The Extension of a Beginning | St. Lawrence University President's Office

The Extension of a Beginning

Remarks to Graduates, May 21, 2017

“The beginning of wisdom is the desire of discipline.”—Wisdom of Solomon 6:17 (KJV)

We begin again. We are not here to declare an ending. The St. Lawrence experience is unusual because it is somehow sublimely renewable. And that quality of regeneration is different from a familiar, repetitive form of human events. The lasting, ever new attachments and soul-deep pleasures discovered in this place by the making of friends among classmates, teachers, coaches, workers, and the good citizens of Canton, quietly declares that the year 2017 is not an expiration date.

We share a long history in this moment, an unbroken line of sixteen decades, inside a university enveloped by a magical northern sky stretching across the river boundary of two great countries. But our purpose, even in our finest, fondest Laurentian tradition, is not to celebrate history made, but to recognize the occasion as the extension of a beginning.

We begin by considering not only the people, but also the geography that informs our resolve today. We are familiar with the map of the United States and Canada. Carved over the main portal of the Canadian House of Parliament are words from a poem, “The wholesome sea is at her gates, her gates both east and west.” There is a truth in that sentence about the scope and reach of St. Lawrence itself as a place between those gates. Along our nearby border is the gathering of a great watershed.

Formed by the chain of the Great Lakes that drain into a powerful ocean-going river, it is also fed by inland streams, rapids, and falls. Many of us know the flat-water vistas from the seat of a canoe, kayak, or guide boat. Paddling is naturally a common movement across a land of abundant freshwater. This hour is something like that calm drift waiting for the sight of a kingfisher or the call of a loon. There is more to tell, but I’ll get back to this parable as we paddle downstream for a while.

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We begin by thanking the travelers who have come to the North Country today, many of you from far-away places and some of you for the first time. Your presence, your witness, your support is felt by all of us who live here; loving life here while surviving unimaginable winters here with joy and triumph. I hope you feel that your sons and daughters have chosen well when they entered St. Lawrence. We who teach—and even the crews who ensure they are fed, safe, and in pleasant habitation also teach—have given them everything we had. And yet, we are not done. They will keep learning from us years after they were last seated in our classrooms.

We begin by noting the exceptional class of honorands on the commencement platform today who join this graduation year of 2017 with their own threads of the remarkable St. Lawrence story sewn into the tapestry of our celebration. Olivia White, the recent editor-in-chief of The Hill News, wrote the other day, “there are stories in every corner of campus—a one-to-one student to story ratio.”  This corner on this day will prove that Olivia’s assumption transcends the senior year record and ratio.

One of our speakers, Caroline Welsh, an art historian carving out an improbable career in the Adirondacks, was in the commencement audience as a proud parent ten years ago. When you see Jane Breckenridge Eisner receive her second St. Lawrence degree, you need to know that not only is her entire family here from California, but her lifelong, best friend from campus, who was also her roommate in New York City after St. Lawrence, is also present as a vital part of this grand pageant. My friend and classmate Senator Susan Collins owes an unpayable debt to her teachers at St. Lawrence, including President Richard Guarasci whom we also honor today. Before Senator Collins was known for her life in public office, she was known best in the Guarasci family as the favorite babysitter.

We begin by recognizing the plans taking shape for members of the graduating class. Many of you will continue campus life in graduate programs and professional schools in law, medicine, social work, dentistry, education, engineering, psychology, sports management, music, geology, chemistry, public health, statistics, and biomedical science. You will be studying in the world-renowned university cities of Ithaca, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, London, Hanover, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Rochester, Amherst, San Diego, and Boston.

Many of you going immediately into jobs or internships will begin careers in companies, organizations, firms, non-profits, and schools that already know and admire the St. Lawrence portfolio of talent. The list is growing by the day, but is already astonishing by brief mention of Estee Lauder, eBay, Eaton Vance, Fidelity Investment, Goldman Sachs, Sotheby’s, State Street, Christie’s, JP Morgan Chase, BNY Mellon, and the New York Mets. As one of the all-time leading colleges in the nation for Peace Corps volunteers, several members of the class will continue this important St. Lawrence tradition while others have been accepted into AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and the New York City Teaching Fellows program.

One of you will be in Quantico, Virginia this summer preparing to be an officer in the United States Marine Corps. More than we may reasonably expect, the response to opportunities in Washington, DC is high in the numerous placements on Capitol Hill, the Brookings Institution, the State Department, and the World Bank. A few of you are pursuing new, once-in-a-life experiences, such as hiking the Appalachian Trail or becoming a master farmer. Some will spend one more summer around the campfire with young people or in the art of mixing cocktails for middle-aged vacationers—building a resume of skills that will serve you well down the road.

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It is abundantly clear that what you have learned here, what you now know, is sufficient for the pending adjustments I have briefly summarized. I owe you, however, a proviso for what is not included in the affirmation your diplomas shall declare unto the world. Knowledge you surely possess, but without judgment, it will most likely crescendo into a sound of fury. Judgment without wisdom will risk behavior without mercy. There is a very ancient saying that “the beginning of wisdom is the desire of discipline.” Your degrees do not certify wisdom, but they give you license to cultivate the desire to get it.

So let me put this another way, perhaps a North Country way of understanding how paddling the gentle canoe trails in this meadow-brook land will also remind you of its vehement glacier traces of overwhelming force. While making St. Lawrence a renewable source of inspiration is possible, a forever happy day with friends in a canoe by the Sand Banks, there is also is a beginning note of caution. As you may have anticipated, not all water is flat and straight, without headwinds and cross-currents. When conditions cannot be paddled, when the way is too swift and the rocks too big, you must handle the situation by portage. It is the most difficult way to travel, to drag your boat and gear on shoreline trails, often hot, wet, and hatched with insects. Here the undesirable way and the unwise impulse are in conflict. And today begins a kind of mental reconciliation about the necessary circumstances of the portage.

Most human lives are like these canoeing streams close to campus. There are broad and open periods of relatively predictable quiet. Then there are brief sudden periods of accelerated transition from one pattern of life to another. The tranquil stretches present few difficulties; much of life will seem self-explanatory and your autonomy undisturbed.

But all of us inevitably run into trouble—emotional, spiritual, and moral difficulty—in the hasty unforeseen periods of radical change. We have handled the paddle competently through serene and familiar times, but now, even today, we come into unknown waters. Leaving college, going to graduate school, entering the workplace are immediate examples. Getting married, buying a home, having children, changing careers (sometimes reluctantly), facing unexpected illness or injury, coming to terms with the death of someone close to us—all these events are the roaring rapids and pounding falls of human life.

Often we are not prepared for such moments and are liable to capsize ourselves, making a mess of things. From Les Voyageurs of long ago in Canadian lore, the discipline of the portage is an important skill to contemplate, practice, and choose, even at the instances of an extended beginning. Sometimes to get where you need to go, it’s the slow, hard way through the woods.

Looking back to the day that Senator Collins and I graduated from St. Lawrence, with Professor Guarasci sitting in the back row among junior faculty members, we might attempt the feeble claim that the world in those intervening years became better, kinder, cleaner, easier, and safer. I’ll concede it’s a disputable proposition.

Your world, your expedition, your life begins with our ultimate optimism, confirmed in so many happy ways, but it is also accompanied by the provisional reality that treacherous water is ahead. When you go ashore to portage the load you bear, you’ll find the trail is well worn. St. Lawrence has marked it for you and Laurentians will be ready to walk it with you. If today begins anything, it must be the beginning of a particular wisdom found in the desire of discipline; a determination—persistent as “the round earth’s imagined corners”—to achieve good judgment, sustain lifelong friends, overcome difficulty, and pursue constant learning. Now let’s begin.