Thank you, Ms. Washburn, for that gracious welcome—and for your wise guidance and generous investments as F&M’s Board Chair—a tradition of bold leadership that began in 1969 when you were part of the first class of women to enroll in F&M—the College’s original talent strategy, whose benefits are paying massive dividends today.
Graduates of the Class of 2017, faculty, staff, family, friends, alums, trustees—please join me in thanking all of the colleagues and students who created the series of Commencement events and the wonderful use of space here that culminates with this magnificent ceremony.
We’re grateful for our three distinguished honorees, each one a visionary and a voice of conscience for a better, safer, freer world.
Mr. Don Graham, formerly the publisher of The Washington Post, a business leader and philanthropist, who has created scholarship foundations that have propelled thousands of students to college.
Dr. Evelyn Farkas ’89 a scholar and foreign policy analyst who has the expertise and the guts to share with the public what’s really at stake in the U.S. relationship with Russia.
And our speaker, Dr. Wanda Austin ‘75, who received an honorary degree in 2012, recently retired as the President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, responsible for America’s space defense and weather satellites, a trailblazing force in her field, and science advisor to President Obama.
Families, when I look at your impressive children, I see forward, to a future we cannot know but which they’ll create with their minds and ways and words.
Families, you see forward, too—but you also see backward:
You see in each of today’s graduates that angelic newborn, little and full of wonder at the world.
You see the impish toddler, you see the sleeping child, you see the brave soldier on the first day of kindergarten.
When they were little, they would run up to you, arms open, knowing that when you lifted them up, and held them high against the sky, you would not let them drop.
We honor that love and trust today.
Families, from growth spurts to the college search, from insecurity to independence, from runny noses to nose piercings, from zipping them up in puffy winter coats to watching them go out wearing flip flops in the snow—you gave these graduates love and life, taught them right, guided them through change, and empowered them with education. Congratulations.
Graduates, please stand, face this crowd, and give the loudest thanks you’ve got to all those who are here today, or here in spirit, whose love has been your launching pad.
I’d like to start by invoking two inspiring alums whose company you now join as graduates of Franklin & Marshall College.
Our first gathering as a class was the New Student Convocation on August 27, 2013. The speaker was Dr. Henry Wiggins ’55, a legendary physician from Chicago who was one of the first ten African-Americans to attend F&M when he came here in 1951.
On that day, as America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we thought it would be inspiring as you began your college education to hear from an eminent public alum who actually walked with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery.
What we did not know, however, is that just before the speech, Dr. Wiggins had been told by his physician that for health reasons he must not go on an airplane flight.
Rather than doing something reasonable, which was to tell us that he hoped he might instead speak to the new students in a future year, this 80-something Franklin & Marshall True-Blue Diplomat did something entirely unreasonable—which was to book a 14-hour overnight Amtrak trip.
He arrived in Lancaster a few hours before the Convocation, spoke to you for ten minutes, and went right back to the train station for the 14 hour sojourn home.
Think about that. One of the most accomplished human beings of his generation, a true Drum Major for Justice, sat on a train for 28 hours so he could share a few thoughts with you. That’s how much Dr. Wiggins’ F&M education means to him.
A second story: Here today is Dr. Joan Fallon ’79, inventor of a novel therapy for autism in children, who gave a Common Hour talk during your sophomore year.
Thirty-five years after graduating from F&M, this pioneering clinician, scientist, teacher, businesswoman, entrepreneur and ethicist said to you that, looking back, “Of all the things I have had in my life, by far, the most valuable, is my F&M education.” Note the use of present tense: “is my F&M education.”
During your years here I have often thought about these two moments as testimony to the value of this iconic American institution and the liberal arts education as a whole.
Perhaps some of you may be wondering if 35 years from now, or 60 years from now, you will also speak of your education here in the present tense, as if you’ve never left F&M or F&M has never left you.
And I believe that you will.
Let me say why I believe:
First, because you have put your labor and love into these years—you’ve given and grown in ways now grafted into who you are.
Because you have crossed borders, crossed disciplines, and crossed boundaries, binaries, and belief systems.
Because through this curriculum and these majors, you have learned to think and write and reason and code and count and observe and analyze and reflect and dance and draw and—whatever your field—learn to work by a method: plan, practice, do, review, and then start the cycle all over again—plan, practice, do, review.
I believe you will always live F&M in the present tense because in these years you have discussed and debated the great issues of the day—from climate change to cultural change, from the unfinished agenda of civil rights to the many meanings of the 2016 presidential election.
Because, in these years, you have lived in truth—stepping up, making up, owning up—those personal moments of integrity—whether getting help or giving back, going first or holding back, reaching out or coming out.
Nothing done well ever dies. With labor and love you have mapped into your neural landscape memories that have meanings that will be the very foundations of more growth to come.
There’s a second reason why I believe that you will feel the flame of Franklin & Marshall College burning inside of you for the rest of your lives.
It’s because of the very quality of this educational experience—of this College.
I know, there were days when the wi-fi didn’t work or you wondered if the school had a secret conspiracy to drive you insane.
But, why do I believe there is no better place to build your minds and mindsets and skills sets?
Because you have been taught by the Grier Stephensons and Linda Fritzes and Alan Glazers and Michael Penns and Judith Muellers and Katherine McClellands of American higher education.
Why do I believe?
Because you have lived in College Houses, because you have been funded in Hackman and Marshall Fellowships, because you have been mentored by F&M musicians and taught by F&M coaches and advised holistically by F&M educators.
Why do I believe?
Because you have owned the grounds of an historic and beautifully maintained campus with its quads and byways and benches and public art, its placement in a small knowledge economy city that opens its arms to innovation and to refugees, a place where the trees are living monuments to our beautiful and imperiled planet.
Why do I believe?
Because you have had each other. A class reflective of a talent strategy now known throughout higher education as the pathway other colleges should follow.
It gives me great pride to announce that 76 of today’s graduates are international students; and it gives me great pride to announce that 95 of you will walk across this stage as the first in your families to earn a college degree.
And there’s one more reason why I believe that this education will never leave you, as it never left Dr. Fallon and Dr. Wiggins.
It’s that the larger world with its joys and sorrows and threats and possibilities needs citizens with the liberal arts education you and F&M have created here together.
This is because ours is a shape-shifting, tech-driven, multicultural global knowledge economy in which the very nature of news and neighborhoods and the nation-state is constantly rumbling beneath our feet.
In a world where breakthrough discoveries in science and technology have the capacity to transform humanity—for good or ill—I believe that your liberal arts education is the best possible form of empowerment.
In a world of fake news, alternative facts, the silencing of scientists, and the scapegoating of the vulnerable, I believe that your liberal arts education offers answers our societies need.
Precisely because change is life, your F&M education will be ever alive, ever-empowering, ever-relevant, ever-important, ever-renewing. You couldn’t banish this place from your brain if you wanted to.
In fact, the reservoir that is F&M will grow in your brain. There will be days at work when a problem seems insurmountable, and you’ll remember how Professor Smith or Professor Jaros or Professor Tisnado reframed a question, and that will open a door for you.
There will be a moment when a colleague opts expediently for the easier answer, more comfortable and based on a hope or a hunch but not tested knowledge, and the image of Professor Piro or Professor Lonsdorf or Professor Merritts will pop into your mind and you’ll say “we can’t be that sloppy with our methodology when there’s so much at stake.”
There will be a day of uncertainty and unscripted challenges and you will hear again the voice of a coach claiming, “Why not us?” or a faculty mentor saying, “I have faith in you.”
In these ways and in so many more your F&M education will always be a part of you and it will grow within you as you change. Everything you made and loved here stays with you where you venture next, and you can freely build upon that. I hope you will protect this place for those who come after.
And when you yourself come back to home base, to Franklin & Marshall, changed in ways we can’t predict, but so well educated for the world that is to come, the arms of this community will be open to you.
We will be so happy to see you, eager to hear how you’ve changed, and, as we are today, full of faith in all you have to offer.
And that why I believe in you: the Class of 2017.