Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Remarks by President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.

Commencement remarks given by President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D. on May 14, 2011 in the Alumni Sports & Fitness Center.

The Making of Meaning

Thank you, Dr. Bonchek, for that gracious introduction. Thank you to our distinguished honorary degree recipients for joining us today—all of whom are leaders and lifesavers of international renown. Thank you to all members of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, the professional staff, the students, the alumni, and the College community for the joyous welcome that you’ve extended to me this spring. I especially would like to thank all of the colleagues who worked late into the evening to prepare two sets for graduation and for ensuring today the comfort and convenience of our guests.

To the graduates, thank you for all you’ve given this campus. Thank you for your minds, your hearts, your vision, and your voices. Thank you for “liking” the faculty’s Facebook posts. Thank you for teaching us the “Dougie,” and for gently instructing us that it’s not cool to hum the song “Friday.” Thank you for loving Ware College House, for loving Schnader—now Weis College House, for loving Brooks College House, and for loving Bonchek College House.

To the families, thank you for lending us your precious children. They are your joys. They are your greatest gifts to our humanity. You gave them life, taught them right, guided them through change, and gave them freedom. What an honor for our College to have played a part in their growth. Thank you for the investments you have made as families in Franklin & Marshall and for the trust you’ve placed in us.

To the faculty, thank you for sharing with these scholars your knowledge, your ways of thinking, and your passion for thought. Thank you for walking with them, for drawing out their ideas, for challenging them, for respecting them. Thank you for taking on all those independent studies and including students in your research. Thank you for answering their 4:00 a.m. emails and for the countless letters of recommendation you’ve written for these graduates, and those you will write for the next twenty-five years. And thank you for all the profound, life-altering advice students tell me you’ve shared with them. Advice like: “Don’t wear flip flops in the chem lab,” or, my favorite, “Don’t let Charlie Sheen come to Myrtle Beach this year.” Winning.

So much to celebrate. But there are ambiguities too. I suspect most of the graduates are asking questions like: “Am I ready for the next stage?” “Will we ever be so close again?” “If I have to leave, can I at least take Dean Stameshkin with me?”

Transitions are all about questions, and there can be confusion. So, graduates, if you’re trying to grasp what transpired in these years and how to feel about it all, I have two thoughts I’d like to express. The first will take four minutes, and the second about thirty seconds.

First, now and always, never forget the ways you made meaning here. This will be a reservoir of strength for you. Where do I see this?

I see the making of meaning in the young woman who works hard in her major, sometimes hitting a wall, but keeps at it, chipping away, striving for a breakthrough, and finally getting it.

I see the making of meaning in the young man who does a u-turn in sophomore year, switches from BOS to bio, from bio to classics, or from classics to BOS, because that’s the way ideas opened up for him—and it is his education, no one else’s.

I see the making of meaning in the joy of creativity and discovery—in the realization that we create the education that we seek.

I see the making of meaning in our unpopular choices; in the times we speak out, when we challenge our friends, or make the tough choice to leave something behind because we know we have to grow.

I see the making of meaning in the students who cross borders and cross cultures to attend college at an iconic American institution—intrepid souls and, truly, young global leaders among their peers.

I see the making of meaning in the student who studies in Cairo or Athens or Paris or Shanghai. She experiences her nationality in new ways. Sometimes she feels alone and depleted. Even with Skype, she must rely upon herself in a new culture and comes back to F&M totally enlarged.

I see the making of meaning in all those high-octane efforts to jump-start community on campus—from NSO to the BSU, from Hillel to the House System, from .08 to Orchestra, from Greek life to the Research Fair.

I see the making of meaning in sport, when we subordinate self to team, and then wear the blue and white into the fray as blood sisters and blood brothers. Today, in just a few minutes next door on Tylus Field, our women’s lacrosse team will compete in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Let’s see if we can make them hear our support right now.

I see the making of meaning when we tutor a Bhutanese child through the Ware Institute, when we try to awaken the world to a human rights wrong, or when we realize that in other countries, on other campuses, free thought is a subversive act—and then, when we carry those cold truths into our classrooms for academic discussion and the work of our minds.

I see the making of meaning in the strong choices of those who are the first in their families to go to college—in the steel of their spines, the reach of their dreams, and the greatness of the loved ones who supported them through it all.

I see the making of meaning in those who come out at F&M, in the many concentric circles where that occurs, from within a family to a peer group to the broader community to a single friend or mentor. This act takes courage. Thank you. LGBT students who come out set powerful examples from which everyone can learn. Guess what? We all can grow by sharing ourselves. We all can grow by asserting with pride, “This is who I am,” and “This is how I’m going to live.”

I see the making of meaning in gripping challenges, the stuff of life—when we deal with divorce, a serious illness in our families, or with the death of a loved one. Facing pain we didn’t choose—and seeking out help when we need it—is part of growing up and forming ourselves. If you did that here, walk across this stage with great pride.

I see the making of meaning in friendship. We fall in love with our friends. We feel known, heard, seen, accepted. We can’t imagine our lives without those we now love. We feel timelessness in our good memories. The conversation that began in Jazzman’s for coffee and ended at Pandini’s seven hours and two meals later. The party that started with a text message, became a flash mob, and ended with one hundred friends crammed into a friend’s room singing “Friday” or “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

I could go on like this because I admire what you have done.  But, for now, just one more…

I see the making of meaning in the respect we earn, over time, from those we respect. It may be a friend, a professor, or a person you work with. We feel it from a subtle sign, a tone of voice, a knowing look, or a detailed response to an essay. That respect lies at the very heart of our enterprise.

Each of you has made your meaning here. Each of you has been “in the zone”—one of those frozen moments of work or thought or prayer or love when it all comes together, when it all feels right, when our hopes and words and deeds fuse as one. Eliot called these moments “the still points of a turning world.” We expect that you will seek and find such stillness again—often in joy and love, and sometimes, too, in pain. And when you do, we hope that you’ll be transported right back here to this campus, to these years, to this time, to this community, and feel a sense of continuity and wholeness.

This brings me to the second point, much shorter, not even the length of a self-respecting tweet. All who work here, especially those who have taught you, tested you, and watched you grow—we believe in you. We have faith in you. Remember that. Whatever turns life takes, especially when you dwell in doubt, remember. Your mentors here at Franklin & Marshall, we know you, we believe in you, and we have faith in you.  We hope that knowing that will help you some day.

Thank you.