Commencement 2007

Student-Athlete Commencement Faculty Address by Scott McKinney
May 14, 2007

Good Morning and congratulations! What a great day! What a pleasure it is to be here with you this morning to share this moment.

I’ve always thought that there are two points in our lives when we have more choice than at any other, when we make choices that have more impact on our lives than any other: where we decide to go to college, and where we go right after college. Other choices follow logically from what went before and are therefore constrained; but these two choices offer the possibility of the surprising and unexpected. I gather that rowing also offers the possibility of the surprising and the unexpected. But even if you were not able to finish your races over the weekend, you all have finished college and are to be congratulated.

I’m trying to remember what it was like to be a young person about to graduate from college. My parents, good New Yorkers both, one from the Cherry Valley near Cobleskill and the other from the city, had moved to South America just before I was born, so I went to a small liberal arts college in Vermont after 18 years in Lima, Peru. It was a great choice. It was a little cold, but the dorms had central heating, which is not something we had in Peru. My professors encouraged me and started me down the path to today. At graduation, probably the most important issue was whether we could all make it through the dinner on Saturday night where my parents would be meeting my girlfriend’s parents. We survived and went off to graduate school. I moved into a dormitory that held more people than the college from which I had just graduated.

The year was 1972 and we were still involved in Vietnam. American participation was winding down, but my class in college was given draft numbers in a lottery, and there was always a chance that we would be called up to serve in the military. My number was 3, if I remember correctly, because everyone with a December birthday got a low number in that year’s lottery: we were all at the bottom of the box, and when it got upended, we were all on top of the pile. Vietnam, as you know, was part of a much broader cold war. It [1972] was only 10 years after the Cuban missile crisis, so it was a tense period. We were told that if Vietnam fell to the communists, then all of southeast Asia would fall like a line of dominos. I don’t remember being terrified by the communist threat, but the challenge posed by communism was certainly a dominant feature of my world.

I’m trying to imagine what it is like to be a young person about to graduate from college today, 35 years later. I’ve had glimpses of your lives over these last four years, read Gabriel Garcia Marquez with some of your classmates, played soccer in Cuzco with a few, helped some of your classmates with their stats projects, hit tennis balls with others at the fieldhouse. I’ve watched you take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad, contribute through public service, do internships here and abroad. I’d have to say you look a lot better prepared to face the next stage of your lives than I was in 1972. 

I know that some of this graduating class is joining the military and there is the chance that they will go to Iraq. While you face no draft, 9/11 has taught us all that the violence can come to any of us unexpectedly and massively anywhere in the world. We have the sense that Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a much broader war, one that we will be fighting in one way or another on many fronts over many years. Our world has changed substantially since 2001. I don’t know if you are terrified by what is going on, but certainly the challenge that we face now is as dominant a feature of your world today as the Soviet Union was of mine in 1972.

But how unexpectedly the world has changed since I graduated from college! After two more decades of fighting the cold war, the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s. I don’t know if I can convey to you what a shocking event this was. Last year’s graduation speaker, John King of CNN, in speaking of lessons he had learned, had this nugget to share:

From General Colin Powell I learned to place a premium on training and preparation, but also understand everything can change overnight. I first encountered General Powell covering the first Gulf War back in what I guess we now call the first Bush administration. He tells a wonderful story of being at the table when Mikhail Gorbachev matter of factly said the cold war was over. He was going to allow the Soviet Union to splinter. General Powell recalls sitting there at this historic moment thinking, 'No, no you can’t do this. My whole life is built around this enemy – these rules.'

I, after swearing that I would never become a teacher, came to Hobart and William Smith in 1979 to teach economics; and after swearing that I would never lead a term abroad, started the program in Ecuador and Peru with a colleague who was brought up in the Bolivian mining camp that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed. I had been seduced by the culture of the Colleges, as so many of you have been.

More to my point, Hobart and William Smith Colleges happened to have two professors of French whose fathers had been in the French military and knew Vietnam from when France was involved there. After the splintering of the Soviet Union, Professor Etienne thought we needed a term abroad in Vietnam, so that you could see Vietnam as itself, in all its beauty and complexity, and not as a period in US history; a place to go to for you, in contrast to the place to avoid that it was for me and my generation. Perhaps you went and got to know the people and hear their stories. Perhaps you have friends who went; perhaps you know one of the Vietnamese students studying here on campus. What you can know about Vietnam is so much more than it was possible for me to know in 1972.

What I want to suggest to you is the beautiful complexity of the world and the possibility for surprising outcomes. That the cold war should have ended the way that it did was shocking to a generation that built its life “around this enemy – these rules.” That you could – can – visit a fascinating and friendly Vietnam, whereas for me it was a battlefield, is a sign of hope in a changing and dangerous world. My hope is that you are the people with the education and the experience to understand the complexity and see the possibility for a surprising outcome. You have to listen for people’s stories to understand what they are doing. You have to look forward to the day that you can be friends. You have to search in the complexity for the way to make that day happen.

I’m not saying that there is not a lot of hard work to be done or that all hard work is rewarded. You are athletes and you know the hard work and mental discipline required to play your best game, to run your best race, without being distracted or dispirited, not knowing the outcome. Dealing with the challenges before you is like that. You have to do the hard work, you have to maintain the discipline, but you have to appreciate the complexity and see the possibilities that exist there.

We have worked, these four years, to give you the education and experience that will enable you to handle the challenges that you face personally and that we face as a globe. We have enjoyed every minute. We have watched you grow and we think you have what it takes.

The rest is up to you. Good luck!