Graduates of the Class of ’21, I salute you! Both those of you here in these seats in front of me, and those participating from elsewhere.
I arrived when you were starting your sophomore year. Could any of us have anticipated what we would live through together as we navigated the last three years, with events that left us a changed campus and a changed world, called upon us to step up and speak up, and upended much of what we took for granted or thought of as “normal”?
And yet, even in this unimaginable year, you found a way to make it work. You adapted and stretched. It feels like a bit of a miracle that so many of us can even be here, in the same space, after living with so many restrictions, so much frustration, after living with worry and grief over the last 15 months, and now finally, cautiously, we are emerging from solitude. I’m so happy that this, your Commencement, is the first big event to bring us all back together.
This is definitely an “ampersand” moment – the rich space of possibility signified by the ampersand, that tantalizing symbol, meaning “and,” that hangs in the middle of the name “Franklin & Marshall.” It is a moment which is “both/and,” a moment of paradoxes and conflicting emotions. Sorrow and success can co-exist. You are likely both exhausted and exhilarated; excited and a little scared; happy to finish and nostalgic about leaving beloved people and places; finished with college but not quite launched into your next endeavor.
The ampersand, like your lives, is ripe with potential. It’s the creative vortex of the expected and the unforeseen, a complex set of endings and beginnings. And that, in fact, is the meaning of “commencement”: the next stage of your lives is about to commence.
Let’s think back for a moment to your first days on the F&M campus. Do you remember your Convocation, when you were “called together” as a class for the first time? The faculty member who welcomed you at Convocation was none other than math professor Annalisa Crannell, who happens to be today’s marshall. Professor Crannell recently sent me her remarks from that day, and I read them with curiosity, to see how they resonate after almost four years.
With uncanny prescience, at the heart of Professor Crannell’s convocation speech was the notion of chaos theory, and, to quote Professor Crannell, “why your life here at F&M ought to be chaotic.” As she explained, there are three principles behind chaos theory. Greatly simplified, they are, first, that “Small changes…can lead to big changes.” Second, that the same ideas keep coming up again and again, in unexpected ways. And third, a principle called “transitivity” suggests that “starting from just about anywhere, your path through life might take you just about anywhere else.”
Let’s test the analogy between chaos theory and your undergraduate experience: have small changes led to big changes in your four years here? My guess is “yes”: you took a class on a whim and it turned into your major; you took a risk by talking to someone you didn’t know and that person will be a life-long friend; you signed up for an alumni networking event and someone you met helped you get an internship; you advocated for change on something that matters very much to you and you helped shift an institution.
Have you seen the same ideas coming up again, in unexpected ways? That’s the beauty of interdisciplinary education. An clash of ideologies you learned about in a course on government perhaps came up again in an anthropology class, and then sparked your interest in a research project or volunteer opportunity in Lancaster. And, of course, when you were called together for “Convocation,” the introduction to chaos theory you heard that day actually describes remarkably well where you are at your “Commencement,” in ways you could not have predicted.
And what about that third principle, the idea that starting from anywhere, you can get just about anywhere else? That is, in fact, the precious truth of a great liberal arts education: no matter what you thought you wanted to study, no matter what you majored in, you have acquired everything you need to follow your head and your heart to fulfill just about any ambition, and there’s a good chance you will zigzag your way to an unexpected destination.
Professor Crannell ended her Convocation address oh-so-long ago by reading the well-known Robert Frost poem that begins with the phrase, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” In that poem, a traveler comes to a fork in the road and chooses “the road less traveled.” It turns out that taking “the road less traveled … made all the difference.” By coming and sticking it out at F&M, by finding ways to work right through a pandemic, by making up new ways of learning on the fly; by persevering despite all the odds, you have taken a road less traveled. And, dear graduates, those choices will have made all the difference. Our mission at F&M is to launch leaders at all levels. We launch graduates who are consensus builders and problem solvers, thoughtful professionals who can navigate across cultures. Because that’s what diplomats are.
As we move toward the moment when we recognize you one by one, let’s take a moment to think about not just what, but who got you through. Let’s stop for a moment of gratitude. Every one of us can succeed only because others help make it happen. A lot of people helped along the way – family, friends, faculty, staff, alumni. If you have your gift bag on hand, please reach into it and find the blue-and-white heart on a stick. [Take a moment to let them get it.] Did you find it? Whether you have it or not, whether you are here in the stadium or at home, now please rise if you are able and wave – wave at the people, near or far away, present or absent, for your loved ones in the stands or for the cameras – wave at those who helped you. Wave your hearts, wave your hands, to acknowledge that there is a network of people around the world always ready to give you an assist when you need it, and to inspire you. That’s the beauty of this place – it’s about the people, in every aspect of your F&M life and beyond.
You have changed this place for the better, even as you changed and grew. Everything you have learned and the confidence you’ve built are with you for the rest of your lives. As are those relationships – you are forever part of that global F&M network. This is a lifelong community. We look forward to seeing and hearing from you again and again, as you navigate the world and take your place among our illustrious alumni. Because you, dear Diplomats, are going places! Congratulations, from your very proud president.