Convocation Address to the Class of 2011
September 2, 2007
Last spring during Commencement, I gave advice to our new Whittier College graduates. They were a remarkable class. They were active, engaged, and multidimensional—basically, your typical Whittier College students. During their time on our campus, some led their athletic teams to victory, some contributed beautiful music at ceremonies like this one, and a great many spent semester breaks and time during the term helping others through service.
And they had big plans for their lives. Some were heading off to the best graduate and professional schools in the country. Some were headed directly into exciting careers, having interned during their Whittier years on Wall Street or at the United Nations or at Broadoaks, Whittier's nationally renowned laboratory school. And—listen to this one, parents—some already had established successful businesses, which they used to finance their college educations; these young graduates thought they knew where they were headed as well.
But even though they were an accomplished and ambitious class, they still could benefit from words of advice. In fact, I told them that we held graduation early in the morning so that parents and other relatives could give them advice all the rest of the day.
I gave them advice as well. I told them to pay attention to the words of the Spanish poet Rosalia de Castro. She said: "I see my path, but I don't know where it leads. Not knowing where I'm going is what inspires me to travel it."
Sitting before me today, know that you too have the makings to be called an accomplished and ambitious class at your graduation some years from today. And the advice I gave to graduates is even more valid for you as you begin your journey through this College.
Some of you probably think you know what you will study, what you are "good at," and perhaps what career you are aiming towards. This assuredness will help you stay focused and motivated. Others don't have a clue. Let me tell you: this is just fine. All of you are well served by entering this august college with an open mind and a flexibility about selecting the paths before you. Henry David Thoreau said it well: "We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success."
In signing the matriculation book this morning and in receiving the Light of Learning tonight, you now will be a Poet—perhaps not in the sense of de Castro, or our namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier. But you are headed for a spectacular educational journey, led by a most caring and dedicated faculty, a faculty committed to your success. In joining the Poet family, you will be challenged to broaden your way of thinking, try on new ideas and roles, and prepare for a lifetime of surprise, change, and opportunity.
If you falter along this path or fear the uncertainty ahead, think of the protagonist of your summer reading assignment. Think of Valentino Achek Deng and of the leaps into uncertainty experienced by that young man.
Or consider John Greenleaf Whittier himself. Coming from a poor family, he was a farmer by day and a relentless reader by night. Soon he was writing poetry, then editing newspapers and magazines, then running for a seat in the Massachusetts legislature, publishing anti-slavery writings, and co-founding the Liberty Party, the precursor to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Multidimensional, committed, principled, and smart, he helped shape the American conscience and he became one of the most revered people of his time.
Follow his example—seize every opportunity that comes your way, savor every experience, and be open to change.
One thing that did not change about John Greenleaf Whittier was his lifelong commitment to his Quaker roots, and Whittier College has not changed its commitment to these roots either. Although we no longer formally associate with the Quakers—or the Society of Friends, as they are also called—we adhere to the Quaker principles of devotion to community, commitment to service and manifesting a profound respect for people of all backgrounds, religions, and nationalities. We also celebrate those who "let their lives speak"—those like John Greenleaf Whittier who demonstrate their values through their actions—and we will encourage you to recognize the power of action as well. You will find all of these founding principles embedded in the education you will receive here.
Equally important, at Whittier College we follow our founders' devotion to the art of listening even more than talking. Listening fully and respectfully requires putting oneself in the position of the other, searching for commonality across difference, learning which differences matter and which do not, and finding the threads of agreement that sew connection. For our founders, listening honored all human beings, built consensus, and produced thoughtful decisions. It serves the same function at Whittier College today, and it will prepare you for lives as leaders in communities wherever you find yourself after college.
However, on this beautiful night, I suspect that you are looking not at your life after college, but to the next days and perhaps years in this place. And we who are your teachers and your parents are looking to you.
Newest Poets, there is a world out there that needs your intelligence, your commitment, and the education you will receive here. Your family and your teachers have high expectations for you. For the sake of all of our futures, seize every opportunity that this fantastic college will provide, and take great leaps into the dark to your success.