Commencement Recap 2012
Follow the links below to read the transcripts of Denison’s 2012 Commencement speakers:
Please be seated. On behalf of the Board of Trustees of Denison University, I am delighted to welcome you to Denison’s 171st Annual Commencement exercises concluding the 181st year of the college.
Class of 2012, today you become alumni. You join the distinguished men and women who have gone before you as graduates of this prominent institution. We trust that you will realize your life dreams with great accomplishments and that you will serve your communities, your nation, and your world with distinction. It is this combination of achievement and service that has characterized Denisonians throughout the years and will undoubtedly characterize the graduates who walk across the stage today.
Today we will also honor Dr. Ellen Gould Chadwick, Class of 1975, with an honorary degree. We will have the opportunity to hear remarks from Dr. Chadwick, whose work in pediatric and adolescent HIV/AIDS exemplifies the best of the kind of transformative work Denison prepares young men and women to undertake.
Today we not only mark the conclusion of your academic enterprise over the past four years, we look into the future you and others of your generation will create. Perhaps one of you will even sit where Dr. Chadwick sits today to receive an honorary degree at some future Commencement, or stand where I stand as a member of the Board of Trustees, looking out across the field of graduating Denisonians and sending them forth to make their marks on the world. Wherever life takes you, we have no doubt that you will represent your alma mater admirably.
On behalf of all alumni who have served as Trustees through the years, I thank you, Class of 2012, for joining the Denison family. You have allowed Denison to become a part of you, and you have given the college and its community much in return. Congratulations, and welcome to the Society of the Alumni!
This is the 171st Commencement of Denison University, but, members of the Class of 2012, you are graduating in the college’s 181st year since its founding in the fall of 1831. There were no graduates, of course, in the first years of the college’s existence and the Civil War interrupted the progress toward a degree for many students a century and a half ago—thus the discrepancy between the college’s age and number of its Commencements. On this special day we have heard the fanfare for the Class of 2012 performed by an ensemble of the Denison Orchestra conducted by Professor Andy Carlson. You’ve heard the fanfare before; it was written for your induction onto the rolls of the college in 2008 by Professor HyeKyung Lee of the Department of Music.
In the 181 years since its founding, Denison has evolved from a frontier academy into a leading undergraduate arts and sciences college with a national and even international reputation. It has not stood still during the last four years, either, and maybe just a few highlights of the changes around you will encourage you as about-to-be graduates to reflect upon the personal evolution you have experienced since you arrived here from high school. As I point out to graduates every year, since you arrived on campus, Class of 2012, about sixteen hundred other men and women with whom you shared this campus in the fall of 2008—the sophomores, juniors, and seniors of your first year— have already graduated and a similar number have taken their places in the classes that follow behind you. While at any point in the last four years, we have been a college of approximately 2100, you’ve actually crossed paths with, learned with and from, and made friends among nearly 4,000 Denisonians during your four years here, and your sense of comradeship will only grow as you become reacquainted with them at reunions and alumni activities in years to come.
Change has come to the faculty during your time at Denison, too. Not only have there been four years of retirements of accomplished senior faculty and key college staff, including three professors who we especially recognize today, but forty-two new professors joined the permanent Denison faculty since you arrived, bringing their special skills and energies to the classroom, laboratory, and studio. And because of the generous support of alumni, parents, and friends of the college shared with Denison during the “Higher Ground Campaign” that was completed in 2008, the faculty is actually larger today than when you began, enhancing student-faculty interaction which is at the heart of a Denison education. Although you may have forgotten it, when you arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, Cleveland Hall was still making its transition from a 1904 men’s gymnasium to the spectacular Bryant Arts Center that opened your sophomore year. The construction fence that went up around Ebaugh Laboratories at the end of your sophomore year was down when you returned last fall, and students and faculty alike have declared the completely rebuilt facilities for Chemistry and Biochemistry that opened in August “Ebaughsome!”
Nor will the campus freeze itself in time after your departure today and preserve itself unchanged as you begin to enjoy your new status as alumni/ae. Nine new tenure track professors will join us in the fall. And soon, of course, taking your place on campus will be some 615 members of the Class of 2016, men and women a little like you were in the fall of 2008, but different, too, with their own character, tastes, and perspectives.
Physical changes are coming, too. Last year’s big hole in the ground is now a state-of-the-art aquatic center due to open later this summer. As it comes to completion, an addition on the front of the older Gregory Pool and Livingston Gymnasium buildings will provide a new entrance and gathering area, new coaching offices and athletic training areas, and, finally, the old Gregory Pool will be renovated into a bi-level fitness area promoting healthy activity for the entire campus community. When classes resume next fall, a renovated and expanded Chamberlin Lodge on the North Quad will offer apartment style accommodations to 56 more seniors. No, Denison won’t be EXACTLY the same each time you return to the hill as alumni/ae. And I hope you wouldn’t want it any other way; it will be better!
But these are just road marks of the changes that have come to you as women and men. There are certainly more profound indicators of those changes in the collective accomplishments of the Class of 2012. In all, you number 512 graduates and you have earned 7 Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, 88 Bachelor of Science degrees, and 417 Bachelor of Arts degrees.
The Co-Valedictorians of the class (with perfect 4.0 cumulative grade point averages) are Karen Watts of Lewis Center, Ohio, who has earned a B. A. in East Asian Studies, and Courtney Yong of Richmond, California, who has earned a B.S. in Biochemistry. The Co-Salutatorian’s (with matching 3.99 GPAs—curse that A minus!) are Rachel Stevenson from Fairlawn, Ohio, earning a B.A. in Biology, and Samuel Wolock, of Leawood, Kansas, earning a B.S. in Biochemistry. Actually, 103 of you have prospered so well in your studies that you are graduating with Latin honors—47 cum laude, 39 magna cum laude, and 17 receiving the highest honor, summa cum laude—recognized by different color shoulder cords on each recipient’s gown. Yesterday, I participated in the induction of thirty-four members of the Class into Phi Beta Kappa, the historic national academic honor society, joining two members of the Class who had the rare honor of being inducted last year as Juniors. On Friday, I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Joan Krone and faculty colleagues at a ceremony to recognize seven graduates who fulfilled the requirements of Denison’s Honors Program, the last graduates of this curricular initiative begun in the 1980s. And across the college, no fewer than 61 of you are recognized for the success of your senior research projects, which are the result of sustained independent scholarship and close collaboration with a faculty mentor. And if you think you are hearing or, in some cases seeing, double as the names of graduates are called, we have four sets twins in the class: the Carreros, Nicholsons, Rays, and Vaskes!
Several of you have represented your classmates especially well by attracting national attention for your academic achievements. Post-graduate international study and teaching awards funded through different elements of the Fulbright program were earned by Chelsea McGill, who is going to Bangladesh, and Marissa Ortiz, who is headed to the Czech Republic. Dee Salukombo earned special recognition by having his proposal to develop a Technology Learning Center for the Congolese community in his original hometown of Kirotshe accepted and funded by the international Davis Projects for Peace program.
As these forms of recognition highlight, members of the Class of 2012 repeatedly seized opportunities to challenge themselves both in and out of the classroom. Many of today’s graduates participated actively on one of the 27 service committees of the Denison Community Association or in the America Reads Program, providing this year alone more than 21,000 hours of documented service to area schools, communities, and social service agencies. Elena Speridakos received a statewide Charles J. Ping Award for service excellence from the Ohio Campus Compact and Dean Stambules was singled out by the Granville Area Chamber of Commerce to receive the annual Kussmaul Award for exceptional student service to the local community through his work as a youth lacrosse coach. Today, providing visual evidence of the commitment of many Denison students to preserving the quality of life worldwide are the green ribbons worn on student and faculty gowns that have been distributed as part of a nationwide effort to give college men and women the opportunity to affirm their intention to consider the social and environmental implications of the work they do and the lives they lead.
For 12 of the last 14 years, Denison has owned the All-Sports Trophy, now called the Collins Trophy, of the North Coast Athletic Conference. On the strength of first place conference finishes in field hockey, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving; second-place finishes in women’s basketball and men’s tennis; and third-place finishes in football, men’s golf and women’s tennis, Denison will either win the trophy again or come in a very close second. The men’s swimming and diving team, under the leadership of NCAA Swimming Coach of the Year Gregg Parini and Head Diving Coach Jason Glorius, as we all know, captured the NCAA Division III national championship for the second year in a row, with the women’s squad not far behind in third place nationally. men’s lacrosse has had its winningest season in 45 years and has advanced to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament. as has women’s lacrosse and softball, winners of their North Coast Conference tourneys, also advanced to NCAA play. Between one and three runners are likely to represent the college in the NCAA track and field national championship, and we expect that we may also be represented at the NCAAs in tennis.
I am particularly pleased that so many Denison student athletes were recognized at the conference, regional, or national level by placement on all-academic teams, evidence that the discipline of athletics can help prepare men and women for academic excellence. Kate Westenberger of the Class of 2012 was recently invested with Denison’s brand new James T. Glerum Presidential Award for having combined academic, athletic, and leadership excellence and Chris Kozlowski and Brittany Brannon were recognized with the Scheiderer and Schweizer Awards for turning in the strongest academic performance for, respectively, a man and a woman, among almost 150 graduating seniors participating on varsity athletic teams. Chris Olson and Emily Schroeder received the North Coast Athletic Conference Scholar-Athlete Awards.
Many Denison students thrive upon the combination of academic challenge, off-campus service, and campus leadership in different proportions appropriate to their own individual interests. Some pursue these combinations with such remarkable results that they earn the acclaim of faculty, college staff, and fellow students alike. Special exemplars of this are recognized as Denison President’s Medalists. The Class of 2012 includes four honorees, who were announced at the Academic Awards Convocation in April and who will be the first to cross the stage to receive their diplomas today. They are Meg Gaertner, Nicki Jimenez, Steven Profitt, and Jessica Wilson.
As a class, 2012, you have accomplished much at Denison—much that builds in the rest of us anticipation for your achievements in the years ahead. Those of us on the faculty and staff of the college and certainly you yourselves recognize that you do not come to this day of passage entirely on your own. Consequently, before we move on to the next events in this ceremony, I’d like us to recognize the large and very special group of people who have made this day possible. We honor them for their commitment and sacrifices and thank them for their sustained love and support. Members of the Class of 2012, would you please stand, turn toward your families and friends who are here to celebrate your achievement, and join me and the faculty in expressing our appreciation with applause.
Finally, we also dedicate this day to the memory of those parents, family members, and friends, whose loss during these college years inevitably makes commencement less complete for some of us. The Class of 2012 suffered the special loss last summer of Gus McCravey, who is remembered by many friends.
Fellow members of the graduating class of 2012, today I am thinking about maps. Having come of age in the twenty-first century, we are accustomed to thinking of maps as things concrete; detailed schematics double- and triple-checked by military satellites. The age of exploration has come and gone, and now any cartographic discrepancies are the result of deliberate, often political, choices. Not all that long ago, however, cartography was more of an art than a science and conjured a wildly different set of images and connotations. During the Golden Age of Mapmaking in the late 16th and 17th centuries, cartography was a pursuit characterized by risky adventuring, romanticism and a healthy dose of mythos. One need not read biographies of old mapmakers to find evidence of this romantic sensibility. It is present in the maps themselves, many of which include lavish illustrations of sea monsters, rolling ships and exotic shores. It strikes me that these are the kinds of maps all of us will begin to draw for ourselves as we fly the educational coop, despite the apparent “chartedness” of the modern world. For a map is as much a diagram of the cartographer’s inner geography as it is a representation of the contours of coastlines and mountains they encounter on their journey.
As we begin to draft these maps, we are faced by the perilous truth that we are both the victims and beneficiaries of our own imaginations. I would guess that many of you have indulged, as I have, in the dangerous game of imagining your future self. These imaginings might involve graduate school or, more terrifying still, joining the work force. How strangely bleak that phrase can seem. Although these two words individually convey a sense of industriousness and power, taken together they suggest a sea of suits and furrowed brows. Many of us have probably encountered our own corporate ghosts in this sea. It is easy for this exercise to drift into the realm of hyperbole or melodrama, but it is still worthwhile, if for no other reason than it serves to remind us of the value of preserving the crucial spark of selfhood in the face of forces that tend toward homogeneity and normalization.
If we ever grow disheartened, there are examples of this kind of resilient individuality to be found in the natural world all around us. One of the most rewarding elements of my final semester at Denison has been delving into the marvels of geology. Some people are drawn to this field out of an awed sense of humility at the sheer scale of geological time and process, and it is certainly humbling to consider the relative insignificance of humanity in a geological context. But what I find most remarkable is the lasting presence of geological specimens that tell the millennia-old stories of the tiniest fragments of the Earth. These distinct pieces of a four-and-a-half-billion-year history lie stubbornly embedded all around us. Of course they gradually change, as all things must. But they also retain something of their specific nature as they stay the course of time.
I think it’s a safe bet that Denison has served as some kind of crucible for all of us. It is unlikely that any of us will ever again find ourselves in such a condensed environment, constantly being influenced by our proximity to a wide array of perspectives and our interactions with people dedicated full-time to improving their knowledge of the world and themselves. We are the product of the forces that have shaped us, like rock fragments formed deep in the belly of the Earth by pressures outside of ourselves. As such, each of us is a particular blend of ideas, aptitudes and inner demons. And although there may be a kind of simplicity or even a guilty sense of relief in letting yourself get swept away to sea by winds beyond your control, it is better not to.
You have not solicited my advice. You may not even think me qualified to give any. But I think this kind of speech is supposed to offer some by way of conclusion, so here goes. Leave Mercatur and the other old school cartographers behind. The power in drawing your own maps comes from getting to decide which way is North and being able to draw the sea monsters you will face along the way. Arm yourself with courage, compass and pen and bring yourself unflinchingly to the table.
Looking back over our last four years together at Denison, I think we can all agree that Granville has become a second home to us. And what a home it has been. We’ve had some amazing times together. From the Slayter Sizzle during August O, to getting involved all over campus, to all of our Senior Events this year and then Senior Week, we leave our home here with a lot of great memories. Through our four years here we have truly understood what it means to be part of a community. Whether it is students supporting each other in the class room, on the athletic fields, or just in everyday life, we have always been there for each other in some way or another. This idea of community was incredibly valuable during this past year. At events, our class rallied to donate towards general scholarships and financial aid through the Annual Fund. Our donations help support the College’s resources so Denison can continue to bring together a community of students like us. It is our great pleasure today to announce that our class truly did unite this year. We are extremely proud of our fundraising results and thank our classmates for their involvement and gifts. We have raised more than $6,500 with 52 percent of our class participating in the Senior Class Gift.
We would like to take this moment to thank those who helped us this year. Thank you to everyone involved with the Senior Class Gift Committee. If all the members of the Committee could please rise and be recognized for your hard work. Without you, none of this would have been possible. We also would like to extend our appreciation to the Denison University Alumni Council. Council members provided matching dollars as a challenge to our class to participate. We encourage you to read in your programs the list of seniors who have generously given to the Senior Class Gift this year. In addition, there is a list of those who we have given in honor or memory of, including faculty, staff, parents, and students. We would not be here for all of those people, for they have truly impacted our lives every step of the way. Lastly, we would like to express our thanks to Stephanie Sferra, our Senior Class Gift Advisor and Assistant Director of the Annual Fund. Through these efforts and gifts, our class has shown our dedication to Denison. We are extremely thankful for all the gifts the College has given us, especially the chance to build a community throughout our years here. We hope to pay it forward on our own, as we become alumni.
Most of us have been financially supported by Denison and the Annual Fund, and that support comes in part from classes that have gone before us. These classes gave so that we could have the same opportunities and resources that they had. This way of giving back, both now and in the future, helps us to stay involved in this community that we will always be a part of. We hope that our Class continues to give back to Denison long after today.
Grads, good luck in your future pursuits and enjoy this day of celebration to the fullest. To all the mothers in the audience, Happy Mothers Day thank you so much for all you do and for sharing your day with us. Thanks, Denison for a great four years!
Thank you, President Knobel, Vice President Houpt, esteemed faculty Ms. Booth and Members of the Board of Trustees. Congratulations graduates, for making it to this day, and if you were out late celebrating last night, for making it to this ceremony. I am honored to receive a Doctorate of Humane Letters and to serve as commencement speaker for the 171st graduating class of Denison University; a class that has earned many distinctions: you have been NCAA Division III Champions and recognized for excellence in academics and art; you have enriched your community by coaching, mentoring or tutoring at the Granville and Newark schools; you have volunteered at the Newark battered women’s shelter and raised funds for the Licking County Food Pantry; and you knocked “Relay For Life” out of the park and have donated thousands of hours of your time and energy for the sake of others. Your class embodies the words of Marian Wright Edelman, Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund who said: “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” To speak before such an accomplished class makes me incredibly proud that I too am the product of a Denison education, which gave me the solid foundation necessary for all that came after.
In the next few minutes I’m going to share the ways I have tried to make the best use of my Denison education, and some lessons learned along the way. As you have already heard, my work has been focused on patient care and research in the field of Pediatric HIV/AIDS. While we’ve made tremendous progress in controlling the disease in the US, in low-resource countries in Africa, Asia and South America, one thousand babies are born with HIV every day, and half of these infants will die before their second birthday unless treatment is made available. As a result, most of my research is now focused internationally, and there is indeed still much work to be done.
My other passion has been medical education. Training competent and compassionate physicians is arguably one of the most important contributing factors to quality healthcare. I love that medical students and young physicians are virtual sponges, seeking and soaking up new knowledge with a continuous stream of questions that make me re-examine concepts I thought I had mastered long ago. Seeing a student progress to become an accomplished physician is the greatest reward for both student and teacher. So if I may take the liberty to speak on behalf of your professors, thank you graduates, for keeping us energized and fulfilled.
Now, on to the lessons I have learned:
1) Spend your life doing what you love.
Your Denison education has prepared you to navigate the challenges of the workplace but you will spend more time in your job in the next 40 years than sleeping/eating/ playing/exercising or anything else, so the onus is on you to find something you enjoy. I feel fortunate that most mornings I wake up looking forward to the day. But if you find your job is not fulfilling, change directions before you can’t afford to redirect your career. Time already invested is a sunk cost which you can’t get back, so use it to better define what you really want to do and venture forward. One of my pre-med classmates at Denison eventually realized that he much preferred music to medicine and went on to become a highly successful band leader, musician and entrepreneur. Had he continued to pursue medicine, he would have been an uninspired doctor; but to see him perform with his band today, is to see a man truly happy and successful in his career.
2) Continue to learn.
Nothing is more effective at holding enthusiasm for your work than the “Wow, I didn’t know that” factor. When I began my Infectious Diseases training, no one knew exactly what caused AIDS - or even that children could be affected. From learning that a new virus caused the disease, to how it was transmitted, to the development of drugs to treat the virus, this disease has written a new chapter in medicine and history. I’ve seen HIV go from a rapidly fatal disease to one which is chronic but manageable (like diabetes, for example) and now I attend my patients’ graduations instead of funerals. Being part of this steep learning curve has been exciting and gratifying and keeps me hungry for the next big discovery.
3) Be resilient.
Did you know that Thomas Edison made 1000 unsuccessful attempts at a light bulb, and R.H. Macy had 7 failed businesses before opening his flagship department store in New York City? That Walt Disney was fired in one of his first jobs because he lacked imagination? The things these people had in common was their resilience, seeing failure as just a temporary setback which did not prevent them from trying again and ultimately succeeding. Progress in any endeavor often requires taking risks, because the best path forward is usually not obvious nor a straight line. I’ve worked on plenty of research projects which didn’t perform as expected or have been outright failures, but these experiences taught me as much or more than the ones which succeeded. By examining on a daily basis what you’ve done well (so you can do it again) as well as how you could improve on what didn’t turn out so well, you can be your most effective teacher.
4) Work with others.
Most of my research has been done as part of a collaborative team, where many researchers design and enroll patients in clinical trials for the newest drugs to treat or prevent HIV infection in children. This group made one of the biggest breakthroughs of the AIDS epidemic, showing that treatment of HIV+ pregnant women can prevent transmission from mother to child, which is by far the most common way children acquire HIV. Further studies have now reduced the risk of HIV transmission to infants in the developed world to <1%. The impact of this work is evident, where in the early 90’s, 50 new HIV-infected infants were diagnosed each year in my clinic alone, and today, there are fewer than 50 infected infants diagnosed each year in the entire US. But this incredible progress was only possible because researchers worked together, pooling results from many different clinics across the country rather than pursuing individual research for their personal advancement.
5) Be an advocate for those without a voice.
Early on, when little was known about HIV and the public lived in fear of being anywhere near someone with HIV (as you might feel today if anthrax spores were sprayed through the air conditioners in Slayter), one of my patients, a 10 year old boy named John, became the first school-age child in Illinois diagnosed with AIDS. Just months earlier, national news was made when Ryan White, a boy with hemophilia infected with HIV from a blood transfusion, was barred from attending school, and three brothers with hemophilia in Florida had their house burned down when they tried to enroll in school. To prevent a similar calamity, John’s school superintendent asked me to educate the staff and community about HIV risks. The word about a child with AIDS quickly dominated the headlines and the community panicked. While it was unsettling for me to face such hostility, I could share reassuring data that HIV is not spread in the school setting— and as luck would have it, I happened to be 8 months pregnant; since most people recognized that I would not want to jeopardize the health of my own baby, I could visibly demonstrate that there was no risk to being around children with HIV every day. This helped calm the public’s anxiety, and allowed John to return to school for the last year of his life.
6) Find some way to give back to the world you live in.
I say this with the knowledge that this is second nature to most of your generation. Many more of you donate time and energy to those in need than when I was a student here, and you should be proud of that. But, it’s easy to get on a career track and lose sight of that altruism, so even if you choose a demanding job which doesn’t inherently change the world, I encourage you to find something to do outside of work to improve the lot of the less fortunate among us. Do not lose sight of the fact that even small contributions add up to big changes in the aggregate. In the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with physicians in clinics across Africa, updating them on the latest information on treatment and prevention of HIV. But it’s a humbling experience to see the clinic waiting rooms bursting at the seams day after day, with patients covering every conceivable space, including the floor. In hospitals, multiple beds are wedged into each room, with 2-3 children per bed and each child’s parent sleeping on or under the bed. Through the congestion, the clinic staff steadfastly work their way through the volume of patients, treating as many possible. At the end of each day, patients who had not been seen are asked to return the next morning to begin the long wait again. As you can imagine, health care worker burnout in these settings is high, resulting in an exodus of doctors and nurses, leaving far too few for the enormous number of patients. In one clinic, the ratio was 4000 patients to every doctor. And yet, these few medical workers made a difference for so many; children who had started treatment would bound into the clinic, feeling well for the first time in months, and pregnant mothers smiled with the optimism that medications could prevent their unborn babies from becoming infected. These individual victories galvanized the workers’ resolve to keep going day after day in conditions which would be deemed unacceptable in this country.
7) Sequence your life.
Most of you are used to doing pretty much what you want, when you want. However, when you enter the working world, your free time will be a fraction of what it is today and you may need to put some of your activities on hold temporarily to make room for higher priorities. The discipline of setting priorities will be hardest for those of you who have successfully juggled and been high achievers in multiple areas of your life. After college, you still may be able to do it all…… just maybe not all at the same time. It’s about being willing to sequence things. The earlier you accept that Wonder woman and Superman only exist in the comics and that setting priorities is not a compromise but a choice, the less angst you will endure.
8) Never forget family and friends.
I agree with the NY Times columnist David Brooks who says: “Think hard about who you marry. It’s the most important decision you will ever make.” So if or when you decide to spend your life with one person, choose your partner wisely and make sure you each have fulfillment in your lives and that one person doesn’t get all the goodies. My husband Peter and my now-adult children David and Hilary have been the biggest enablers of my life, and had I not had their ongoing support, I never could have survived the challenges of the work-life balance. Mary Schmich, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist of the Chicago Tribune, said “Understand that friends come and go but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.” My dearest friends are from Denison and our group has continued to gather every few years since graduating over 35 years ago. It takes some effort because most of us are widely scattered, but it’s well worth it. One of my Denison roommates’ family and mine have become one big extended family, and I’m happy they are in the audience today with their graduating senior. Please don’t forget who got you here—my parents and undoubtedly your parents sacrificed much to send us to Denison, and they will be the ones to help when you face the inevitable challenges life throws at you. Keep in touch with them regularly—there will come a time when that won’t be possible, so take the opportunity while you can to let them know they are appreciated. In closing, I’m counting on you, graduates, to address and solve the problems that my generation hasn’t figured out. Today, you begin the next chapter of your life — for many of you, perhaps for the first time, you will be fully in charge of what lies ahead. Do what you love. Be resilient. Find a way to give back.
Most importantly, enjoy your life after Denison and make it count.
Men and women of the Denison Class of 2012, you have your diplomas in hand. The ceremony is nearly done. But it has been a tradition of our college to leave you with a thought, to issue you a “charge” as you begin your lives as graduates.
If you ever have read editorials or op-ed pieces in our student newspaper, the Denisonian, over any extended period of time, you’ve almost certainly encountered the assertion that we live in the “Denison bubble.” Other colleges have this notion, too. I earned my undergraduate degree at Yale and the old expression “Mother Yale” was understood to mean sort of the same thing. On the more positive side, the notion of a “Denison bubble” seems to imply something about the perceived serenity and safety of Granville and about the intimacy of our college community. We’re a place where —as the jingle for the 1980s television comedy series “Cheers” goes—everybody knows your name. On the less positive side, there’s the implication that students are cut off from what’s really going on in the world and that somehow this is a place where you don’t need to take too much personal responsibility, where you can cross some lines without consequences. In either case, if you read about the Denison bubble in the campus newspaper or hear it in campus conversation, it is almost always contrasted with “the real world” that is presumably outside the bubble.
Sometimes—especially for those a few years beyond college (not just old guys like me but fairly recent graduates)—the implied desire to find the “real world” outside the “Denison bubble” seems a little trivial and even comical. So we hear that if we only didn’t find it necessary to reside in campus residence halls, we could learn the “real world” skill of renting an apartment and paying utility bills. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that renting an apartment and even paying some of its bills with what is more likely to be our parents’ money than our own earned income hardly qualifies as a “real world” experience. Anyway, the nice thing about apartment hunting and bill paying is that when the time comes to do it, you’ll figure it out. We all do.
But it’s not my point to chide and fuss about certain trivial aspects of the notion of a “Denison bubble.” It is to blow it up altogether and to get you think about your experience here and how it relates to the experiences you will have. I have news for you. Different though it may be in some ways, in many of its fundamental characteristics, in and out of the classroom, college life is “real life.”
College is the essence of the “real”—both the good and the challenging.
- Have you ever struggled to balance time and activities during these four years? Real world.
- Have you ever had to meet deadlines? Real world.
- Did you ever go to work—that is class or study—sick?
- Did you have to choose friends?
- Did you ever lose friends—or find it necessary to break with them?
- Did you make any mistakes—and learn from them?
- Did you encounter people with real problems—with eating disorders or substance abuses?
- Did you have to continue with your education while dealing with challenging issues among your family or friends back home?
- Did you have to determine at some point what you just WON’T do?
- Did you learn something about figuring out other people?
- Did you learn to live with a roommate?
- Did you experience rejection and some degree of failure?
- Did you experience success and satisfaction?
- Did you identify new aptitudes and interests?
- Did you have to deal, as you interacted with others, with difficult issues of race or nationality or gender or religion or region or class?
- Was your tolerance tested?
- Did you experience love?
- Did you experience loss?
- How about frustration? Or triumph?
- What happens in the classroom, the library, the laboratory, the studio is, oh, so “real world.” If it weren’t, there’d be little reason for a college.
At Denison, you’ve:
- Experienced the “real” of understanding other cultures and people through the acquisition of languages not native to you.
- You’ve engaged in the “real” of expressing yourself accurately and persuasively in speech and writing.
- You may have acquired real understanding of how the economics of the organization, the nation, and the world work.
- Some have found the real in learning how societies are organized, how the mind is organized, how cultures evolve and persist.
- Then there’s the real discovery that art—drawing and painting, music, cinema, and dance—are languages, too, and describe worlds both interior and exterior to us in ways other languages can’t.
- The real of understanding the uses and misuses of history and how it is that we have a hard time knowing where we are without knowing something about from whence we’ve come.
- The real of understanding science and the scientific method.
- The real of discovering unmet needs in communities nearby and far away and finding that you, as a citizen, have the opportunity— even the imperative—to address them.
- The real of understanding just how it is you learn.
- The real of understanding how you find out more when you don’t know enough.
- The real of grasping how to separate fact from fiction, assertion from substantiation: in other words, how to mistrust Wikipedia!
And maybe you’ve discovered what Judge Learned Hand, probably the most famous Federal judge never to sit on the Supreme Court, said just before the middle of the last century when he tried to answer the question, what is freedom, what is liberty, concluding: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” I hope you have. That’s real—and a key to living in the real world for the rest of your lives.
If you’ve experienced just some of these things through your formal studies in the classroom or through your interactions with others on or near this campus over the last four years, you’ve engaged in the real world, you’ve escaped the bubble. In fact, you were never really in a bubble at all.
John Dewey, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer is still probably the plainest expositor of the idea that education is “a social process” that involves the interaction of people of diverse background, interests, and skills in community with one another. Perhaps the most over-worked—but I still think insightful—quotation from Dewey is that “education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” He is saying with me that what you have experienced here is real—and also saying what I hope you know, that your life of learning isn’t ending here but just beginning. And it will be a life of learning off campus as it has been on: within real communities of men and women living real lives. Actually, if you remember, I launched you with a version of this thought when we held your Induction Ceremony on the Reese-Shackelford Common almost four years ago, when I recounted Plato’s rendition of the last conversation of Socrates with his pupil Crito, wherein Socrates revealed his debt to community and learning in community, even if fealty to community cost him his life.
And so, members of the Denison Class of 2012 I charge you: No, don’t, as the slang expression goes “Get real.” Instead, stay real. Take your life experiences and your learning from Denison years not as an interlude, a “bubble,” but as a beginning to a life of learning with, from, and about a worldwide community of people whose lives you can enrich and who will enrich yours. Neither living nor learning is a solitary act.
I offer my sincerest congratulations to the seniors who are here today, and to all of the friends and family who are here to support and encourage them, even as I know you have until this day. My thanks to the musicians and dancers and readers who are participating in this multi-religious celebration as a part of Denison’s rich history and heritage.
My thanks to President Knobel for his warm welcome and remarks, and to his wife, Tina, for the reception they are hosting immediately following this program.
I asked my wife if she remembered anything that she heard at her Baccalaureate program when she graduated from Wooster, still only a few years ago now! She said that the parent of one of the graduating seniors gave the address (aren’t you all relieved that you weren’t asked to do this!). It was not all that memorable, she recounts, except for one illustration he tucked into the larger point. I’m pretty impressed by that, both on his part and on hers; something lasted from then until now.
“He said,” she remembers, “that there is a certain sign that you’ll find on the black diamond slopes of some ski resorts, at the top of those more treacherous runs. It says, ‘Hazards exist which are not marked’.” This is the phrase my wife remembers over the Commencement weekend at her alma mater. “Unmarked Hazards Exist.”
Now, I could just steal that. Hazards do exist, and they aren’t all marked. It’s an intriguing thought with all kinds of potential for analogizing the “run” you are about to make and it would make an excellent Baccalaureate address, don’t you think? She doesn’t remember the rest of what was said, so everything I might embellish on this idea would be my own. Most of it would still be original.
But the truth is, that is not what I want to say to you today. What I want to say is not as pithy as a ski slope admonition, but I hope it’ll do. I want to say something to you personal and direct, and whereas usually my remarks are to the whole of the Assembly, this year on this occasion I would like to speak directly to the graduating seniors. What I want to say to you, soon-to-be-graduates, is “Whatever you do, wherever you go, don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.” And then, so much as you are able, mean it!
“You have our attention,” you say, “for these fourteen minutes, and all you can think to say is, ‘Don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thanks’?”! No thanks! Come on. Please!
Good. You’ve got it. You said it! We’re on our way!
If you don’t remember the content: picture a sign at the top of that front drive of life coming down from Denison, all yellow and large: “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’!”
Many of you, I realize, already have this habit of mind developed. I’ve received a few amazing notes and thoughtfully crafted gifts just this week. Still, it seems a growing consensus that the society in which we now are situated—perhaps in the world at large—may be in danger of losing the art of saying please and thank you. The inclination is increasingly rare, it appears, and in certain technologically supported platforms, for example, it can be absent altogether.
Lest I seem too hard on our society and culture, however, it must be acknowledged that even as long ago as in Jesus’ time, there was license for concern. Only one out of ten men healed of a miserable, stigmatized and incurable disease gave any thought to return and say thank you. Maybe we’re not so much worse off, but you would probably agree how easily this parable might be applied in our time to our culture of excess and our aspirations toward decadence and privilege.
I am not trying here to surmise or defend whether your intellectual training at college has inculcated such an etiquette, to say nothing of tuning the mind and spirit toward these graces. Some would argue that it is not the job of college to do so. But before you go, I would like humbly to suggest this about the liberal arts education attempted here: that intellectual curiosity we prize so highly, it is a kind of solicitation whose nature is “please”. And that perspective and knowledge and sheer awe you have experienced in the better moments of your learning here, it is like the expansiveness found inside the very heart of Gratitude. Education, at its best, is derived of a Please and results in a Thank You.
Already I have traveled quite a distance from encouraging a simple, regular practice and relating that to the whole of your Education, so if I may, let me expound just for a bit on why I believe it is important first to say the words, and how that results in a necessary disposition in life, and finally how that may yet be the ultimate end of Education:
1. It is important, just to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you because in its essence it acknowledges the ‘other’.
This can come up in the most mundane places, where social friction regularly occurs, and in other more important areas, too.
Think, for example, of the average intersection.
Common sense and consideration would have us alternate at intersections, in an ideal world. It is impractical, however, to ask each person at an intersection, “Please, may I go next. Yes, sure. Thank you. You’re welcome.” And so where common graces fail us, rules and laws must be enacted. We need them in order to navigate the increasingly complicated, crowded, fast-paced lives we live. There is nothing inherently wrong in that.
But a profound thing happens when those routines and rules enable us to never even need to see behind the tinted driver’s side window of the car as it turns in front of us. It becomes, perhaps necessarily, an impersonal encounter which rightly cannot afford to go through formalities of “Please, No. After you…” Somewhere in there, however, the human exchange gets lost and the plight of the ‘other’ becomes hidden. Then, before we know it, in these and in much more important matters, it becomes easy to get away with what we can, because the Other has become invisible, and then ceases to exist, and then, even to matter. Like bundling derivatives or fighting with a drone.
More positive and relevant to this occasion, President Knobel recently confessed publicly that he has an auto-signing machine, but he rarely uses it. He considers his signature his word, and he believes that you need to be able to stand behind what you say and what you sign. Every one of your diplomas tomorrow will be signed by him, personally, as a willful endorsement of the education you have received and the value we all place on it. He signifies that for all of us with his signature. Provost Bateman practices for hours to get the pronunciation of each of your names right. We sit, as we will tomorrow at your commencement, for that long appreciative litany as each name is called.
These are a kind of personalization which happens with a please or a thank you. Saying it acknowledges ‘the other.’
2. It is important, just to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you because they express in language what is not easily said.
Have you ever been in the position of needing something from someone, like a job or a loan or admission, and no words could adequately convey how much it would mean to you if you received it? Sometimes there are not words adequate enough to convey what you are consigned to put simply with a “please.” This happens from the beginning of our lives. More juice, please? Can I please go to the birthday party? Please, may I borrow the car?
And those are the audible ones in our lives. Sometimes, it’s unutterable, as if to the cosmos or to the Divine: Please, can’t I get an A? Please, let it come back negative? Please, let me be selected? Please. Please. Please? Like a prayer.
Saying it is important, if only due to the fact that we find ourselves often defying all reason and saying it instinctually, impulsively. Say it we do, and so say it, we must.
3. It requires at least a base recognition of our place in the larger cosmos and it gives a proper perspective.
All that I’ve just said of please can be said of thank you, as well. It’s about the perspective given us by our position relative to other things.
We are, let’s face it, nothing more than microscopic (or smaller) particles, bodies whose composition can be broken down into the basest of elements. As the Bible puts it, “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We take up, after all, such relatively little space in the vast universe, that the comparison of an ant to the Andes doesn’t even come close as an apt analogy. Even the Great Wall of China, one of our grandest constructions, is but a sliver on the planet from a distance not that far away. So considering our smallness, to say nothing of our finiteness, how is it that we can ever for a second cop an attitude to say “my” or “mine” or “deserving” or “I’m entitled to”? I mean, really. What did any of us do to earn [inhale] that breath? It’s all gift, whether by miracle or by luck, and we did nothing to earn it!
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? When the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy? Where were you? Speak, if you have understanding.
When we say these things to each other, we say it as Divines speaking divine language; one which acknowledges our individuality, yes, but also our interdependency, and not just with each other, but with All that Is! If you have understanding, speak!
4. It is important, just to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you because it elevates any occasion, establishes a social contract, and promotes community.
Upon commencing tomorrow you will all, in effect, be entering a new culture, like journeying to another land with different customs and habits.
Entering a new culture usually means adopting or adapting to different contexts, with different underlying assumptions about you and what you have to bring to the established communities there; different expectations for how you are to behave and what you should contribute; these are the adjustments we must make when relocating. It is learning a new language, and as we all know, there are certain things you learn first when trying to speak another language.
inshuldegin bitte, per favor, sil vous plais, crap kum crap danke, grazie, merci
And so it’s a ‘cultural competency’, a desirable ‘learning outcome’ for this institution which aspires, in its liberal arts education, to produce among other things active and engaged citizens in a global community.
In the foreign land of post-graduation, wherever that may be, you’ll need to know how to say basic things.
In conclusion, who would have thought that two little phrases, three short monosyllabic tones, could carry so much weight? Could mean so much?
And where else, except in the Academy, are we allowed— if not invited— to hold up the simplest phenomenon, like a singular word or phrase, and swish it around in our mouths, or hold it under the lens to examine what makes it up, and from many angles? Like a geoscientist does with a rock, or an astronomer with a twinkling star, or a dance instructor with the slant of the neck or a musician with the tone of a note…
“Please?” And “Thanks.” They are never just what they appear. They’re always more. And, as with other seemingly simple things, a closer consideration of them renders a vastly different understanding and appreciation of the thing, like the outcropping in a landscape, or the constellation in the night sky or the movement in the choreography or the vibrato in the aria. It renders it something else. Something more.
“Do you think that this is what we came to college to learn,” you say? “All that research and memorization and writing and rehearsal and recital only to learn that I should just learn to say ‘thanks’ and ‘please’? At college?”
You have been entrusted in your education with something that transcends what anyone here can teach. And yet this is our sacred trust, bequeathed to you in an experience, until now, and tomorrow in a degree. The disposition it will render is yours to contemplate and to assume.
You will, with the use of these two simple phrases, have achieved full participation in the most elemental and miraculous form of life. That you know to say it, we are confident. Whether you do, becomes your faith, as with the singular man in the parable, and your faithfulness will make you well.
On the brink of this foreign land, you, what are you grateful for? And what is your urgent request of the universe? Have you the words to say it? You do. They’re so simple. And do so much.
Go now and may the ears of your ears awake, and may the eyes of your eyes be opened, tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing any, being merely human, saying please and thank you.
B.A. English; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
We came to Denison because we had a goal: not simply a graduation, but an education, and today marks the accomplishment of that goal. Our path towards this moment has no doubt been a tumultuous one- full of achievements and struggles, late-nights and early mornings- but it has been worth it every step of the way. Today is a day of celebrations and congratulations for four years well spent. However, our work is not done. While we may be leaving Denison’s campus, our time as Denisonians is not over. Rather, we will always be Denisonians, regardless of where our lives take us after graduation. Graduation simply brings us a different set of responsibilities to fulfill on behalf of our school. After spending four years learning and living at Denison, it is now our responsibility to share our Denison education with the world.
We have all used Denison’s liberal arts curriculum to expose ourselves to an invaluable breadth of knowledge during our time here. We have learned about the way the world works. We have learned about how things came to be the way they are, as well as what the future might hold. We have learned about different cultures, religions, and ways of looking at the world. We have learned that social justice is something we must continuously fight for. And, perhaps most importantly, we have learned that the fight for human equality is one in which we are all invested. This education is a privilege and an honor that transcends any monetary value, and it is our responsibility as graduates to use the knowledge we have gained to make the world a better place. Thus, while not every graduate of the Class of 2012 will become a teacher, I hope that all of us will become educators.
Because to educate does not always mean to stand in front of a classroom full of students and direct a lecture or a discussion. Rather, the act of educating can take many forms, and it can be carried out no matter which direction your life takes. You can educate through involvement in your community, perhaps using your knowledge from Denison to serve as an informed and instructive leader. You can educate by bringing your knowledge from Denison into play in business, helping to advocate for ethical and sustainable practices. You can educate by becoming involved in grassroots political organizations. You can educate through involvement in after-school programs as a tutor or a volunteer. You can educate through involvement in such groups as Big Brothers Big Sisters. You can educate through publication. You can educate by donating books to public libraries. You can educate by reaching out to someone who is different from you, breaking down the barriers in our society based on distinctions such as race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. You can educate by sharing the knowledge you gained at Denison with your family and friends. And, when the time comes, you can even educate by taking the timeless advice of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to teach your children well.
And while it will be easy to get wrapped up in the daily ups and downs of our own lives, we must ultimately remember the responsibility we have as the recipients of this powerful education. Americans hold dear the belief that everyone deserves access to a quality education; however, the truth remains that many people still lack the necessary opportunities and resources to access one. This is why we must take it upon ourselves to help make knowledge available to as many people as we can. However, we must also have the humility to recognize that four years in college does not mean that we are done learning. Rather, we must remember that we still have a lot to learn from other people, regardless of their educational background. An important part of educating is learning, and we must do both if we hope to make a difference.
When I first came to Denison, I was a first-generation college student, citizen merely of the small town where I was raised. The boundaries of my world ended at the border of my state. When I came to Denison, I immediately began expanding my horizons through learning, an activity that I hope to continue for the rest of my life. I now consider myself a citizen of our nation and of our world, a citizenship that I believe is necessary for everyone if we hope to ensure peace in an increasingly global future. Knowledge has made all of the difference in my life, and it is my sincerest hope that all of us can make that world of difference for someone else. Because only through knowledge can we hope to overcome a history that has sought to divide us based on artificial distinctions. And only through knowledge can we all begin to work together.
And while this may seem like a daunting task, just remember that our presence here today proves that we are more than up to the challenge. We have spent four years gathering knowledge and cultivating skills. We have taken classes in so many departments that sometimes it is hard to keep track of them all, and every one of them has exposed us to a whole new way of looking at the world. Our extracurricular involvements on campus have taught us to become successful young leaders, as well as how to balance the many responsibilities of a busy schedule. And, on top of all of this, we have made some of the best friends of our lives. After doing all of this in only four years, who is to say that every one of us can’t change the world?
To be a Denisonian is not merely to be educated; rather, it is to be an educator. And when we leave here today and go our separate ways into the future, we carry with us an education that can change things for the better. All we have to do is share the knowledge we have gained over the past four years and continue to learn what our fellow humans have to teach us.
Remember: just because the world is a big place doesn’t mean that we can’t make a difference. Congratulations, Class of 2012. Let’s go change the world.
B.A. Political Science and Cinema; Kansas City, Missouri
As a member of Denison’s improv comedy group, I have learned that one of the most important guidelines for a successful improv scene rests in the idea of justification. Each choice that you make needs to have intention, something that moves the scene forward. I mention this because I want to cut to the chase. This speech and all of the ceremony surrounding our graduation are, in essence, about justification.
So. Why not call it what it is? It is my job to reassure just as much as it is to congratulate. Reassure you that Denison and even college itself was a worthwhile endeavor. I can’t blame you for feeling a little uncertain. A recent Pew Research study shows that tuition costs at institutions like Denison have more than doubled in the last 30 years. The unemployment rate in America hovers around 9%. And people still smile and say, “That’s nice…what are you going to do with that?” when you tell them you’re a creative writing major.
As Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post put it: “A college education is not an investment in your future if you are taking out loans just for the college experience…It’s not an investment if you aren’t researching which fields are creating good-paying jobs now and 30 years from now.”
This is the part of the essay where justification comes in. I’m supposed to respond to Ms. Singletary’s charges with a thorough, well-reasoned rationalization for the liberal arts. And the simple truth is that I can’t. No one can.
Another guideline that makes for successful improv is the idea of ‘show, don’t tell.’ That is, it is much more compelling to watch a scene with active characters than one in which they simply describe what they would do. So, when I say that I can’t explain to you what Ms. Singletary misses, it’s not because no good justification exists. It’s because the justification for our education must not be said but acted out. It is how you spend today and all of your tomorrows. Or as the poet Mary Oliver put it ‘what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.’
Rather than expect me to justify your college education, I find it a far better task that I ask you to justify your own. Now let me be clear: whatever we do will surely be enlivened by our experiences at Denison. I know this because Denison has already changed me and the way I interact with the world. I know this because of straw wrappers. Bear with me…
One afternoon I was rushing through Slayter and was confronted by one of my greatest pet peeves: empty straw wrappers. In Slayter there is a soda fountain-Or should I call it a pop fountain? The proper name for a carbonated beverage remains one of the greatest ongoing debates of higher education, and while I cannot tell you what it ought to be called, I can tell you with greatest confidence that it is not just a ‘coke.’- At any rate, until this semester the soda pop machine had everything you could need right next to it…except a trashcan. The nearest trashcan was a monumental ten feet away. Consequently empty straw wrappers accumulated nearby on a regular basis.
Grabbing the pile of straw wrappers that day, I discarded them and huffed, “Who would just leave their wrapper out like that?” In retrospect a bit of a gross overreaction, but to me this was tantamount to letting a pile of trash accumulate on the coffee table in your living room. It was that day, however, that I realized that not everyone views Denison as a home or has laid roots here in the same way that I have. It is the case, however, that everyone has roots and everyone has straw wrappers. Take Michael DeSantis, for example. Michael, I have no idea who you are, only that we have 46 mutual friends on facebook. I have no idea where your roots are. I have no idea what your straw wrappers are, that is, what in the world you unknowingly impact or neglect. I know only that being human, you do so and that even withstanding a number of differences, by the very nature of our being here today, some of our roots overlap and some of our trash will be the same.
Roots and wrappers like the obligation we develop by living in a bubble of privilege during a global recession. Roots and wrappers that come from the 2009 DCGA budget fiasco that taught us what it means to be discerning moral agents actively engaged in a democratic society. And even lessons of what happens when one is less discerning…that is, naked week. It may not be to Ms. Singletary’s standard, but the truth is I would not have these roots if it weren’t for my experience at Denison. And I feel justified in my time here for that reason alone.
Fellow graduates, if there is anything that I wish to leave here today, it is simply to understand that. Dwell in this moment not as proof of what your education says about you but as the beginning of what you have to say about yourself: your justification-a day in which, as such, the past, the present, and the future each deserve their due in turn.
To the past, I say thank you. Thank you to the Denison community, family members, and others who cared for us and compelled us to the heights we have achieved. To friends like Sarah Starner, Sarah Jose, and Gus McCravey, who should still be here today. It is not just the limits of my own vocabulary that render me inadequate to express the deep debt of gratitude that we owe.
To the present, I say how good is it to simply be. 127 credit hours later, we the Denison class of 2012, can rest in the happy reality that we are graduates. We have accomplished it. We presently are what we set out to be.
And to the future I say, that if you need a justification for our education, then just keep watching. Because we will do it again.
B.A. Philosophy; Bexley, Ohio
As a generation, we stand at a peculiar point in history. While we were lying in cribs drinking baby formula, across the ocean in Europe communist regimes were falling and thousands of people were taking sledgehammers to the scar on Germany’s face known as the Berlin Wall.
We lived our childhoods in the 1990s, a decade of rapid economic growth marked by bight-eyed capitalistic optimism. The cold war of forty years had finally ended and the mantra of freedom had won out over the dogma of totalitarian communism. Our parents bought us gameboys and we indulged in television programs like Spongebob Squarepants, delighting in our ability to be carefree.
But on a cold day in September of 2001, all of our lives changed. Suddenly, the 21st century had begun, and the unrestrained optimism of the 1990s was wiped away by a decade marked by two wars in the Middle East, a recession followed by another recession, and the deep angst of a country that seemed that it could not crawl out of this slump.
But our lives went on. We didn’t let the pessimism of the time defeat us, but instead we worked hard in school, joined clubs, and applied to college. I remember the joy I felt when I opened my acceptance letter for Denison on a March afternoon, and I’m sure we all remember the feeling that we had as we drove onto campus for the first time in August of 2008 to begin our college years here.
Denison has been a place where we have been able to escape some of the more intimidating parts of what we like to call “the real world.” Our food, housing, and utilities are all paid for with a simple initial cost at the beginning of the semester. We live in a beautiful, rural town with a low crime rate. Between stimulating classes, strong organizational life, and a vibrant social atmosphere, Denison has insulated us from many of the problems that people outside of a college atmosphere have to deal with.
Denison students truly want to squeeze every moment of their college careers for all they are worth. They want to take every class, be in every club, and party every weekend. We are emboldened by a culture that surrounds us with go-getters and is saturated with opportunities at every corner. Dr. Kennedy put it very well when she told me the thing that sets Denison students apart is that Denison students don’t settle.
But we can’t let that spirit stop at graduation. Yes, we’re in a bad economy. Yes, the outside world can seem daunting. But we can’t let that hold us back from carrying on what we’re doing here to our lives after Denison.
I have a friend who graduated a couple of years ago and then took one of the first jobs he got offered. It wasn’t the perfect job, but he was looking for security and took it. His advice to me the other day when we were catching up over the phone? You guessed it: don’t settle.
The average college graduate now holds a total of eleven jobs over his or her first twenty years after college. Now isn’t our time for security, now is our time for adventure.
And we’re the best-prepared of anyone for these new challenges. According to a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 89% of employers believe that universities should be putting more emphasis on oral and written communication. The degree that each of us will hold by the end of this ceremony won’t expire upon a change in career. A Denison education is about lifelong learning, and as long as new problems continue to arise, this world is going to need people who are willing to think in new ways.
And that’s the problem we’ve seen over and over again. We have answered a 21st century terrorist threat with a 20th century occupational response. We have treated the economic troubles of the 2000s with solutions from the 1990s. The 21st century needs specialists, but it also needs people who can think outside the traditions of the past to find the solutions of the future.
It’s people like us who are going to find these solutions. We have the skills. We have the opportunity. We just have to make sure that we don’t give up that special spirit that makes us Denisonians. We just have to make sure that we never settle.
B.A. History and Black Studies; Rahway, New Jersey
Almost four years ago, I clearly remember taking a trip down I-70 with my family to Denison. Moving from an East Coast city to the village of Granville, it seemed as if I was instantly transformed from the liveliness found in almost any American city to cornfields, and lots and lots of cornfields. Turning off the Granville exit, I turned to my older brother who gave me the look that said, “Are you sure this is where we’re suppose to go?” You could only imagine the look on my face—of a kid from the East Coast who began to realize he would now be living in the Midwest for the next four years of his life.
But, along the way, I took a deep breath and realized, like many of us that Denison has represented the training ground to understanding and engaging in a wide range of ideas. The rich experience of our liberal arts education provided the impetus for personal growth and development, whether in a research seminar or along Academic Quad. Those moments have pushed and prodded us to consider the impact we could potentially have on this generation.
Two men, fresh out of college would eventually unlock their potential and impact a generation. As new, idealistic, driven, yet inexperienced teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg were eager to create transformational change within their individual classrooms, which resided within some of the hardest hit communities in the nation. And then, they met Ms. Harriet Ball, described as a Houston, Texas elementary school’s “star teacher.” Ball was a no nonsense woman who stood just over six feet tall and reminded her students each day that her classroom wasn’t Burger King, they wouldn’t “have it their way.” Ball had a love for teaching that compared to no other and spent a number of years within the classroom motivating her elementary school students to achieve and excel beyond expectations. “You’ve got to read, baby read,” sang a class full of third graders. Mrs. Ball’s students were singing about math all while creating rhythms during reading time. Levin and Feinberg couldn’t believe their eyes and were very hungry to change the world, starting with their classroom—arriving to school early, leaving late. Routinely, Levin and Feinberg would sit in the back of Ms. Ball’s classroom—taking in all of the spontaneity and energy that seemed to consistently capture the imagination of a group of elementary school students.
What Levin and Feinberg quickly realized was that there was no a secret sauce to teaching. There was no formula that any of their students were learning in a math or science that could be applied as the solution. They realized that Ball’s whit, drive and determination for her students to succeed and surpass expectations was something that she personally brought to the table. It lived within her. Levin and Feinberg would eventually go on to found the Knowledge if Power Program (KIPP), a revolutionary college preparatory charter school in 1994. What I know for sure is that the stories of countless KIPP students, who would move from low income communities into to the Ivy League would not have been possible without the inspiration of an educator, that tall no nonsense woman, Harriet Ball.
I am convinced that educators like Mrs. Ball lives in each of us. Ok, so we may not all go on to become teachers and inspire our students. I get that. We may not all become well-respected politicians like Senator Richard Lugar. And, we may not all leave Denison and found a multi-billion dollar company, like Facebook, that reaches across the globe to the hands of people without the luxury of running water as Mark Zuckerberg did. But, if we look deep down inside, there is something that drives us each day to get up in the morning and work harder. Steven Spielberg once said, “Everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame.” What I know for sure is that that fame may not always reach the masses. Touching one life—whether it’s within a classroom, while on a walk through a park, on the job or even within your own neighborhood—may just be enough. Class of 2012: Take a deep breath. You are great. You are all leaders. Your life matters. Unleash the greatness that is within you. If not you, than who will?
But, what is also so great about of our lives at this moment is the reality that transformational leadership encompasses all fields and has no boundaries. Cory Booker proves the point. Growing up in an affluent Northern, New Jersey suburb only before entering the Ivy League, Booker subsequently became a community organizer in an infamous Newark, NJ housing project, Brick Towers. Today, Booker represents Newark as mayor, a city that has become synonymous with the term “renaissance” almost overnight. Moments after receiving his college diploma, Booker noted the advice of his grandparents who said, “Never forget that you could learn as much from a woman on the fifth floor of the projects as you could from one of these fancy professors—then would come the wisdom. In everything you do, stand up. Stand up for who you are. Stand up from where you come from. Stand up and tell your truth. Let your life be a testimony to the essence of who you are.”
And so, in just a few hours, we, the class of 2012 will leave this place for the last time as students and I ask that you consider something. Consider committing yourself to something greater than yourself. Ms. Ball passed away just one year ago but her legacy continues to live on—as thousands of children, many of whom the world had given up on continue to defy the odds, enrolling into top colleges and universities across the nation because of KIPP. You don’t have to search or look far to discover what you were put on earth to achieve. The naysayers and pundits will criticize you for your actions. But always remember to find out what you were put on earth to do and seize it. What I know for sure is that your destiny lives within you and is eagerly waiting to be unlocked. Take a deep breath. Stand up and unlock it class.
B.A. Political Science; Carlisle, Ohio
One day after our Foreign Policy Formulation class, Dr. Andy Katz told a few of us students: “your 20s are the most uncertain time in your life, because you don’t know what you’re going to do, where you’re going to do it, or who you’re going to do it with.” We all fell silent – so much for a rousing inspirational speech. Nevertheless, his point is well taken, and no graduation speech can answer any of those questions for us, so I’m not going to even try. Instead, I’d like to talk about some lessons I’ve learned at Denison that I believe would serve us well moving forward. My thoughts can be summed up in a single word: courage. My hope and my challenge for our class is that we exercise the courage to cross lines of difference in the pursuit of personal growth.
Just as plants need sunlight to grow, we need education to become fully mature individuals. At Denison, we aspire to become “autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens in a democratic society.” I think of the liberal arts experience at Denison as a process of collision, struggle, and refinement: colliding with beliefs, lifestyles, and ideas that challenge us, struggling to reconcile those differences with what we believe to be true, and ultimately becoming refined into greater maturity. This process came alive for me at Denison in a multitude of ways. Through my involvement with Denison Religious Understanding, I learned about different perspectives on matters of religion and spirituality. These conversations challenged me to understand why I believe what I believe, and my Christian faith has grown considerably as a result. Furthermore, through studying Greek and Arabic at Denison, I discovered that language is not just a distinct way of speaking, but moreover a lens through which to view the world. These experiences were formative for me, but I can recount even more instances of refusing to take risks because I was afraid of exposing my true self to others. I would see an opportunity to talk with someone about a statement they made, for example, and turn away from it because I was afraid of being rejected by that person, knowing that my beliefs differed from theirs.
Too often we are unwilling to engage the process of collision, struggle, and refinement because we’re afraid of what it might mean to question our most deeply held beliefs about who we are and what life is all about. We believe it’s too much of a risk to cross certain lines of difference, whether race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, or others. But then again, the greater risk than opening ourselves to diversity is avoiding it. Yes, we can choose to surround ourselves with people who are just like us, only listen to perspectives that reinforce what we believe, and never step outside of our comfort zone because we’re afraid, but in doing so we sacrifice far more than we gain. We may not know who we’ll become or how we’ll change if we face our fears, but we know that we cannot grow unless we do. As the poet William Arthur Ward said, “The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing…may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.”
To bring this all full circle, I think back to our induction ceremony – it was a gorgeous August day on the lawn of the campus commons behind Slayter. President Knobel was charging us to make the most of our Denison experience as only he can. I was an ambitious, eager first year student ready to hit the ground running. As I reflect on the countless ways I’ve grown since that day, I had no idea as I began my Denison career just how little I knew about myself and the world around me. And the same is still true for us all of us today: we don’t have life all figured out and, more than that, we don’t even have ourselves all figured out. But we do have the opportunity to grow if only we are willing to step outside our comfort zone and risk crossing lines of difference.
As Dr. Katz said, life after Denison is uncertain for all of us, but of this we can be certain: the quality of life we experience along the way will depend upon our choice to let fear control us or to overcome that fear with courage. First, we have to be completely honest with ourselves, striving to understand why we believe what we believe and remaining open-minded about the possibility that our beliefs could change. Furthermore, we must earnestly seek to understand the values, beliefs, and experiences of others – even when those values, beliefs, and experiences differ from our own – out of respect for their dignity as fellow human beings. This requires courage: saying no to fear and yes to growth.
My classmates, I challenge us all to cross lines of difference so that we may achieve mutual understanding with others and become refined into ever-greater maturity. May our courage be rewarded with abiding joy and lasting fulfillment in our journey beyond Denison.
B.A. Sociology/Anthropology; Shenzhen, China
I never thought about pursuing a college education outside China until one day, when I was in the sixth grade, my aunt gave me this book that tells the story of a Chinese girl studying at Harvard University. Reading the book allowed me to learn about education in America and changed my mind about my future. Although I already forgot all the things about Harvard that I thought were so cool, I remember the decision I made after finishing the book and the determination I had. I told my parents that I wanted to attend college in the U.S. I wanted to be, what we called in Chinese, a Harvard girl.
I did not know anything about liberal arts education until a study abroad agency suggested it to me. After all, at that point, I was still thinking about becoming a Harvard girl. The woman from the agency told me that if I did not know what I wanted to major in, if I wanted a quality undergraduate education, and if I needed scholarship, I should look into liberal arts colleges. I did. Two months after the conversation, I submitted my application for Denison.
Denison accepted me and I was excited about this unknown journey. I was so excited that I checked the Denison website almost everyday. I signed up for the Service Orientation, bought all the stuff I would need and thought I was fully prepared. Unlike many others, I worried little about speaking English or making friends with non-Chinese people. After all, I had brief conversations with American people when I was in China, and they told me my English was good. Yes, I was unbelievably naïve. So of course, never had I imagine that I would cry so hard on the second day at Denison that I did not think I would ever make friends in America. I wanted to quit school and go back to China. That night, I talked to the only other Chinese student on campus, who was an upperclass woman. She told me that everything would become better eventually. I trusted her, and fortunately I did. D.C. was beautiful, and I made friends who shared similar interests with me. Eventually I was able to feel confident with speaking English and to participate in conversations with Americans in a less awkward way.
And then school started. I was a double major in Economics and Communication. I never heard about sociology or anthropology until my first-semester communication professor suggested us to take a sociology/anthropology class. It sounded like a good suggestion, but I waited until my sophomore year to audit the soc/anth intro class. However, that class changed the direction of my life. After sitting in the class for a week, I fell in love with the subject and officially registered for it. By the second week, I became a sociology/anthropology major.
Soc/Anth opened my eyes to the world. It introduced me to different cultures and societies, to how societies function, and how people think and behave differently. It changed my way of thinking and eventually the way I choose to live my life. My father and I used to argue a lot about Chinese politics. I was tolerant of my government but he was extremely critical. Before becoming a Soc/Anth major, I never appreciated his critical attitude towards the government. His political opinions seemed too extreme to me. Growing up in a group-oriented culture, I was raised to be tolerant of others, and, therefore, I associated being critical with “bad”. What’s more, I was even more uncomfortable with being critical of my government in front of non-Chinese people, because I was afraid of confirming their negative stereotypes of China by criticizing the government. However, taking soc/anth classes at Denison led me to realize how criticism moves a society forward, pushes the government to improve and become better for its people. A society cannot move forward if no one points out its problems. Therefore, I began to appreciate my father’s criticism of the government. I did research to investigate China’s poor human rights records in a critical way. I felt comfortable with criticizing China.
It is still hard to believe that my American college experience is coming to an end. My experiences at Denison changed me much more than I expected and these changes happened in more aspects than what I have mentioned. Now when I try to use the critical thinking and analyzing ability gained through liberal arts education, deconstructing my life, I realize that I could never plan for what would happen. I wanted to be a Harvard girl, but I came to Denison. I thought my English was excellent and I would have no problem making friends with non-Chinese, but I could not help making grammatical mistakes when I talked in the first week, or even now, and I did not have enough common subjects to talk with American students during the first several months. And then I thought I would never have friends at Denison, but luckily I was wrong on that. I also wanted to be an economic and communication double major, but graduated with a sociology/anthropology major. I did not appreciate my father’s political criticism, but I am becoming more and more critical, more and more like him. However, me having problems planning or anticipating my life was not really what I want to focus on here. What we should pay attention to is the interesting fact that no matter how much life surprises me, I was always fine, or even happier, in the end. I’m not the best planner in the world, but I also think we are a little too young to plan our life. Some of us already know what to do after graduation, but many of us do not. Few of us can foresee what we will be doing after the next five years. We may have to change jobs often. We may need to live in another place. We may have new people coming into our lives. We may have to leave things that we don’t feel ready to leave yet. However, with an open mind and confidence, we will be happily surprised by where life takes us to. This ending is a little cliché—I know. I didn’t plan for such an ending when I started writing this speech. However, I do not think it is a bad ending just because people have already said similar things before. It can be a good start for our life upon graduation.