Good Evening distinguished faculty, guests, friends of the colleges and last but not least... The Statesmen in the audience.
Not very long ago, I received a call from a good friend of mine... Mr. Eugen Baer. Although he was the last person I expected to hear on the other line, his voice and that smooth accent of his was a blessing to my ears.
Basically, he advised me that he was looking for a speaker for the Benjamin Hale dinner. He also went on to add that he was looking for someone to "keep things real..."
I don't know what flattered me more, the former or the later, because Dean Baer keeps it pretty real himself... Well, Dean Baer--I think I can do a little better than that. I am going to turn it up tonight. I'm going to keep things 100 up here.
To understand my story in the context of tonight's festivities--I'll share a little about myself. I was born and raised in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Drugs and crime have infested my community and American family for generations. My father is a Jamaican immigrant who lost his leg to bone cancer when he was 14 years old. Growing up, he was always legally blind, but now epilepsy, strokes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and total blindness has restrained them to a bed or wheel chair at all times.
Ever since I was in my high chair, my father instilled the value of an education in the fabric of my mind and as Dean Baer might put it--it indelibly changed my life.
When I was 3 years old, my universe shifted faster than any series of red shifts and blue shifts could ever do. My mother was struggling with the disease of drug addiction and left me, my father, my older sister and younger brother... Since their fathers were not present in their lives, we all got separated. They went on to various-foster families and I went with my father... At the end of the day, I don't judge my mother, we are all human and are susceptible to vices of various variety. If we recognize and learn from these things, we'll have a better chance of surviving in our individual hours of tribulation.
Growing up in the throes of extreme poverty [Well at least in American standards], being on welfare and getting judgmental looks in the supermarket because we pulled out the Food Stamps drove me insane inside. Something had to give, I didn't want to or see anyone else for that matter have to live like this... It wasn't easy, but faith kept me mobile on days when I wanted it all to stop. The switch in my mind flipped early for me.
To me, faith comes from the religion I identify with... Alas, I am well aware of the fact that not everyone will share such a belief... In order to promote the spirit of inclusivity, I will share a poignant definition of faith that I hope we all can come to terms with:
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen..."
Some may laugh when they think about those words--[especially on an empty stomach], but they drove me to strive to be the best at all things I do, for as long as I think the cause is worthy of my time. On days that I felt that despair would last an eternity's time--faith taught me that, this too shall pass...
Now... You can have all the faith in the world... However, faith without work is dead!!! You can hope and dream for a brighter future all you will, but if you are not putting any footwork in then everything becomes futile...
I was blessed with the honor of attending Hobart and William Smith Colleges... No one in my family ever went to and completed college at a four-year institution so I knew my work was cut out for me.
Me, a kid--that somehow managed by the grace of GOD to survive with my father on an income of 7,000 Dollars per year, had to go out and compete with folks that started their life in this world with a stark advantage over me to say the very least...
This is why I tell and implore you that going to college is much more than going to classes. Of course, the work of our fine pedagogical staff is immeasurable in teaching us how to think and not what to think... Finding ways to develop myself with the guidance of faculty like James Burruto, Kathleen Flowers, Eugen Baer, Chip Capraro, Alejandro Molina and many others were the sole reason that I was able to hit the proverbial ground running upon commencement... Time would fail me if I shouted everyone out so I hope no one feels left out. Everyone knows I have love for everybody.
The administrative staff at HWS are in my most humble opinion the best in the United States when it comes to fostering an environment where students can identify a cause in which they are zealous about and work to create a tangible, positive change both on campus and off. Whether or not this resonates with you is to be decided, but it is just a testament of my experiences with them.
Another thing I learned whilst traversing the multiplicity of world cultures at HWS and beyond is that there is a great need in this world... Do I expect everyone to be non-profit workers? Absolutely not... Some of you may go on to be General Managers of Professional Sports Teams, others Directors of Dance Education... The possibilities are endless... My greatest question of the nuit to you is:
What are you doing now to ensure that you meet your goal?! Surely, if I'm here today, sharing my Gospel with you tonight as your humble servant... It can be done...
In the same vein, just because you are not a non-profit worker--it does not bring forth the conjecture that you cannot fill a void in this world that desperately needs our light... Donating time in a young person's life--showing them that someone believes in them... wants to see what's best for them and will never give up on them can and will metamophisize someone's life.
Visiting elderly people in nursing homes, shows them that they have not been abandoned in their advanced age... Their valuable knowledge and insight of the world is truly valid.
Donating time and resources to soup kitchens, food banks, shelters and organizations of the like ensure that those in need have the proper services provided for them if this day of visitation greets them.
Through my experience at The Doe Fund and life in general, I've come to a universal, immutable truth. Anyone can find themselves out of their luck. We've had men with BA's and MS' come through our doors--so this could be any of us, myself very much included. This merely concretizes the notion that we should love our neighbors as we would ourselves, because we may be in our neighbors predicament one day--for better or for worse...
Believe it or not... I hate talking about myself, so I am going to return my focus to my brothers in arms--The Statesmen in the building...
How can you best utilize your time here at the Colleges of the Seneca?
First-Years... You are very close to culminating your first-year with us. I hope that the bonds of friendships you've gained by sharing space and thoughts in your residence halls, first-year seminars, other course work, being on athletic teams or while just "Saga-Sitting" gives you the foreknowledge that you are not alone here. You are deeply valued and we hope to see you continue your educational and professional development with us as time presses on. Through these classes, other engagement and candid discussions with peers and faculty, you'll begin to find your niche on this lovely, ethereal campus.
Sophomores--You clever fools... Hopefully, you've decided what path your course of study will guide you on. You don't necessarily have to be inextricably bound to a career in what your major or minor dictates, but it will shift your mental energy to think consequentially in line with your new school of thoughts. It is my earnest hope that you have begun to identify areas in which you wish to develop yourself.
Your campus and greater community alike provides a myriad of opportunities. One being the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning [Yes, I just plugged that aloud].
Juniors... I hope you have been enjoying the ride. Your legacies as Statesmen have nearly been cemented... However, you still have opportunity for growth... Before you go to bed this evening, think to yourselves:
Have I left any stones unturned here?
Remember, we can't get time back when it is gone... Even that last sentence, is like a vapor... forever lost in the winds of time... If you have any misgivings, attack them via summer classes, internships, employment, service--essentially, any and everything that will give you the drive to pounce on it for that last stretch run on campus when that last week of August hits...
Seniors, think back to all the friendships you've amassed, days of service, athletic events you've competed in, trips you've embarked on...classes and professor's you've enjoyed... [INHALE]
...[AAH], I hope the thought is one of pure positivity. We need this positivity in terms of fixing a sick world. Please join me in combating the forces of darkness who revel in deprivation. Greed and avarice blights our current day. Stand up for what you believe in and never let people get taken advantage of.
Most importantly, I leave you with this... I know we live in a very competitive world. We've all been competing with one another in one way or the other since we first started our educations... However, never, I repeat never let it take ownership of you. What I mean by this is never covet an opportunity your brother may have and never step on your brothers neck to get ahead. It just isn't right and it is totally detrimental to our efforts in making this world a better place for us all.
In retrospect, I think this is the best college in the nation. Not to be a homer or anything, but it took a kid like me with no connections to know off and pushed him by means of education and intense development into a marketable professional [who hopefully has gained the confidence of colleagues and supervisors through our beautiful work together].
No matter how rough it has been, and how rough it can get [I wish I could tell you it'll be smooth sailing from here] but that would be a lie and against the nature of what I've learned about this world... It is up to us as Statesmen to rekindle the dormant lights of righteousness in the cosmos. We are true, lighthouses in a sea of noise... After all, a Statesman is as a Statesman doe... We hold the future in our hands. Let your faith be your compass on your journey. Never forget my words tonight, I beg you... If Cliff could do it--you can too.
Thank you for allowing me to speak to you. Coming back to my second home is always a pilgrimage of sorts to me.
Benjamin Hale Dinner
Clifford Gardner ‘10
April 20, 2012