Living Forward

Remarks at Commencement - May 20, 2012

 

By now, you have walked all the paths, lanes, and trails on the St. Lawrence campus. You have crossed the plaza between the Sullivan Student Center and Dana Dining Hall times past counting. You have taken in the view from the Avenue of the Elms and have absorbed the glowing moonrise while cutting across the Quad. You are still in search of a shortcut to Appleton Arena on the nights we were ten below. And many of you know precisely where the cracks in the sidewalks are along Park Street for all the late, dark night returns to campus. The only path you have not yet walked is before you today, the walk thousands of Laurentians have also taken for more than 150 years on Commencement Day; it is the walk across the stage to receive something that is yours for life, something that cannot be garnished or erased.

You in the graduating class have benefitted from quiet, often distant, but ever-present sources of strength for the journey in all the steps you have taken to arrive at the foot of this crossing. The support of your parents, families, and guardian angels, who believed in you from the first instant, has made all the difference, making this hour significant beyond its individual terms. It is an hour that shines like silver light in a hemlock forest. 

I offer a word of deep gratitude to you who are the mothers, fathers, grandparents, and all kindred who have shared in the dream this day fulfills. Your constant faith, hard work, willing sacrifice, and wise gifts have created a beautiful picture of human achievement and joy. We also cheer for you who come this day to embrace the St. Lawrence promise in each of these young men and women. 

All of us who have shared these college years with your sons and daughters thank you for your part in the magic and the triumph. You have known their worries, listened to their imaginations, even at times wild and unfathomable, while you encouraged them to push ahead in the trial and error of an educated life. Yours is the necessary and subtle hand joining mine in presenting these degrees today.

To the graduating class, I greet you with the secure hopes of a president who already knows, perhaps before you can possibly realize it, how well prepared you are to use the optimism of your deep learning and to face the hard facts of your lives ahead. Your classmate, Nicolas Siriano, captured in his Hill Newscolumn, “Boot and Paddle,” a feeling you know together when he wrote: “Never before have I felt the ease of life roll over the Adirondack earth as smoothly as it has for the past four years. St. Lawrence is like no other place on earth, nothing compares, nothing.”

I know just how you and he must feel. I also walked this campus when I was your age. But I also know more than the current feelings we share, because in my case there is an arc of years bending to a longer measure. In Gunnison Chapel you will find in one of the clerestory windows the image of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. I’m not sure why he was chosen to be featured, and though I have read many of his works, great masterpieces of paradox, I would include him for one line alone: “life is lived forward but understood backward.” 

When I consider the year 2012, I also realize, believe it or not, that when I was a St. Lawrence student I knew people in the class of 1912. In that year, the Greek language requirement for graduation came to an end. It was probably more significant, however, that the Titanic sank and Woodrow Wilson was elected President. In the winter of 1912, ice hockey was first played on this campus and the big news at commencement that year was the announcement that St. Lawrence gained its first endowment fund, the impressive sum of $200,000. 

The class of 1912 also enjoyed the privilege of relatively new facilities. Richardson had just been remodeled; the Cole Reading Room was added to the Herring Library, and Carnegie Hall for the study of science was only a few years old. I knew these graduates, too; I was also once inspired by their lifelong feelings, running years ahead of my own life, a feeling that St. Lawrence was “like no other place on earth.” Look around you today: the affection and pride once known by the class and the era of 1912, is present in the St. Lawrence we know and love.

It will never leave you, even as you must leave it to find the next road. Your class will be represented very soon all over the world. Many of you head to great cities of great continents; a large number will begin graduate studies at famous research universities and professional schools. One of you will begin a PhD in immunology at Rochester Medical; another will be at UVM working on a PhD in neuroscience; a classmate will be in a doctoral program at Brandeis in English literature. The class of 2012 will be represented at Stony Brook and Upstate Medical Schools, the Albany College of Pharmacy, and Massachusetts General Hospital. We will have law students at Syracuse, Buffalo, and the University of Pittsburgh. Other graduate programs that include your classmates are at Harvard, Columbia, Kent State, Dartmouth, Michigan, Northeastern, UNC, UConn, Virginia Commonwealth, and the University of Vienna.

Some of you are tracking to highly coveted jobs at Bloomberg, ESPN, Goldman Sachs, Christie’s, Angelo Gordon, IBM, and Morgan Stanley. Three of you will be commissioned officers in the U.S. Army. A sizeable number are entering equally competitive and coveted placements in Teach for America, New York City Teaching Fellows, AmeriCorps, Learning on the Log, City Year, and the Japan Exchange for Teaching. One of you will work at the New England Aquarium; another will join the staff at the Boston Museum of Science. Two of you may not have told your parents yet, but will be bicycling across North America with two other recent St. Lawrence graduates. You may want to tell them about all the job interviews and campus visits you’ll include on your trip.

You are living forward. But also, you should understand your day as somehow closer to 1912 than you may possibly believe. In that day, one hundred years ago, they were mindful of something incredibly special about St. Lawrence. We are their posterity and someday others shall look back and understandus in those same terms.

When Charles Dickens first saw the unfinished Nation’s Capital of Washington, DC, he said it was “the City of Magnificent Intentions.” May you be known, remembered, and understood, while living forward, as a determined class with large ambitions, a deeper self-confidence, and magnificent intentions. Welcome to the 152nd Commencement Day of St. Lawrence University.