President Mark D. Gearan
Commencement Valedictory Remarks
May 15, 2011
Our nation and the world lost a distinguished American and global citizen this past year – Sargent Shriver.
As one of his successors as Director of the Peace Corps it was an extraordinary privilege for me to get to know Sargent Shriver and benefit from his mentorship and the unbridled enthusiasm he brought to the service movement.
I still think of Sarge Shriver a great deal and in reflecting on my final words to you today – inevitably I wondered what my mentor might say to you. Fortunately, I think I know. I know from the privilege of spending time with him, reading his speeches and articles and having some sense of his approach.
I believe he might first offer the same advice he gave to Yale students in 1994 when he said: "I wish I were you!"
He said this not because he sought to be young again. But because he was the most optimistic, forward thinking and energetic person I have ever known. I found it most appropriate at his funeral mass this year that the closing hymn we sang was Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." He died at age 95.
In 'wishing he were you' – Shriver would see the great promise of this graduating class destined to lead lives of consequence.
He would undoubtedly observe the phenomenal opportunities that await you in this century of change and promise -- with exploding knowledge, medical improvements and a technology rich connected world giving hope to the disenfranchised.
But while an optimist, he was not sophomoric and would also note the insecurity in our world as well as the inequality in our nation and global community.
But he adhered to the conviction that humans have what the writer William Falk recently termed "a spark of the transcendent within us, and that we are part of the unfolding of something wonderful and mysterious."
Shriver would likely have been captivated by the recent example Falk cites: "NASA scientists trained a hardy species of bacteria to survive without phosphorous, which was supposed to be one of the six essential building block of life. In just a few months, the bacteria learned to replace the phosphorous in their DNA with arsenic, ordinarily a toxin. NASA pronounced the transformed bacteria a new form of life, whose existence points to even stranger biochemistries on other planets."
Falk saw this experiment as a metaphor that "Even in the most poisonous environment, this little experiment proved, life finds a way. It survives. It thrives – impelled onward by something defying rational explanation. George Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force; call it what you will. But this astonishing persistence, this upward, Promethian striving from the muck is no accident. It speaks of a purpose and a destiny. It suggests that all our struggling is not for naught."
A student of history, Shriver might remind our HWS graduates as he did others: "Thomas Jefferson wrote many unforgettable words, but do you remember how he ended the Declaration of Independence? Jefferson (He) wrote, 'We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor…'
And so I believe Shriver would be proud of our partnership with Cornell's Agricultural Experiment Station as an example of our willingness to follow Jefferson's call to work together. Our honorary degree recipients, Dr. Burr and Dr. Hunter from Cornell – and their colleagues have allowed for that important partnership and working together in a world class research facility.
One of Shriver's many gifts and talents was his unique ability to celebrate and cheer you while at the same time goading you to greater levels of excellence. And certainly he would challenge our graduates today like he did other generations:
"Now then, young men and women, in what will you believe? Allow me to challenge you, not to think of what you will do nor where you will go, but in what you will believe….Martin Luther King said 'you ought to believe in something in life, and believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up for it till the end of your days…"
And with this challenge he would applaud the work of Makiko Tanaka who joins her distinguished father in receiving the highest honor from Hobart and William Smith.
Ms Tanaka's life's work of cross cultural understanding and building the bonds of friendship is something she believes in fervently and stands up for every day.
On a Commencement day filled with reflection of your academic journey I am also reminded of another Shriver's observation:
"It is well to be prepared for life as it is – but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is."
I hope that sentiment is a hallmark of a Hobart and William Smith education. And that you graduate today prepared for life and prepared to make life better than it is.
Dr. Teresa Amott brilliantly led our academic program for six years and sought innovative ways to insure that our students were prepared to make a difference. To make a difference in their professions, their communities and their families.
And finally, I know Sargent Shriver would want each of the graduates to think about this day, think about what it means, think about your families and those who worked so hard to prepare you for this day, think about having earned the privilege of having a college degree and think how to best to utilize it.
From a favorite Shriver passage:
"I have one small word of advice because it is going to be tough: Break your mirrors! Yes indeed --- shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.
I suggest this: When you get to be thirty, forty, fifty, or even seventy years old, you'll get more happiness and contentment out of counting your friends than counting your dollars. You'll get more satisfaction from having improved your neighborhood, your town, your state, your country and your fellow human beings than you'll ever get from your muscles, your figure, your automobile, your house or your credit rating."
On this stage today sits President Obama's top official charged with the domestic service agenda. He knows well from his vast experience the power that individuals have to make a difference. His remarks today thoughtfully articulates this priority.
His own his life's story of service and dedication is held out to our graduates as a model of citizenship. While United States citizenship did not come to Patrick Corvington until the age 17 – he has embraced it with a dazzling commitment worthy of our praise.
For me, Sargent Shriver was a towering figure of the service movement and embodies what it means to be an engaged citizen.
Four years ago – and just ten days into your time at the Colleges – we heard another towing figure at Convocation. Civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis gave a stirring address in which he urged you 'to get in the way' to advance causes important to you. You will have other examples of mentors and citizens to guide you.
But now you must take on the mantle of being a global citizen. Our interdependent world needs you. In South Africa, there is a powerful phrase "Ubuntu" – which in English translates: "I am, because you are." Our interdependent world needs you.
Your faculty, coaches, staff and Geneva neighbors know you can do so. We know because we have seen what you have done over the past four years on our campus and in the community of Geneva. You have evidenced your citizenship in impressive ways.
Classes of 2011: become global citizens, break those mirrors, mutually pledge to work together, believe in something so fervently that you will stand up for it till the end of your days, get in the way, explore and dream.
Good luck and Godspeed.