Ambassador Holbrooke said the only thing between you and your degree was his address. As I view the program now — pretty much the only thing standing in the way between you and your party with family and friends is me. So I will be brief.
I am reminded of the sage advice given to me by an Irish priest: College Presidents at Commencement should think of themselves as the corpse at an old fashioned Irish wake. They need you to have the party — but no one expects you to say very much.
So my message will be simple. Today you graduate to a century and world of unlimited promise. The technological revolution, advances in science, strength of our economy and relative world peace — make this one of the most exciting times ever to be alive. But the question for all of us — is how we as individuals can help solve the many basic but often daunting problems that confront our society and our world. In the struggle for human dignity, how can each of us make a difference in the lives of other people and in the process — help make our communities stronger: I offer two thoughts.
First — I believe part of the answer lies in the power of service. Our government, our local institution, churches, synagogues and mosques — all have important roles to play in this struggle. But we as individuals must also meet the civic obligations and responsibilities that come with living in a free and prosperous society in the 21st century.
Being a good citizen means that we pay our taxes. It means that, hopefully, we vote and that we obey the law. We even turn our clocks back at daylight savings time as we are supposed to. But our civic obligations cannot and should not end there. Being a good citizen also means doing what we can to help improve the lives of our fellow citizens through the power of service.
Whether you join your fellow graduates and become a Big Brother or Big Sister, you can serve. Whether you make sandwiches at a shelter for the homeless, you can serve. Or if a few months or years from now you decide to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you can serve. I highly recommend that last one, by the way.
So as you prepare to start this new and exciting stage of your life, with your hard-earned degrees in hand, I urge you to take part in the extraordinary tradition of service that is so much a part of our country's past and one that is so critical to our future.
Fifty years from now, when you are sitting on your front porch, sipping on a cool lemonade, reflecting on what I trust will be a life well lived, what will matter the most? The wealth that you have acquired? I doubt it. Your social status? Probably not. The cars in the garage? Certainly not.
No, I am confident that what will matter the most will be if you can say to yourself with truth, conviction and a sense of humility, that you contributed something to our society, that you have given something back, that you made a difference by serving others.
Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us many things about who we are as a people and what our country must do to ensure that we all can enjoy the promise of the American dream. But he also taught us something about how the power of service can not only improve the lives of other people but also how it can change a nation.
Listen to what he said:
Everybody can be great because everyone can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to service. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know about Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul regenerated by love.
My second and last-parting message is always speak out and stand up for what you believe. One hundred years ago John Jay Chapman addressed the graduating class of Hobart College. It was years before the founding of William Smith College. His words in 1900 are still appropriate – 100 years later.
He said, "When I was asked to make this address I wondered what I had to say to you boys who are graduating. And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never set as a course that will silence you. Refuse to learn anything that implies collusion, whether it be a clerkship or a curacy, a legal office, or a post in a university. Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may loose.
I give you this one rule of conduct. Do what you will - but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt but don't be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.
Well — now is your appointed time — and so we must say goodbye —
Goodbye to — faculty and friends; frisbee on the Quad; the café; the cellar. Goodbye to Saga and the trays shaped like trapezoids; and of course, to Betty and Ellen; and Pat Heick. Goodbye to the lake, athletic fields and Boswell Field. Goodbye to the fun of folkfest; stimulation of campus speakers and pizza from Cams. Goodbye to the excitement of the Statesmen and Herons.
But also come home. Come home to Geneva and HWS to tell us your accomplishments and disappointments. Come home to inspire future generations of students. Take HWS with you into the world and make us all proud.
As you drive out of Geneva, look at your passenger side mirror of your car. It says "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear." Well, so too for HWS, it will be closer than it appears for you in life. In fact, it will always be with you – in the academic preparation you have received; the friendships made and the memories of this wonderful place.
It has been a special honor for me this year at HWS. And I wish you all Godspeed
"Valedictory to the Classes of 2000" Commencement Address
June 11, 2000