Susan L. Washburn | St. Lawrence University Commencement

Susan L. Washburn

Remarks to Graduates May 19, 2019

Hello everyone.  I am so deeply honored by this recognition. To all members of the St. Lawrence family, it is so good to be home with you on this very special day. Thank you.

To the Class of 2019—now my fellow Laurentians—I’m going to get right to it and share with you three important things that have been guideposts for me over many years’ time.

They are:

Be an athletic listener

Ask your mind, and

Say yes

Have you ever been on your phone talking with someone about an issue you’re really concerned about and you hear the clicking of that person’s laptop keys? Or maybe you’ve been at dinner with a friend having a great conversation but a text comes in and interrupts the flow? Being an athletic listener, means really building our listening muscles so that we pay full attention to the person we’re with—a person whose opinions may not be the same as ours. We’re not thinking about what we’re going to say next. We’re not distracted by our devices or our “to do” lists. 

Instead, you’re totally present to the person you’re with: what they’re thinking and feeling, what they’re conveying through their body language, and what they’re saying … and not saying. I’ve found that working on my athletic listening skills has helped me not only in my career in philanthropy, but in my personal life. Often, when I think I’m effectively multi-tasking, I’m actually on my way to getting in trouble because I’m only selectively listening to my partner, my friends or my colleagues. The world needs more athletic listeners, especially now. In fact, we could use some Olympic-level gold medalists in listening.

Here’s a second guidepost: My mother was from Newfoundland, and she called it like she saw it.  When I was younger and would come home from school and tell my mother something I heard that was, in retrospect, pretty lame or simplistic, the response I most often received from her was: “Oh, for God’s sake, Susan – Ask your mind!” By this she meant don’t believe everything you hear or read. Don’t be intellectually lazy. Do the hard work. Fortunately for me and for you, our liberal arts educations have provided us with Truth Detectors: the ability to think and read critically. It’s like your St. Lawrence education is one big password that you’ll never have to change, and it gives you access to an amazing search engine: your OWN mind. 

Now, three. When I was less than a year out of college and working in Franklin & Marshall’s development office, St. Lawrence’s Director of Development Sarge Whittier called me out of the blue. I had never met him. Someone had given him my resume and he had a job here that he thought I might be interested in. I told him right away, with predetermined confidence, that I intended to work next in Boston. I had even looked on a map and—once I found Canton—I could see that it was not near Boston. He persisted, suggesting that I just come up to meet folks and look around, and if the job didn’t interest me, no problem. At that moment I shifted direction and said yes, fully expecting that I’d be continuing my Boston job search in no time. But, that’s not what happened. I came here and fell in love with St. Lawrence, the people I met, and – yes – Canton. I took the job and it changed my life and the course of my career. My work here launched me eventually to a new job in the Pacific Northwest, but I returned 11 years later to serve as vice president and succeed the man who hired me. All this because I said “yes,” instead of sticking with “no.” 

Class of 2019, my advice is to make “yes” your default setting. Yes will surely lead to opportunities and adventures that diverge from your well-laid plans. Yes will take you out of your comfort zone. Yes will introduce you to places and people you never imagined.  And yes may just be the best decision you ever make.  

So here we are: Athletic listeners. People who ask our minds. People who say yes.

And speaking of yes…

…I hope you’ll say yes when St. Lawrence asks you to get involved, to help another Laurentian, to give back, and to pay your education forward. 

…and please say yes to being a St. Lawrence person in a world that’s calling your name.

Use your education to address the critical issues of climate change, of poverty, of food insecurity, and of access to education and health care for all. 

Say yes, and be yes.

Your life will be richer for it and so will the lives of others. 

Thank you – and congratulations Class of 2019!