May 18, 2008
President Gearan, members of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Whitaker, members of the faculty, staff, distinguished guests, families, and most specially, fellow members of the Hobart and William Smith classes of 2008:
The sunny August day I came to Geneva is forever emblazoned in my mind. That very first day I arrived on campus I met Prof. Anita Cañizares. She welcomed me with some words that have a resounding truthfulness, especially today. She said: "You are not just coming here to study! You are part of a community now." In her colloquial yet somewhat commanding tone she followed that statement with a, "Do you understand me?" for which I knew there was only one right answer.
The weeks that were to follow that exchange with Prof. Cañizares were some of the most difficult of my life. Coming all the way from Bogotá, Colombia, I quickly found myself in unfamiliar territory. I could hardly understand what had led me to decide to move into a setting in which everything, from the language, to the faces, to the weather, seemed so absolutely detached from what I had experienced in my upbringing. My feeling of alienation led to significant emotional distress which came jointly with physical illness. Sad, confused, and sick, I decided to book a ticket back home. Yet, with my parents' support, and the support of members of this community, like Chaplain Adams, Dean Mapstone, and Prof. Cañizares, who personally took care of me when I was most ill, I made the most life-changing decision of my life - I stayed.
At that very moment, I decided to fully become a member of the community that had welcomed me so warmly, and which helped me when I needed it most. Since then, my college experience has been defined by a paradigmatic transformation, in which, as I witnessed and participated in the community's blossoming, the community helped me blossom along with it. Standing here today and thinking about those initial challenges makes this blossoming even more incredibly meaningful.
As I look around I am overwhelmed with gratitude thinking of how privileged we are to have received a college education. Yet, for me, it is equally fulfilling to think of how immensely blessed we have been to have had an opportunity that only a few are offered - the opportunity to belong to a community; one where we were nourished, scolded, appreciated; A community through which we learned the value of service and in which we were guided through the open gates of a world ready for us to endlessly explore; A community that took care of us when we needed it most. A community that shaped us and that allowed us, in turn, to shape it in our own unique way. It is a community that has changed us forever, and that will forever preserve an essential part of ourselves. It is the community of William Smith and Hobart, of Hobart and William Smith.
We didn't "just" go to school at Hobart and William Smith. We blossomed at Hobart and William Smith, we learned, we danced, we slept, we laughed, we ate, we partied, we loved, we fought, we sang songs, and scored goals at Hobart and William Smith. When the leaves fell, and the snowflakes came, and when the flowers bloomed again, we were at Hobart and William Smith. When we woke up every morning, we were at Hobart and William Smith, and when we spent sleepless nights at the library we were still at Hobart and William Smith. Even beyond that, we ARE Hobart and William Smith. Every one of the days in which we dreamt about an environmentally conscious world, the days in which we dreamt about a world appreciative of inclusiveness, the days in which we dreamt about a future with endless possibilities, all of those days in which we dreamt knowing that our dreams could come true, we embodied the meaning of Hobart and William Smith. When we taught at the schools, or volunteered at the public library we were Hobart and William Smith. Because even when we were walking through the streets of Vietnam, scuba diving in the Australian coral reef, or making films in Mexico, we were still Hobart and William Smith.
It is because of all those reasons that, on this day, the challenge that directly faces us is that of honoring the community to which we belong. As Congressman John Lewis suggested in this years' Convocation, find a way to get in the way. Be that tireless hummingbird that Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai spoke about. Breathe, work, live and love with the same passion with which we have been inspired to do so here. Only then will you have fulfilled the challenge of honoring this community that grew with us, and that helped us grow along with it. This challenge, while substantial, may seem simple, because as we get our diplomas and eagerly explore the world in our own unique kind of way, we shall do so with the utmost certainty that we will forever be, essentially, Hobart and William Smith.
Congratulations classes of 2008!