This is the precise moment when St. Lawrence University changes the grammar of your lives. You already feel a temporal shift from the past to the present, from where you were a few days ago to the immediacy of right now. And in this first gathering of the first year class, the class of 2016, the needle of your compass just shifted by a small degree. It crossed the meridian of you to we. That is what happens at Matriculation, this subtle marking of a categorical shift in our pronouns. Rather than saying, so predictably, we are glad you are here, I presume to declare that we are happy we are all together in the class of 2016. Pronouns create a difference with a distinction. I can reliably promise many things today, but the true north of everything at St. Lawrence is that we are in this together.
The St. Lawrence “we” has curious elastic qualities. It can define the actual members of the first year class by restrictive terms, such as being registered for classes and assigned to a room on campus. And yet, St. Lawrence also thinks of “we” in more expansive and inclusive ways.
Parents, grandparents, and family members are ours, too. They wear the school colors and sing with us our alma mater. The St. Lawrence “we” crosses boundaries, so that there is a shared embrace by university and family in the great journey of learning.
My remarks would be inadequate if I only addressed the entering new students. Let me offer a word to other new community members who are the parents or who are otherwise closely related to the members of the class. First, a heartening word of accord is appropriate. I and dozens of my co-workers and associates, whether in the faculty or in the administration, know what it is like to sit where you are today. We once brought our children to college at equivalent occasions in other years. It’s harder, perhaps, than we imagined.
The range of feelings will seem to span the horizon’s arc as your memories and hopes gently collide against this hour. For me personally, I was reminded of this emotional spectrum just last week when my sister took her oldest to college. She sent me a line that any of us could have written: “I am so excited for him…Yesterday was a good send off. Lots of reassurance from staff and students that he’ll be ok. I know he’ll be fine, but I miss him terribly…it closes some chapters of life, but only to have future, maybe better chapters written new.”
And then, shifting from the perspective of a parent delivering a new student, I received a letter this summer from the father of a St. Lawrence senior who had just graduated in May. After commencement, father and son drove home to Florida. For three days, the father listened to his young Laurentian reflect on his college experience. The father himself is a college professor. He recollected that when he and his wife first visited the campus, “we were blown away. I have been on numerous college campuses in my 25 year career, but nothing compares to St. Lawrence. The location is idyllic, the campus is absolutely beautiful, and the academic rigor is demanding, but student oriented.” He concluded, “Whatever the cost… [my son, indeed,] was lucky enough to be exposed to such an [exceptional] education…in liberal arts, values, and skills.”
My correspondent inserts the word “location” in his letter. And this sense of place is an important concept for all of us at St. Lawrence, especially for our newest students and for our newest alumni. Getting here and understanding what is here are important coordinates of our individual identities. Many years ago when I was a boy, my father kept in his desk drawer at home a black steel-cased, standard-issue military compass, the kind soldiers and navigators have carried for centuries. This particular compass belonged to my grandfather who was an army medical officer in the First World War. How it was supposed to work was not intuitive. I asked my father, therefore, was this antique any good? He skipped over the mechanical explanation, which I am now certain he himself did not command, and said, “It’s only as good as the person who is using it; otherwise you’ll get lost and blame the compass.”
Now, here is a simple parable for us today. Actually, if your web browser is Safari then the image always on your screen is that of a compass, so this idea may already be a subtle daily presence. Even the name “Internet Explorer” suggests someone trying to get bearings with a compass. And perhaps the most obvious association is the fact that most of you had a Garmin or some similar GPS device to guide your drive or reinforce your preferred route to Canton.
In its most literal meaning, “orientation” is an exercise in using a compass to determine your bearings and direction. When you are properly oriented, you are ascertaining your position by facing east and the rising sun. Learning the east-west axis on the compass is the first principle of finding your way. The two options that always appear fresh on the Garmin screen, “Where To” and “View Map,” represent the two most important questions for us today: Where am I now? And where am I going? More than 600 years ago, a Chinese admiral, Zheng He, first took a magnetic compass on a long blue water voyage. He must have pondered, is this instrument, which had been a fortune-teller’s plaything for hundreds of years, any good?
As you enter St. Lawrence, you may be asking the same question. In fact, you may be wondering what exactly is the compass you have been given? In a word, you have been looking at it through this ceremony: it is we. This community, this university of togetherness, this vibrant society of we can be your compass. All of your doubts, fears, or worries can be redirected if you understand how much we care about your happiness and your progress. If you are troubled, uncertain, or discouraged, we can show you the way of your better seeking and a more confident path to take. Students in the classes ahead of you, professors, deans, directors, and coaches all know well the new ocean you are about to explore with an untried compass.
And yet, the compass is only as good as the person holding it. Let me say something about this premise that your parents may be reluctant to emphasize overtly, but I am certain they would agree with me, their fellow parent. The Latin motto of a sister university in Canada says it best in the phrase Tuum Est: It is up to you. The “compass of we” will work, but it is up to you, it is yours to use. Open its case and let the needle drift north. You are now in what we affectionately call the North Country; and there is much goodness in this place with old roads traveled each year by new students.
Sometime ago, I caught up with an old professor of mine who also over time became a cherished friend. He revealed something about himself I had never before known. For decades, he had kept an old-fashioned calendar or journal with pages sewn together as a book; as the new students arrived, he would start all over with blank lines. Every year he inscribed the same words on the first page of his journal, words from an ancient philosopher: “happiness is the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”
You begin with vital powers, high energy, and immense promise. We place in your hands a compass. With it as a reference, you will not get lost; you will know your “current location”; and you will discover lines and scope that will take you a long way. This time in your life affords you broad and open routes, new lengths of possibility and purpose. The paths, ways, and roads start with you, but return to we. We are so happy you arrived to join us as the class of 2016. And I am confident you will discover much happiness with each other. Check your compass points and watch your pronouns. We’ll be fine.