F&M Stories

Home / Commencement / Commencement Archive / 2023 Commencement / Commencement 2023 Citations & Remarks / Commencement Remarks by F&M President Barbara K. Altmann, Ph.D.

Commencement Remarks by F&M President Barbara K. Altmann, Ph.D.

Remarks as prepared:

Good morning, Class of ’23!!

You are near and dear to my hearts, and have been ever since you arrived at F&M in the fall of 2019. That year challenged a lot of our hopes and dreams and set us on a course of immediate, fairly drastic, adaptation and resilience. And yet here you are, accomplished, successful graduates who flourished despite all the turmoil, and found a way to make it work.

Let’s think about what happened: a pandemic shut down the college in March 2020. Even when you finally returned in spring ‘21, all the weirdness and restrictions of Covid protocols made campus life an often isolating and alienating challenge. We have made our way back, incrementally, to a largely in-person life, and this very week, the Covid-19 public health emergency was lifted by the federal government in this country.

How do we even begin to make sense of all that for you?

Out of curiosity, and because artificial intelligence is a hot topic of the moment, one of my colleagues decided to use Chat GPT to generate a commencement address for me.

It’s not bad! Here’s how it opens:

“Congratulations on this momentous occasion! Your achievements in the face of unprecedented challenges have made this day all the more special.”

And there are a few other choice sentences:

“I want to remind you that your success is not measured solely by your achievements, but by the impact you have on others.”

And, finally:

“I have no doubt that you will continue to make us proud in all that you do.”

Now, I have no doubt that you will learn to use Chat GPT as a tool, and not just as a shortcut. But my guess is that you’ll want to add complexity and nuance, specificity and unique connections that only you, as creative thinkers, can make.

The AI draft of my speech is perfectly acceptable. It is also so generic that it could apply to commencement at just about any school this year.

I believe you deserve more, so I want to add a few ingredients. I’m going to add a botanical metaphor involving mud and lotuses. And I want to acknowledge something you have perhaps already discovered: that the heartbreak and anxiety and loneliness and fear of the last few years have a wonderful counterpoint: namely that your capacity for joy and success is all the greater for having grappled with sorrow and disappointment, and that you are more fully realized for what you have lived through.

We’ll start with the lotus. Let’s imagine it right now: the lotus is a precious flower of rarified beauty, and also often a symbol of resilience and strength. Why is that? It turns out that the lotus is an aquatic flower, the roots of which are in the mud. The flower must grow through the mud to reach the surface of the water. It follows that there can be no lotus without the mud. Thich Nhat Hanh, the esteemed Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and spiritual leader, titled one of his books No mud no lotus, and used that image to argue that, to quote, “[S]uffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow.” And, going one big step further, he concludes that, “Without suffering, there’s no happiness.”

Many writers have grappled with our Covid experience in the last three years. One of my favorites is American poet and essayist Ross Gay. In his book Inciting Joy (2022), Gay’s premise is complementary to the lesson of Thich Nhat Hanh. Gay asks, in vivid, surprising, lively prose, “What if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering, or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things?”

We could explore this in much greater detail. For lack of time, I’ll end simply by turning around a phrase I started with: you have flourished, dear graduates, and you will continue to flourish, not despite all the turmoil, but at least in part because of the turmoil.

What I see before me here is nothing less than a whole field of lotus flowers, strengthened and beautified by the lived experience that led you here today. It will give me great joy to greet you on the stage in a little while. After all, as Chat GPT put it, “I have no doubt that you” – because you are Diplomats forever – “will continue to make us proud in all that you do,” just as you have these last four years.

Commencement Remarks by F&M President Barbara K. Altmann, Ph.D.

Related Articles

May 16, 2024

Williamson Medalist Embraces Multifaceted Learning at F&M

Roxana “Roxy” Calder, of Philadelphia, is the 2024 recipient of the Williamson Medal, the College’s most prestigious award for student achievement.

May 13, 2024

Class of 2024 Turns Tassels

A pandemic enveloped their earliest days of college in uncertainty. Four years later, members of the Class of 2024 have emerged as leaders and scholars.

May 12, 2024

Lux et Lex Walk Marks Milestone for Class of 2024

On the eve of Commencement, Franklin & Marshall’s graduating class took one final look at campus together during the Lux et Lex Walk.