award for athletics participation, she wrote back to me, “The stats of a player are always a reflection of the team as a whole, and I am so proud to be a part of such a talented and hard-working group of student-athletes.” This is a college that produces graduates who are committed to and capable of building and sustaining community in important ways. We produce graduates who lead great lives, but in service to things larger than themselves.
I like the way our Environmental Studies Fellows framed the Green Graduation Pledge so many of you have signed, which reads, “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of the decisions I make in my personal life and actions I take in my professional career. I will strive to continually better my community and the global society in which I live.”
The third is success. The relationships that are formed at Denison help students to develop the habit and the thrill of excellence. We push each other, and we are role models for one another. This is a college that expects excellence in all areas. We demand it in the classroom, strive for it on athletics fields, in the arts and other campus organizations, and embed it as a value to shape the life of the college and our graduates. This is a place that asks all members to “step up” and to always strive for excellence.
These are certainly not the only values that anchor Denison, but they are important ones that make the point about the multiplicity of ways relationships matter, and the ways those relationships lead to a fantastic education.
As you look forward, I charge you, our graduating seniors, with taking at least three sets of skills, values and habits from your Denison liberal arts education.
The first is being a lifelong learner. Produce and consume knowledge as part of your everyday life. Be a person who understands the value of asking good questions, collecting sound data, and forming views based on logic, reason, and sound thinking.
The second is being a person who connects. To quote the historian William Cronon, the liberal arts prepares students to draw connections. Be the person who connects seemingly disparate people, helping them find the commonalities and learning to love the differences. Be someone who connects ideas to find new ways of thinking. Be the person who connects ideas to actions, thereby making a difference in the world.
A faculty member wrote to me a few weeks ago, “Something that truly defines Denison is that this is a place for making connections – in so many senses of the word ‘connections.’ There are, of course, the quite literal neurological connections that are made when students and faculty learn new things or learn new ways to think about something. There are the (often deep) connections students and faculty make with each other, the connections students make with one another (many of which will last a lifetime!), the connections between various disciplines and classes, the Denison connection with our alumni network, and the many connections between faculty across disciplines.”
The ability to connect is a gift we have given you; use it to anchor your life.
The third is to be a person who aspires to excellence in all that you do. To be a Denisonian is to do things well, with a never-ending quest for excellence in service of success.
This is a great college. You are a great Denison class. And this has been a magnificent year. Congratulations Denison class of 2014.