Commencement Recap 2015
The tradition at Denison of celebrating Commencement outdoors began nearly 50 years ago, giving students, faculty, parents and friends the opportunity to savor the beautiful campus on a spring day in Granville. For the past 15 years, weather permitting, the ceremony has been held on the Fine Arts Quadrangle on the lower campus with the graduates in caps and gowns marching two by two from Swasey Chapel. Students are seated alphabetically according to their degrees, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts.
Welcome and congratulations to the Denison University class of 2015.
It has been an honor to spend two years on the hill with you. I want to thank you for welcoming my family and me to Denison and for helping us transition into the college. I also want to congratulate you on all that you have accomplished during your time here.
We have a performance culture at Denison. We expect people to step up, to participate, and to push themselves to perform both in the classroom and across campus. You have demonstrated that attribute of Denison at its very best. You have been great students, who have performed at the highest level through your courses and through impressive research projects. You have represented Denison at the highest level on athletic fields and in artistic venues. And it has been an honor to work with you through a myriad of campus organizations as you have sought to leave your mark on the college.
You have had the privilege of receiving a special kind of education. It is the kind of education that every person deserves—but few receive. There has been a lot of media coverage about higher education over the last year. Pundits, politicians and others have weighed in on what makes a valuable education. For the most part, they have missed the point. They have focused on the components of an education. While colleges have courses, books, majors, co-curricular activities, and lots of strategic plans, it would be a mistake to reduce them to these parts. At the core, colleges are bundles of people and the relationships that form or don’t form between them. The learning, the fun, the challenge and the growth, all happen as people come together in different configurations, in different times and places, and doing different things together. We learn from each other. We are shaped by the nature of the relationships.
The education you received was formed by the people you interacted with on this hill. Friendships run deep at Denison and in complex ways. Many friendships began and grew because you shared a common passion. You worked together in a lab or played on the same athletic team or performed in an ensemble or choir. And many of the friendships formed because each of you was different, and all of you took joy in that difference. You hailed from different parts of the country, or you had different personalities. A graduating senior recently wrote to me, “I came into Denison with my own set of experiences and beliefs, but through interactions with people who have entirely different experiences and beliefs, I have developed into a more complete person. The people I have met while at Denison have shaped me in a way I could not have imagined four years ago.”
Another kind of relationship that runs deep at Denison is mentorship. I am convinced that one can get a great education many places, but what makes Denison unique is the mentorship. At Denison our faculty go way beyond being great teachers to being master mentors. They listen, challenge, collaborate, show empathy, and exude humor, but most of all, our faculty connect, care and catalyze. One graduating senior recently wrote to me, “The classes that I have been on the verge of dropping, have often been some of my best and most memorable classes. In those classes, the professors challenged me to a level I did not believe I could achieve.” The student went on to state, “I really appreciate the professors who did not accept bad work. The phrase, ‘this is good work, but I know you can do better,’ empowered me to push myself and grow in my four years at Denison.”
We have a culture of mentorship. It happens everywhere. When I ask students to mention important mentors, they never hesitate. While they always start with faculty, they go on to mention staff, peers and other members of our community.
Finally, your education is shaped as we share a physical space, a campus that becomes a community. We have our agreements and we have our disagreements. We have moments of profound conflict. This community is diverse by race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and identity, political and religious views and life experiences. People collide in ways that lead to explosive moments. Those clashes are painful because they lead to disagreement, misunderstanding, and colliding needs. They also are important, as a lot of learning and community growth happens through those relationships of conflict. The class of 2015 has regularly taken on the hard issues on campus. You have exhibited intellectual and personal courage and ethical leadership by helping each other to ask hard questions. You have pushed each other to be better people, and you have pushed Denison to be a better college.
An education takes place as people interact with each other. Colleges are bundles of relationships. The relational aspects are what matter most and deserve way more attention, respect and support. The books being written and the public policy being drafted almost never talk about the relationships. Yet, ask alumni who have lived great lives, and that is almost all they talk about.
My hope is simple. I hope the relationships, the social interactions, that formed your Denison experience have instilled within you three attributes:
The first is self-determination. Denison provides a foundation from which students find their voice, becoming the kind of autonomous thinkers the world so desperately needs. The world needs people who can think anew and for themselves. It needs people who can get the questions right.
The second is community. This is a college that produces graduates who are committed to and capable of building and sustaining community in important ways. We produce engaged citizens and discerning moral agents. The challenges you will face will require people who can build healthy teams at work, communities at home, and connections globally. Be those people.
The third is performance. This is a college that produces graduates who seek excellence. 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. Live the quality, and role-model it for others. Do not accept mediocrity in thought, values and actions, and demand that others do the same.
As you look forward, I charge you, our graduating seniors, with taking at least these three sets of skills, values and habits from your Denison liberal arts education. They will serve you well. Now that you have a liberal arts education, live a life shaped by the liberal arts.
The great news—the relationships that form at Denison start here and endure for the rest of your life. I love the comment made this week by one of you, “Denison relationships are not transactional, but overlapping and intersecting; something that we will take with us no matter where we go.”
Many of you will remain lifelong friends. Some of you will become lifelong friends, even if you were not friends at Denison. You are graduating into an alumni community of 40,000 Denisonians. You will be surprised at how much Denison and Denisonians provide the relationships that form your life.
As that happens, please stay connected to the college. Come back for your reunions. When you meet interesting people between the ages of 15 and 17, suggest they look at Denison for college. Put a Denison coffee mug on your desk at work, a bumper sticker on your car, and a Denison pennant on your refrigerator at home. You are great people, and we want the world to know that you are Denisonians. Identify yourself so other members of our extended family can do the same.
Continue to be great friends and important mentors to each other. Push each other to be lifelong learners, who produce and consume knowledge as part of your everyday life. Mentor each other to use your liberal arts education to always form views based on logic, reason, and sound thinking.
Push each other to be the ones who always connect seemingly disparate people, helping them find the commonalities and learning to love the differences. Be the people who connect ideas to find new ways of thinking. Be the people who connect ideas to actions, thereby making a difference in the world.
Finally, push and support each other, as you did on this hill, to be people who aspire to excellence in all that you do.
Denison professor Steve Vogel closes his new book by stating, “the world is nothing beyond us but also is nothing above or superior to us: it is something we are in as well as of, and that we make in all of our actions. Our duty is simply to make it together, and to make it well.”
I will miss you. And I look forward to following your journey. This is a great college. You are a great Denison class. And this has been a magnificent year. Congratulations Denison class of 2015.
Like 2 percent of the men here and ½ of 1 percent of the women, I have a speech defect—I often stutter on the word “stutter,” so I won’t use that word.
Don’t let it bother you. After 70 years, it’s stopped bothering me!
It’s wonderful to be back at Denison, among my friends at the university perched on its little mountain in sweet Granville. For the honor of speaking here I give thanks to the President and his administration, my old friend Robin Bartlett, the trustees, the students, and above all to the parents.
I’ve been to the University a number of times, the longest being a snowy, nine-week visit in 2003, teaching economics and philosophy and climbing the hill every morning through the snowdrifts with my dog Jane Austen. It was a crucial time for me, giving me the focus for a book I was writing.
I want you to take away this afternoon a couple of expressions. Two only. There will be a short quiz afterwards, so pay attention. Take notes.
The first is the word “transcendent.” Those who had a course in Denison’s superb Department of Philosophy will be familiar with it. It means “what we believe exists beyond our normal lives.” The essence of your family. The spirit of the University. The historical role of the United States. The ethics of science. The higher meaning of love. God.
We humans need the transcendent. I don’t mean we should need it, or that virtuous people need it, or any other conditional need. It just turns out that humans think a lot about the transcendent. A life without a belief beyond our normal lives is not fully human. As a theologian put it in the 1690s, “Man doth seek a triple perfection,” by which he meant perfection beyond food and entertainment and even knowledge earned at the University. Humans seek, he wrote, “first a sensual … . then an intellectual [perfection]… . But [the human] doth not seem to rest satisfied … but doth further covet … somewhat divine and heavenly… . For although the beauties, riches, honors, sciences, virtues, and perfections of all men living were in the present possession of one; yet somewhat beyond and above all this there would still be sought and earnestly thirsted for.” The transcendent.
The other and closely related expression I want you to think about is not so fancy. It’s the smart-aleck phrase So What. Every language has one. In French, et alors? (The French say, “Ay low,” French spelling being almost as crazy as English.) In Dutch, en nu? (Which is said just as it is spelt.)
I do not mean So What in the junior-high-school version, dismissing this or that tiresome assignment without thought. First-year algebra. “So What?!” American history. “Whatever.” Yet even the junior-high-school version has some good uses. When in the eighth grade you dismissed the scorn of the Cool Kids, the So What protected you, usefully.
But the higher use of So What is the adult use, that is, “what’s the point here? What does it actually amount to? Tell me.”
“So What” in the adult use is a good little tool for cutting through nonsense in business or law or academic life. A colleague proposes an expansion of the business. You should ask, “So What? How is an expansion going to make us a better company? Or are we expanding thoughtlessly?”
I tell my graduate students that if they ask So What about every thought they have in economics or in history they will become great scholars. Whenever I listen to another professor making an argument the question is right there: “So What?” “Why,” I ask, “does the argument matter to some important question in economics or history, such as how we became so very rich as we now are compared with our miserable ancestors.” When I don’t get an answer—when the professor merely gets annoyed, or says that she’s doing her research “just for fun”—I lose interest.
But the bigger use of So What is to ask for the meaning of what you are doing. As Annie Dillard says, “How you spend your days is how you spend your life.” So What asks what your transcendent is, and how what you are doing right now contributes to it. That’s the connection: So What asks what your transcendent is. It asks for meaning.
Believe me, you will face the question often in your life. Indeed, the meaning of your life as a whole depends on answering it. By the time you achieve the unspeakably elderly age of, say, your parents you will want to have the beginnings of an answer.
In whatever exact form, the answer is that triple perfection which humans seek. There is a negative answer, which is that our lives are meaningless, that there is no transcendent, that the perfection is not there. In philosophy it is called “nihilism.” I do not recommend it, and in practice it is impossible to sustain. Even people who claim to be nihilists reveal by their proud attachment to the idea that they are not really so. Humans, as I said, just do seek meanings, triple perfections, answers. One set of positive answers I recommend is religious. I was 55 years old when I became a Christian, a progressive Episcopalian. When I was teaching at Denison I attended St. Luke’s church downtown, and remember the weekly protests in front of the church against the invasion of Iraq—after which we would adjourn to the Village Coffee Shop across the street.
Other transcendents are The Family, The Craft, The Job Well Done, The Career, The Company, The City, The Nation, The Chicago Bears (we say back in Chicago, Da Bears)—anything with those capitals with “The” in front, and some justification for sticking with it.
The answer to So What is not always good news. The transcendent purpose of a human life can be evil. Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost says, tragically, mistakenly, “Evil, be thee my good.” The German pilot who ran his plane into a mountain in the French alps some weeks ago was described by his girlfriend as wanting to do something that mattered, for which people would remember his name. I have forgotten his name.
A fully human life must answer the So What question, and a good human life must try to answer it well. We are humans, and demand meanings. Dogs don’t. They eat and love. Dogs, it’s said, have an interest for each of their four feet: food, sex, food, and food. But a human doth seek a triple perfection.
Don’t settle on an answer too soon to the question So What, even if you adopt my recommended religious answer, even if progressive Episcopalian, even if at St. Luke’s. Even a Denison graduate is not at age 22 fully equipped to answer the question. You need some patient time, some experience of life, some trying out of various versions of the transcendent, and a willingness to change the tentative answer to So What. In my own life I’ve tried out Profession and Career and Family and Citizen of the World. If you live thoughtfully, asking So What and trying out your replies, without being too hard on yourself, the transcendent will come to you, if through a glass darkly.
Try out the answers. You know by now in your life, for example, that Being Cool is an adolescent transcendent, and you should be getting over it.
A more noble and grown-up transcendent is Helping Others. Some of you will go into non-profit organizations, which is fine. The desire to “help others” is a good motive, though you might want to look beyond it to a still greater transcendent. But you must not think that being in a profit-making company is any less serving of the transcendent. The point is one you learned in your course in economics. Making a good chair or IT service or book also serves others. That you get paid for it does not mean you are not also serving. They also serve who only stand and wait, and profit.
And I warn you, as commencement speakers always do, against “goals” that do not really answer the question So What. Many of my students will say that their goal is to have a nice car and house and job. That’s fine for a start, though a terrible finish. In the meanwhile it’s harmless, even beneficial for others. Notice again that when you achieve such “goals” you are achieving benefit for others—as the blessed Adam Smith said, it is not part of your intention, but by getting a good salary you must be doing something that other people value. The money you make by peaceable exchange does good.
But a human doth seek a triple perfection. Beyond a nice car.
In other words, it’s tough, the So-What question. The pre-packaged answers of religion or tribalism or profession are useful. But they grow stale if not asked and asked and asked. Imparting meaning to your life, with all its troubles, is hard. I have come to see my stutter, for example, as an advantage—as a helpful, if irritating, daily reminder that I am not perfect. With all the advantages heaped on me in my life, it would have been easy for me to fall into a fatal, ill-justified pride.
So go forth, you glorious graduates of Denison, and with proper modesty take to the path with the young person’s enthusiasm.
But keep in mind, my dears, the old person’s question. So What?
Welcome families, friends, faculty, staff, and esteemed peers of the Class of 2015, to the day we’ve been picturing for years. I’ve often imagined what today would feel like; I’ve wondered if I would feel older, wiser, beaming with confidence in my amazing college-“graduate-ness”. Well, I can assure you this: given that I just made up a word, this is not what I pictured college graduate-ness to be like. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I actually feel a lot like I did on the very first day of our Denison careers – bright eyed, bushy tailed, and full of wonder and astonishment at those who surround me.
It is often said that college is a time to ask questions. Yet, what I didn’t realize is that apparently that statement actually means you spend your senior year answering a lot of questions. It’s like the game of 20 questions you never knew you signed up for. I don’t mean questions about Foucault, or Literary Theory, or Base and Superstructure. I mean the scary, “real life” questions. Questions about you. For every question that you yourself may have, there’s someone coming at you with four more. I finally just came to the conclusion that I missed the memo about the list of the most popular questions to ask college seniors. Or maybe it was a Buzzfeed article that I missed? “23 Questions that are sure to freak out soon-to-be college grads…as told by cats”. There’s the typical, “so what’s next” question, or the “are you ready for the real world”? Both of which seem to trigger near panic attacks almost every time I’ve witnessed them. But then there’s the question that asks you to offer up all of that amazing college-graduate-ness wisdom that we’re supposed to have. And that one is always a little more interesting to answer.
Not too long ago, I was approached by a father asking for a piece of advice that he could take home to his son. I thought for a few moments about what wisdom I should offer him, and a couple classic thoughts came to mind that I considered…but then let go. “Take classes outside of your comfort zone” or “always remember to put water in your Easy Mac before sticking it in the microwave” (it’s amazing how many 3am fire drills happen because of Easy Mac). But then I realized that he would learn these things pretty quickly on his own, and instead, I decided to share some information that I myself had just recently come to appreciate.
I smiled at the gentleman, and I responded quite simply, “have no plan”. Now, similar to several of you at the moment, his initial response was essentially a look of panic and horror. Here I am, telling a parent that his first child going to college shouldn’t have a plan. Just, no plan. This poor man looked like I had just told him the sky was falling. Recognizing this, I went on to explain. I entered Denison thinking I had it all figured it out. I had a plan, I was going to stick to it, and life was going to be full of sunshine and butterflies. However, I quickly discovered that Denison is far too inspiring to be confined to the rigid boundaries of a plan. Actually, Denison taunted my plans pretty early on, and I’m so thankful that it did.
So as I sat there explaining my seemingly horrible advice to this gentleman, he soon realized what I was trying to say. Had I blindly followed my original plan, I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone, I wouldn’t have found the people that have become my lifelong friends, and I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today. By not having a plan, you learn to open your eyes. You learn to listen. You learn to trust yourself. You learn to take risks. You learn how amazing it can be to chase yourself, rather than your to-do list. Too often we get stuck in this idea that we’re supposed to follow “the plan” that we forget how we even came up with the plan in the first place. But that’s what is so great about Denison. Denison encourages you to throw the plan out the window.
While I was lucky enough to have an answer to that particular question of his, that isn’t always the case. If we go back to that list of scary questions that apparently everyone knows about, there is often the “what is the Denison experience like” question. Now, as much as I’d like to have an answer to this question, I don’t have one. I don’t have an answer simply because there is not one typical Denison experience. There isn’t a “normal” track, a prescribed route, a one-size-fits-all Denison journey. We aren’t just handed our Denison experience; we create it. We make Denison University what we want it to be. We have the freedom to build our experience from the ground up, shaping it just as much as it shapes us. And yes, at times, this can be scary. You can’t just pass go and collect 200 dollars. But we’re given something much better than that. We’re given the opportunities and the people to help us find our way.
So as we stand in the doorway to this big, scary, real world that everyone keeps asking us about, wondering if we really are prepared, I encourage you to remember that it’s ok to not have a plan. It is ok to not have the answer to every question, so long as you know where to look for the answer. You’re more prepared than you think. Trust your foundation, stretch the boundaries, stay humble, give hugs, laugh at dumb jokes, and never doubt your worth. Denison has prepared us to do incredible things, not because we stuck to our plan or had all the answers, but because we became amazing people with even more amazing dreams. Look around you. Sitting next to you is sheer brilliance. We have become the dreamers, the visionaries, the feisty go-getters, the do-gooders, the autonomous thinkers, the discerning moral agents, the voices of Denison University. Sitting amongst you are future presidents, CEOs, creators of social change, artists, musicians, scientists, and so, so much more. We each found different paths on our Denison journey to launch us into our futures, but there is one thing that unites us all. We are Denisonians.
Congratulations to my fellow graduates of the Class of 2015. It takes guts, a little leap of faith, and the confidence that Denison has prepared you to seize the opportunities in front you. But lets get out there, and show the world what throwing the plan out the window truly looks like. Who knows…you might just find the very thing you never knew you needed. And that my friends, is a beautiful thing.
Good afternoon. Family, friends, mentors, it is with great honor that I speak on behalf of the Denison University graduating class of 2015. To my fellow graduates, I’m sure I don’t stand here alone in feeling strange at how much time has passed, how it seems like just yesterday that we were at our high school graduations, then packing our bags to come to June-O, then Aug-O, and then kissing our families goodbye for a new chapter in our young lives.
When we first came to the hill, we were welcomed by our previous president, Dale Knobel. He started off by saying, “So, what does the history of film have to do with you at the beginning of your college education?” And he continued to explain how our college experience will be like a movie production, how we’ll have “frames” of learning and experiences that will define the personal movies of our college careers. As someone graduating here today with a degree in film, perhaps I’m now qualified to say: he was right.
Films are made up of thousands of frames that individually evoke their own stories and together create the whole picture. The frames in our personal movies depict a diversity in students coming from all over the world from all different backgrounds. These frames tell stories of leaders who champion the liberal arts, limitless in what we believe we can do. We take courses in all fields of study. We double major because we feel intellectually and passionately compelled. We study abroad to experience new worlds. We go to class, we play a sport, we get Whits, and then we head to an organizational meeting only to stay up late and then write that paper we wish we didn’t put off. We did it all because our personal movies are dynamic and always in rising action.
Like all good movies, there are conflicts and challenges. Denison’s biggest challenge was for us to become autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens of a democratic society. Our frames reflect our acceptance of this challenge, like the heroes in the movies we watch on screen. We staged protests for civil rights. We held vigils to bring our community together in times of loss. We marched in solidarity for justice everywhere. We conducted senior research on issues that matter to each of us. And, we expressed ourselves through art made in studios and performed on stages. These are but a few of the many images depicting how we individually and collectively accept challenge and inspire change.
Change was ever constant in the personal movies of our time here at Denison. We’ve seen changes on campus with our buildings and infrastructure, in our education as we pursued one path only to try another, in our administration as we welcomed and embraced a new president and new ideas for Denison’s future, and in our personal lives as we grew from teenagers trying to figure out what we could do into the mature adults who now graduate knowing there isn’t anything we can’t do.
Change was inevitable, and it will be tomorrow when we’re no longer students at Denison. The real world outside of the Hill may seem quite scary as uncertainty surrounds us at every corner. Often we are misled by a paradox: that there’s no hope for recent grads and yet college guarantees a future. But the movie doesn’t end here today. Some of us have jobs, will go to grad school, pursue more internships, move to new places, or continue to search for our true passions. And if it doesn’t work out, we must strive to change and do something else. These are just plot twists in the rising action of our lives. Just like there is no singular Denison experience, there is no exact right or wrong way to pave your path. Just your way.
And while we must willing to adapt, we must also be willing to continue to create change itself. Our leadership, our passion, and our resilience shouldn’t stop just because we are no longer students. If we don’t like the world we’re entering, then we need to be the ones that change it. We can do it anywhere from our careers to our personal relationships with others. Issues like racism, sexism, poverty, pollution, disease, and more don’t go away just because we aren’t confronting them in the classroom anymore. Now is the time to act. We must continue to strive to be the heroes in our personal movies, and help others be the heroes in theirs’. As Dr. Weinberg said at the start of this year: “The work you are doing here is helping you to acquire the skills to succeed and lead in this kind of world.”
I could end this speech with an inspirational quote from a politician, a theorist, or a poet. But instead, I’ll give you one of my favorite quotes that has motivated me through my darkest and most difficult of times. Film director Martin Scorsese once said, “The things you do badly are as much a part of your style as the things you do well.” My fellow graduates, my dearest friends, we are not perfect and no one expects us to be. Embrace your skills and embrace your flaws. Never, ever apologize. And always strive to not be the best, but be your best. Thank you.
Five years ago when I was searching for the right college, one of my criterion was that the college needed to experience “all four of the seasons.” I know, not your typical, “I want I go to Florida or Arizona and be tan year round,” heck I’m from Chicago, seasonal change is the norm! That’s why when I visited Denison in the fall, spring, and summer (yes, my family visited campus three times), the beauty I found on Denison’s campus, met my seasonal change criterion, without a doubt.
I love the fall foliage when looking out from the Reese~Shackelford Common in early October (definitely one of the most underrated places on campus). I love playing snow soccer with friends on East Quad in February, the buds blooming on Academic quad in late March, and even that hot sticky humidity of August which requires the necessary trip to Whit’s, to catch the flavor of the week. Each season brings about natural changes and adjustments where modifications in wardrobe, attitudes, and events are necessary and indeed required.
Today we embark on a new season of our journey, “life after Denison,” or “real life” as some would say. If you’re like me, you maybe sitting here not really certain what is necessary for this season; this is not one we have personally experienced before.
To me there is comfort in knowing that a Denison education has given me a breadth and depth across all subject matters, whereby I can respond and react to whatever destination and situation I am placed in during the next season of my life. My Denison education has assured that I know not only about my major, but also a little bit about Spanish, Psychology, Geology, Cinema, Accounting. We really gotta love those GEs, right? That’s the beauty of a Denison education. It prepares us for moments of discomfort by having knowledge across all fields, while at the same time specializing in a field in which we are passionate.
And how about living in a true residential college… Living on campus all four years fostered this caring community with people from different backgrounds, opinions, and beliefs, from around the world - Jacksonville, FL to Japan.
At Denison, we have faced difficult conversations and dealt with conflicting opinions. But our Denison experience has given us the opportunity to be in constant dialogue with others who differ from our own beliefs, to expand our knowledge, and to be open to new ideas and viewpoints, fostering a tight network that communicates with one another. As we leave Denison we recognize all too well the challenges that will weigh over trying to live in complete harmony with others, and Denison has given us the tools and the passion to realize authentic communities of difference and empathy beyond the hill. It is this community and the strong relationships made here with friends, peers, faculty, staff, advisors, and coaches, which provide a calming and warm feeling amongst the hectic lifestyle that is often this “4-year college experience.”
My Denison family, all of you, won’t be across the hall, in the “Sunnies”, on Deeds Field, in Trumbull Aquatics Center, on the golf course, hanging in Slayter, or grabbing lunch in Huffman and Curtis. However, it is the relationships made within our teams, fraternities, sororities, student run organizations, religious groups, and service organizations that are now deftly packed into what each of us has become. These strong relationships and active learning are what makes our college experience stand out among the rest.
Denison relationships are not transactional, but overlapping and intersecting; something that we will take with us no matter where we go and whatever the weather, kinda like an umbrella, helping to protect us from the rain on our bad days, and comfort when the sun is shining down on our face.
Seasonal changes sometime leave us with an allergy or cold. And our time here has provided us the antidote to weather these, and the more challenging storms in life. If we believe in the liberal arts process, like the natural cycle of the seasons, we know that while winter is tough, spring is coming, and so too are opportunities for growth and new beginnings, building upon strong foundations and experiences we have had here. This liberal arts education has allowed us to not only think holistically, to understand and solve problems, to take different opinions into consideration but to then also question. These outlooks crafted here at Denison, will ultimately help provide fresh new perspectives to all the boardrooms, court rooms, operating rooms, and graduate school lecture halls, into which we land- around the world.
Today we come wearing the same tassel, which by tradition, Denison gave us at our First Year Convocation. Now, four very short years later we are well packed for diverse destinations, ready to launch into the world, and become vital members of society. As we leave this season of our lives, we enter a new season with the large Denison Alumni network waiting to greet us on the other end. This big “umbrella” will continue to protect and support us no matter our location or profession. As we put to use the knowledge and experiences gained here at Denison, we begin to recognize that Denison has made us, Men and Women for ALL Seasons. And no matter the season in which we land, Denison and the hill will always be our home.
It is a great honor to speak with everyone today.
When I first arrived at Denison, I was fascinated by the fact that the college was mostly built on a hill. As a person who dreamed of becoming a civil engineer, I could not help think about the process that went into constructing these buildings. In many ways, the hill offered certain uniqueness to Denison and the Denisonians. It definitely represents the core value of the Liberal Arts education that Denison offers—seeing the big picture.
When we stand on the hill, we can see roads, houses and forests and they are all part of a big picture. Denison offers us a well-rounded education just like the big picture we see on top of the hill. It can be blurry and confusing at the beginning, but it gradually becomes clear at the end. As a result, it encourages us to draw connections between different concepts and apply them to solve problems. In addition, it also challenges us to engage in discussions and think critically about complicated real-world issues that are not distinctly black and white. During this process, we discover our potential and find our interests and values, which are the most important things that will stay with us and play major roles in our lives as time goes on.
In the beginning of my college career, my dream was to become an engineer, building bridges and skyscrapers. Over a period of time, this dream started to change as I was exposed to a wide range of classes at Denison. From humanity to arts, social science to natural science, my preconceived notion about each subject was constantly challenged. I was inspired to explore what I am truly passionate about. Through this experience, I developed my interests in data analysis and realized its importance in every aspect our lives. As a result, it has led me to pursue my graduate studies in data analytics. I believe many of you had similar experiences as I did. Over the last four years, your major changed, your values and interests changed, most importantly your ways of thinking changed. The breadth of education at Denison motivated us to think about different issues from various perspectives and understand how each one of them fit into the big picture. Consequently, we were able to find our potential and aspiration through this dynamic education.
In addition to the broad curriculum, critical thinking is another aspect that makes Denison education unique. It encourages us not to simply believe what many others believe or accept what the general public accepts without questioning the reasoning behind it. However, social norm is a powerful thing. It suggests people to follow the conventional wisdom instead of challenging it; it recommends people to think the same instead of having different opinions. As a result, when we are standing on the hill, we are naturally differentiating and potentially isolating us from others. But we should not forget, the skill that differentiates us is our strength. Having the ability to think critically from different perspectives is what makes us unique. Having the willpower to challenge the conventional wisdom is how society makes progress. This notion that “we can do better” has created many great enterprises like Apple, Google and Microsoft. It is true that any attempt to change the current establishment is not easy and it involves many trials and potential failures. One key purpose of a liberal arts education is to find something that we are truly passionate about and this passion will keep us moving forward regardless of difficulties that we encounter. As Michael Jordan once said, “some people want it to happen, some wish it to happen, others make it happen.” What makes us Denisonians different is that our education inspires us to have the determination and the courage to make things happen.
On this hill, we have a long list of memories that we will never forget, the bell ring from Swasey Chapel, the colorful Welsh Hills in the fall, most importantly our professors, coaches, friends and classmates that have made us better individuals. Soon we will leave this hill and move on to pursue different endeavors. One thing that we should never forget is the ability to see the big picture. The world can be challenging and the reality can be cruel, but we should not be paralyzed by things that are intimidating. Instead, we should recognize the context of problem and perceive every aspect of it objectively. This will enable us to break the myth of what is seemingly daunting and understand the essence of the issue to forge forward. Consequently, being able to see things from a broad perspective and think critically to identify and distinguish each component of the big picture gives us a sense of purpose in our life journey. This is the value of a Denison education.
Today, for the last time, we listen to the chiming bells from Swasey, take a deep breath of this crisp Granville air and have some frozen custard from Whit’s. Tomorrow we are ready to take on our lives ahead of us. As the hill in our rearview mirrors gets smaller and farther, we should remember the wisdom it symbolizes, which will make us become future leaders to change the world.