Class of 2022,
Greetings to you, to your loved ones watching here in the hall, on the live feed, or cheering you on from somewhere else in the world.
The trick in writing graduation speeches is to avoid platitudes. In our case, for your class, that’s an easy assignment. You, and we, have had an unparalleled passage through F&M.
You and I arrived at F&M at the same time. My first day on campus was a week before you arrived. We discovered this place together – the good, the bad, the ugly, and then the good again. The result, dear ‘22s, is that I feel especially, deeply, tied to you and your class. You are my first full class, and there will never be another such first. And no one would deny that our four years here have been anything short of singular.
I want to start with a small anecdote. In my — OUR — first year, after a particularly rough few weeks, a new friend brought me a gift: four, fine porcelain cups, in blue and white. At first glance, those cups looked like a standard blue-willow pattern. You likely know what I mean – graceful pagodas, waterways, ornamental trees, birds in flight. Very restful and pleasing to the eye. The note that accompanied the gift read something like, “Just a little gift to remind you that things could always be worse.” Suddenly attentive, I looked more closely. Wait, what was that behind the pagoda? A giant toad! That avian creature was not a crane, but a pterodactyl. A sasquatch was rampaging through the landscape, the ship on the waterway was flying a pirate flag, and something like the Loch Ness monster was churning up those quiet waters. I flipped over the cup: the line of china was called “Calamityware.” And the manufacturer’s tag identified those pretty, dainty cups as “Things-Could-Be-Worse” mugs.
We’ve been making our way through that troubled landscape for three years and nine months, Class of '22, and frankly, every time I thought, “Well, things could be worse,” we all immediately ran into the next giant robot or zombie poodle or enemy starship.
After our peculiar odyssey, the peripatetic path we’ve been on, I looked back at the speech I first delivered to you, when we “called you together” as a class for the first time at your Convocation – that of course is what Convocation means – the early bookend to this final ritual of Commencement.
“I welcome you,” I said, “and I consider myself one of you. We are bound by the irrevocable coincidence of having arrived, all of us together, at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in August 2018. Like you, I am new to my role. I’m learning about my environment as quickly as I can, and feeling some trepidation…. I am hoping to thrive here: to make new friends, work well with people I admire, and continue to grow in my profession. Like your arrival, my arrival means a change at the college, a new president at the same time as a new cohort of students.”
Then I set you a challenge, first at your Convening Dinner and then again at that Convocation. It was, and I quote, “to stretch in every possible way, right now, in your first days and weeks here, and then throughout your career at F&M. The purpose of encouraging you to stretch in new, sometimes uncomfortable ways is to optimize what you take away from this wonderful place, to make sure you take advantage in every possible way of what is open to you here.” I encouraged you to stretch intellectually, socially, physically, to reach far beyond what you already knew, and beyond what you already knew you are good at. And, I added, “Stretching and learning will happen in expected and unexpected places, in predictable and unpredictable ways.”
Never could I have predicted just how far we would all need to stretch, and just how uncomfortable – and downright painful and damaging – the voluntary and involuntary stretching might be.
What have we lived through together? Hard encounters, long overdue, on social justice issues. Something called the coronavirus. Sudden evacuation from campus. A rapid shift from in-person education to online, then hybrid instruction, modules rather than semesters, and a reprise of the long-gone “J term.” Vaccinations, masks, new protocols, isolation, quarantine. Trapped at home, or unable to get home. Living with far too much family or none at all. Dependent on and wary of others in new and vulnerable ways. Hard decisions. Hard work. Endlessly adapting. The need for endless resilience. Failure, frustration, fear.
And yet… Perseverance. Persistence. Patience. Good grace, generosity of spirit, tireless investment to learn new things in new ways. Four years, both short and endless. Four times through the academic cycle, each year different from the others, each painful and each victorious in their own ways.
Quite near campus, there is a meditation labyrinth; not the kind with dead-ends and blind alleys, but the kind with only one path that curls and twists from an entry point along a circuitous route through the same terrain before returning to the exit. One day recently, I walked that labyrinth with curiosity and a need for calm. As I moved through space in tight, snaking loops, I began to realize the beauty of the exercise. I saw the same landscape over and over, but from an altered perspective at each moment. Each symmetrical portion of the path was the same, and yet subtly, distinctly new. The sculpture in the middle of the labyrinth and the entry and exit point looked different as I moved past them again and again.
You’ve been engaged in that kind of labyrinth. It’s a great spatial metaphor for the rhythms of our four academic years, all the same to some extent, and yet each one a variation on a theme. We set out every fall and made our way through the calendar, seeing afresh every time, always bringing new experience to bear. It turns out, of course, that our paths are never linear, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. You will double back, look again, from new angles. You can revisit old haunts to unwind from somewhere you’ve been stuck in the past, or you can follow a spiral that passes familiar places on your way to a higher vantage point.
Our speaker today Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen has just lived something very like that. When he arrived in this country as an immigrant child, he was proceesed here in Central Pennsylvania. This is his first chance to come back and see Fort Indiantown Gap where he arrived and Harrisburg where he and his family lived. And he's coming back and came back to see it with very different eyes. I'm so pleased he'll be speaking to you in a few moments.
Look for those moments, graduates. Right now, this fourth turn through the academic year brings you to a new view and a new start. When you next come to campus, take a look at the place and the lives you lived here and see them with the fresh eyes that come with just a little bit of distance.
And so… here we are.
Families, I celebrate with you. Your children are made of stern and brilliant stuff.
Faculty, professional staff, community, I applaud you. Even while living through your own version of the Calamityware landscape, you taught, you mentored, you guided, you cared for, you aided, you launched this cohort.
Graduates of 2022, you are literally surrounded by people who love you and care for you. I salute you. I am humbled and heartened by what I’ve learned from you and alongside you. Despite everything — because of everything — you’ve done it. After our four years of surviving and thriving, you are close to my heart.