Today preserves the tradition of a well-worn path and also marks a first step that will simultaneously hold the class of 2011 together for life while also tracing the circumference of compass points that will take the class in all directions. You will meet again and I predict will do so many times in the coming years, but today you join the longer unbroken line of Laurentians who have formed into classes at Commencement 150 times before your turn.
I begin with a heartfelt word to the parents and families of our graduates. We could not have done all that converges into this singular moment of high resolve and great achievement without you. This day fulfills a dream; it must also be a day that brings and gives honor to you as mothers, fathers, grandparents, and even shirt-tail cousins. Your sacrifice, love, and determination are in front of us all as a form of triumphant living; so we cheer for you, too. Thank you for your tremendous contribution in seeing them through, listening to their worries, and reassuring them that the journey would someday pause a mountain-top day, one of life’s high peaks.
To the graduating class, I greet you with a special confidence in your destiny. You are well prepared and we believe you are ready for the road ahead. Before you leave we have some business to transact, some customs to observe. The finale of this ceremony will bring us to our feet for the singing of our St. Lawrence “Alma Mater.” There is a phrase in those verses that is an anchor point of this great hour. As the song builds to the chorus, our voices will sing, “we’ll ne’er forget.” What is it in these Laurentian bonds that “we’ll ne’er forget?”
You and I share already many memories transcending the differences of the birth years and college years between us—the magical view traced by an uphill brick walk through a hardwood grove that lights upon an exquisite Victorian campus; the leaving hours from hard work in lab or library that put you beneath a North Country’s good night lullaby of a soft, gentle snow to calm and steady the walk home; and the fun music, windows-open, shoes-off kind of afternoon in springtime when you have truly left behind everything that worries you. We will today add to that list of shared experiences, that we are each holders of a St. Lawrence bachelor’s degree.
We share something else, too, that is more directly our purpose as a community. I spoke earlier this morning in the chapel; I talked a little about Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America. One of the best scenes in the story of Tocqueville’s travels around the country happened in a setting very much like the North Country.
Young Alexis and his friend Gustave wandered beyond river and town one day, just outside Memphis, Tennessee. They found in a crudely constructed log cabin something that astonished them; they found copies of Shakespeare and Milton. In fact, Tocqueville first read Henry V in that cabin. They found many examples of rustic literacy on the frontier, which leads me to a larger point about your own opportunity at St. Lawrence. In his book, Tocqueville recalled his surprise in the woods of Tennessee:
“Do you wish to behold the impetuous and irresistible stream of time flowing before your eyes? Seat yourself in the home of an American pioneer and read Shakespeare there, in the shadow of the virgin forest.”
You have had one of the rarest of privileges in the world. I believe you know that. You have been well guided in your study; you did not have to scrounge desperately for books or teachers; or live in poor conditions. But that is not why I mention the story of finding literature in a log cabin. Rather, the point is not that you must read Shakespeare (I hope you have or will later), but that you’ll never forget where you might find the unexpected in life. If nothing else, the North Country—its poverty, its beauty, its genius, its goodness, its resilience, its loyalty—teaches you that. As you leave today, you must find the terms that follow the phrase “we’ll ne’er forget…” and remember that wherever you settle, you are pioneers of your own story, never dismissive of the unexpected, but open to the surprises of life.
Many of you are going to serve in distant places, work in world-class cities, study in large universities, and consider opportunities in your growing-up places. Your class will be represented among the best insurance brokers in the country at AMICA and Allstate. Nearly ten of you will be in one of several teaching corps—the New England Center for Children and Teach for America. We are proud St. Lawrence will be represented at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. A classmate will be studying Arabic and international relations in Morocco. Corporate life beckons many of you at ESPN, Morgan Stanley, Nielsen, IBM, BET, and Goldman Sachs. One of you will wear the uniform of a deputy sheriff; three of will become officers in the United States Army.
Our class has been placed in the best graduate and professional schools schools—University of Illinois, Idaho, Michigan, Rochester, Georgetown, Syracuse, Northeastern, Texas, Oregon, NYU, Iowa State, Springfield, and Providence. One of you enters a PhD program at Vanderbilt in neuroscience and pharmacology; another will be at Dartmouth Medical College. Other medical schools and law schools have welcomed your classmates. We have future doctors of veterinary medicine and ornithologists; a classmate will be on the staff of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. We know some of you are getting ready for Peace Corps assignments. A Singing Saint will be in Africa as a Girls Empowerment Coordinator. One of you declared his occupation for a year as “ski bum.” Let me hasten: that was the first job for many in our Laurentian galaxy of distinguished careers. Some of you will head to Washington, some to Albany and begin to learn the intricacies of law-making and politics.
We’ll ne’er forget… your promise, your values, your ambition. In you we “behold the impetuous and irresistible stream of time flowing” to the best days of your seeking, rooted unforgettably in the good days of this good place. Welcome to the 151st Commencement Day of St. Lawrence University.