Welcome Class of 2015

Sharon Herzberger
President's Convocation Address
September 5, 2011

Welcome Poet families, and welcome our newest Poets.

A few short months ago, just over the hill in Memorial Stadium, we gathered as a community to celebrate with another group of students and their families. These students were about to graduate from Whittier College.

Our 2011 graduates—well educated, mature, and self-confident—once sat right here, where you are sitting. Probably, they too felt a little of what you are feeling tonight — both excitement and trepidation for the days ahead.

Our 2011 graduates were treated to one of the most remarkable commencement addresses I have ever heard. The renowned, award-winning journalist Bill Moyers told our graduates that they chose well in choosing Whittier College.


The founders of our College in 1887 were Quakers who ventured into the wild, wild West, establishing a town and a college, and named both after John Greenleaf Whittier. Mr. Whittier was by then a well-known newspaperman, an abolitionist, and a Quaker whose poetry was used—ironically—by President Lincoln to urge men to fight in the Civil War.

Our founders adopted a mission to educate students to serve their communities; to respect people of all religious backgrounds, all ethnicities and all places of origin; to look beyond national borders to understand the world; and to think broadly, converse cogently, and learn how to listen.

Our College has held to this lofty mission throughout its long history. The author Jessamyn West, a member of Whittier's Class of 1923, sat at graduation many years ago watching students file across the stage. A member of the Board of Trustees at the time, she remarked that there were more Muslims at Whittier than Quakers, and that John Greenleaf Whittier would heartily approve.

Well, Mr. Whittier would be mighty proud to look over our campus today and see students of all backgrounds and from all over America and - as represented by the flags behind me - from so many countries of the world. Such is the beauty of living, learning, and studying in this most diverse of the selective liberal arts colleges that there is no typical Whittier student.

As one who served his nation well, John Greenleaf Whittier also would approve of the varied ways that students here often learn through service to others. Mr. Whittier would know, as our founders knew, that through service you will grow in insight and understanding.

And here today, as intended at the beginning, you will learn from faculty who revere breadth of knowledge as much as depth and who will teach you to see the world's challenges from multiple points of view and through starkly different and sometimes conflicting modes of analysis. The faculty will open your minds to new ways of thinking, and prod you to question and to doubt.

Perhaps most important, both in class and out, you will learn to listen. Our Quaker founders believed in the value of silence. Silence—they asserted—permits listening to the "small voice within "that calls us to do good. Equally significant, silence prepares and reminds us to hear the disparate voices around us and to seek common ground.

I could tell you many stories about Richard Nixon's time at Whittier College. About how he practiced leadership through running for the student body presidency, campaigning on students' rights to dance on campus. About how he learned perseverance sitting on the bench year after year as a member of the football and basketball teams. About how his devotion to Native American rights was learned from his football coach, the legendary "Chief Newman."

But what I really want to tell you is that on his first day of office as President of the United States, he told his aides to prepare to go to China, causing them to worry among themselves afterwards whether the newly elected president knew that the United States had no diplomatic relations with China.

And how during his remarkable, world-changing visit just three years later he spoke of the fact that people from nations with "deep and fundamental differences can learn to discuss those differences calmly." He talked of the importance of two great peoples and two great nations finding "common ground."

He learned these things at Whittier College.

There is a reason why social psychologists call human beings "cognitive misers." Philosophers love to tackle the hard questions; most of us do not. We judge too quickly; we make assumptions without proper information; we reject whole groups of people and accept others on the flimsiest of surface characteristics; and we much prefer to stick with our stereotypes and preconceptions than to open ourselves to doubt. It is normal and human to be a cognitive miser, but it is certainly not smart.

If there is any college in America equipped to educate graduates to listen and learn, and to rise above the human frailty of cognitive miserliness, it is Whittier. With the dedication of our faculty to our founding mission and the experiences and people you will encounter here, you have an unparalleled opportunity to rise above. And given the positions of leadership that you will assume once you leave this school, you have an obligation to do so.

Newest Poets, on this beautiful night, I suspect that you are not yet pondering the obligations you will assume upon graduation. You are probably thinking about the next few hours and about tomorrow and about Thursday when your adventure truly begins.

But your family, your faculty, and all who are gathered here with you tonight know that your time on this campus will pass quickly, and that there is a world that awaits the education you are about to receive.

Remember: You have chosen well in choosing Whittier College, and with your matriculation today you have been granted a gift. Tonight I ask you to sit in silence, listen, and commit yourself to take advantage of all that this extraordinary gift can bring.