2008 Commencement

President Mark Gearan
Valedictory Address
May 18, 2008

It is the tradition for the President's Valedictory Remarks to close the Commencement Exercises. Imagine the difficulty of my charge: follow the eloquence of our student speakers, Felipe Estefan and Alyssa McDermott let alone a national television correspondent who speaks in front of a camera to millions of households on the CBS Evening News. Thank you Bill Whittaker for your thoughtful and inspiring address.

My final reflection is on the power of an idea.

An idea can be big and complex. But an idea can also be deceptively simple — with its power in its effect and implementation.

Before coming to HWS, I served as Director of the Peace Corps. In traveling around the world to meet with our volunteers, I frequently reflected on this powerful idea of President John F. Kennedy's — put into action by the genius of its first Director, Sargent Shriver.

The idea, of course, was a simple one. In the middle of the Cold War, send young Americans around the world in peace and friendship to help the neediest nations on the planet. And help they did.

While we're talking about Peace Corps — can I ask the graduating seniors — those who have begun the process to join the Peace Corps, confirmed their plans and those who plan to do so in the next year to please stand.

I reflect on the power of an idea of Sargent Shriver's wife — Eunice Kennedy Shriver — who refused to believe that individuals with intellectual disabilities could not train and compete in sports. She started a program in the pool of her backyard 40 years ago and today the Special Olympics is an international organization that "changes lives by promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion" with programming for more than 2.5 million children and adults in more than 180 countries.

Teach for America was the idea of a Princeton undergraduate's honors thesis; The Grameen Bank was an idea started to assist destitute basketweavers in Bangladesh and now is a major tool in eradicating poverty through microlending. City Year was the idea of two law school friends. All the power of an idea.

This year, two speakers have come to campus and shared their life's story. Congressman John Lewis at Convocation told us how he "came under the influence of the idea of the beloved community: an all encompassing, all inclusive community where no one is left out or left behind. An idea that we could create a nation, a world, at peace with itself, that we could create a world free from racism, free of violence, where no one would be left out or left behind."

The idea changed his life and he has been a force for social justice and equality for 40 years.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai spoke here just a month ago and told us modestly that she didn't think she was starting a movement with her efforts of tree planting in Kenya — she thought she was working on a project.

But it was the power of her idea that led thousands of Kenyan women and now women across the globe to join her Green Belt Movement addressing the environmental, economic and social justice issues.

And I reflect on the power of William Smith's idea on this Centennial year of the College he founded.

Think about it: William Smith was an 88 year old nurseryman living in Geneva. He did not agree with the idea of the then Hobart President to give his vast resources to Hobart — the college his nephews had attended. Instead, he was persuaded by the idea of women's empowerment. For while he born in England during the reign of George III, he was a modern thinker.

With friends like Elizabeth Smith Miller — whose father Gerrit Smith was the great abolitionist; and Anna Comstock — they encouraged him with this bold idea of a coordinate women's college to Hobart.

So before women could vote; before the women's movement; before Title IX and yes, long before a woman was running for President -- William Smith saw the power of an idea to educate women.

Now 100 years later of leading women in arts, education, law, medicine, government and business — the impact of his idea is well realized.

For ideas matter. Like Bishop John Henry Hobart's idea to establish a college near this lake. Or local Genevans who preceeded both Bishop Hobart and William Smith with their efforts to create an academy in Geneva that would become the predecessor to Hobart and William Smith.

So I ask our graduates to allow yourselves some time to reflect on the power of an idea and the impact it could have.

You leave us with a broad, liberal education empowered to think critically, write and communicate effectively and bring thoughtful analysis to the issues of our time.

Before you on this platform are three lives of consequence. Lives and careers which our Board of Trustees have recognized with the highest honor this institution can bestow.

Dean Debra DeMeis leaves this institution and our community which has been her home since 1978. As a professor of psychology and Dean of William Smith, she has taught and advised thousands of students. She has established a vision for William Smith College.

With her husband, Joe, she has served this community of Geneva and its children — serving on Boards and advancing the success of all Geneva youth.

Katherine Elliott has matched her keen business acumen with her love for the arts. The new Katherine Elliott Studio Arts Center — the first to bear a William Smith alumna's name on our campus - evidences her commitment to the Colleges. And it reflects her own vision and appreciation of the arts.

And Charles Salisbury — who has served this institution with unyielding commitment and energy. His tireless devotion to Hobart and William Smith was a hallmark of his Board service and distinguished tenure as Chair of the Board of Trustees.

Mr. Salisbury's vision for a career services center to assist students in exploring career paths is yet another example of the power of his idea.

All three individuals are ones we hold out to our graduates as models — and we do so with pride, respect, appreciation and friendship.

In your lives, you too may have the chance to transform our world — or your part of it.

It may start out as a project — and turn into a movement like Wangari Maathai - Or it may always stay a project.

But it need not matter.

For what matters, of course, is that you take this Hobart and William Smith education and use it wisely, use it productively and in service to others.

In this Centennial year, remember the power of William Smith's idea. Remember what he saw 100 years ago:

  • A world in which women were denied opportunities for education;
  • Where women were disenfranchised from basic rights to vote, own property, serve on juries, keep their wages and speak out;
  • A world in which young girls had few women role models to inspire them.

That was the world as he saw it here in Geneva 100 years ago.

And never forget that is the world that millions of young girls and women still live in today.

We look forward to hearing your stories, your journey and how you advanced the power of an idea whatever it might be.

We look forward to your return to campus for visits, reunions, games and lectures you will deliver.

Most of all, we look forward to the promise of your lives.

Congratulations. Good luck and Godspeed.