Traci Fordham Hernandez Last Lecture 2008

May 12, 2008

“Trajectories”

Good evening, everyone. Before I begin to lecture you, I'd like to thank you for inviting me to do this and for bestowing this honor upon me. It is a most humbling honor, actually—to be asked by the senior class to send them off with some words of wisdom—which, I must say, I have more than I know what to do with.

So, it's pretty awesome to be asked.

I have known many of you since you were first year students. And it has been so rewarding to have worked with you and to have seen you grow as scholars and as people over these four years.

So. Here you are.
And, away you go.

On this, the first evening of your senior week, the last six days in which you are undergraduate students at St. Lawrence University, amidst all of the celebrating, I'm asking that you take a few moments, outside of the spectacle that is senior week, to wallow in a bit of self reflection.

I've been playing around with some cool metaphors---welcome to your guided tour of introspection.

This may be the first time that many of you will really experience nostalgia—the yearning for situations or people in one's past. Count how many times over the past couple of weeks that you've said or thought, “I don't believe this is almost over.”

Stop. ‘Just for a second.

Feel this moment. No. Really. Viscerally experience this moment.

However you're currently punctuating your time at SLU right now—whether you wish you could do it all over again or whether you can't wait to bust out of here and begin the next chapter of your life, just dig this moment.

Someday…someday, you will recall this: the smells and sounds of the chapel, the pink patina of the sun setting on the quad, the people you're with right now whom you've come to love… Savor this moment.

This is about to be your past.

Right now, you are all poised on a cusp. That's a figurative point between two different situations or states. A cusp is when a person is situated between these two places—or is just about to move from one point to another. Your lives will be full of cusps, since life is always about movement. But this particular transition is one of the most profound. And exciting. And petrifying, too. In U.S. culture, this cusp marks the passage from adolescence and dependence to adulthood and independence. You are all at the critical moment of jumping---how are you thinking about this cusp?

If you've taken any classes from me, you already know that these existential questions are, in my opinion the sine qua non of being human. Ultimately, it's not the job you have, how much money you make, or the material objects you accumulate that matter (except, of course, for my Longchamp bag): what matters most in this world are the kinds of questions you ask yourself and, of course, where those questions end up taking you.

What will you take from your experiences at SLU?

And where will the answers to that particular question be taking you?

Of course, I don't mean the internship, graduate program, or occupation you're about to take on. I hope that this incredible opportunity to be liberally educated will have given you the tools to ask yourself these two questions:

“What kind of person am I going to be?” And, “What am I going to stand for?”

It's really easy to become mired in the quotidian minutiae of living in a capitalist society: paying off student loans, becoming situated to life in a cubicle, learning how to cook for yourself and others, getting up at 6:30 a.m. every single day. Trust me on this---weeks can go by wherein you've thought of nothing more profound than whether-or-not you can use a paper towel as a coffee filter.

Make room in your life for thinking about life. About why you're here and why that matters. Because it does matter. It matters for the quality of the life you live and it matters to the people you touch along the way.

The title of this lecture is “Trajectories.” A trajectory is the path of a projectile or other moving body through space. It is not the object moving upward or outward. A trajectory is the path that that object takes.

So, your leaving St. Lawrence University is a fundamental trajectory. What path are you on? John Schaar, a political philosopher at UC Santa Cruz says, “The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.”

Your paths are not already forged and waiting for you to take them; they are within you, waiting to be made. But, remember, contrary to the American Rugged Individualist story we like to tell our selves, our paths and journeys are always peopled by others. Your trajectory may seem singular. But it is not.

And I know that you're already feeling this: you have arrived at this destination in the company of many others. You are who you are right now because of the interactions and relationships you've been a part of along the way. What have you learned from these interactions and relationships and how have you helped shaped the trajectories of others?

How you learn from, work and play with other people condition the kind of citizen you are. You are about to launch yourselves into a global political economy. That requires more than an interest in markets or capital—being a citizen of a global village means cultivating the ability to understand and to communicate effectively with people who may not look like you, talk like you, or believe in the things you do. And, please, learning how to communicate more effectively across human difference is not a skill that might just make you more money (In other words, I'm not advocating learning to better understand diverse people so that you can sell them stuff more effectively). Although, that may be a consequence…

Being a global citizen means embracing and practicing an ethic of compassion.

So, this is the part where I'm going to get a little preachy. But, hell, you voted for me, so indulge me a bit.

Compassion is more, should be more, than a simple empathy (like, “Wow. That would really suck. I totally feel bad for her”).

All major religions, and some philosophies like Buddhism, see the capacity to feel the suffering of others, and to work to eradicate that suffering, as the most significant aspect of our humanity. Our ability to feel and to practice compassion, especially toward those for whom we do not feel a “natural” affinity, is the closest thing we have to divinity. It's easy to be nice to, to understand, to forgive, people we already love (and even then, we don't do that very well). It's much, much more difficult to suspend judgment and anger and try to understand someone with whom we disagree.

This is what I mean by asking yourself what you'd like to stand for in the world. You get one chance. What's the model, the paradigm, that will guide you along the way? When's the last time, if ever, that you asked yourself that? Or this: What do I believe, about myself, and about others, and where are those beliefs taking me?

Many of you have told me that the most important thing you learned at SLU was how to be a more critical thinker. Critical thinking, obviously, is a crucial life skill: it means taking nothing for granted. It means constantly asking questions about what you know and how you know it, and asking those same questions about the information you acquire from others (including this lecture, yes?). But critical thinking does not mean cynicism. Being cynical means being contemptuous of human nature or of the motives, goodness, or sincerity of others. I think that you can be a critical thinker and still be idealistic. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with idealism! It means that you're hopeful. It means that you have faith—faith in the divine, however you define it, faith in yourself, and faith in others.

So, I've given you some advice. Here's what I hope for each of you:

I wish you a life of idealism and wonder. Every moment you're alive is a sparkling miracle. I hope that you find and create joy in even the most mundane. Take out the trash and notice the incredible blue of the sky. Be stuck in traffic and hear your favorite song. Pay the bills with your dog snoring softly at your feet. Life is good.

I hope that each of you will engage in work that fulfills and enriches you. I'm driving around a car upon which the trunk is held shut by a bungee cord. Education is not a high-paying gig. But I'm doing the work I've always dreamed of doing and loving every moment of it. I wish you bliss in your labor.

I hope that you crack yourself up as much as humanly possible. Don't ever tire of the ridiculous and absurd. It really is incredible how funny the universe can be. Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, having a heightened sense of humor is the most important life skill of all.

Lastly (I'm not going to say, “I hope you dance,” although, dancing is right up there with laughter)--

I hope that you create the love of your life. Notice I said, “create.” You ain't gonna find him or her. The initial “wham” of physical attraction can only take you so far. Love is the commitment of two people to make a world together, a world that would not be the same with any two other people. Don't wait for Prince Charming. He'll never show up. Prince Charming is the guy fixing your car. The woman of your dreams is the person who still likes you even after meeting your friends. Or your mom. She's the person who still finds you attractive after looking inside your refrigerator or under your bed. So, I hope that you will create a deep and enduring partnership with another person.

On this, the cusp of the next stage in your life, think about your trajectory. While it is about your movement onward, it is also about the path behind you as you go. You have made an impact here, Class of 2008. You have learned, but we have learned from you. You have made connections, but we who remain here will never be the same because of what you've meant to us. Look back from time to time, at the path you've left, as you travel on. You've made a difference, and it matters.

Congratulations, my friends. And good luck in all your journeys.