Mark D. Gearan
Commencement Valedictory Remarks
May 15, 2016
The only thing standing between you and a much warmer inside space – is a brief close from Rev. Charles – and, well, me. So I will be brief.
And my message to you will not be a new one.
But on this day – in this place – with those who have loved and supported you seated right behind you - and those who have taught and mentored you seated right ahead of you – and with your college degree now in hand: I once again ask you to reflect on what is a life of consequence.
For me, one of the powerful dimensions of our mission to prepare you for a life of consequence is that it is a highly individualized conclusion.
Some of you have clearly defined professional plans.
Many of you have an initial pathway to explore.
But all of you have had four years to reflect and consider this question - in and out of the classroom, aided by global study, service opportunities in Geneva, leadership roles in athletics and club, informal conversations with faculty, staff, coaches, fellow students and Geneva neighbors.
So in this last time I have with you together – I urge your ongoing reflection, your ongoing interrogation over the course of your life to this aspiration we have for all of you. It is one that defines the mission of Hobart and William Smith.
But figuring this out with all of the choices before you may seem daunting.
In a recent column by David Brooks he observed that “Americans have always put great emphasis on individual choice. But even by our own standards we’ve had a choice explosion over the past 30 years. Americans now have more choices over more things than any other culture in human history. We can choose between a broader array of foods, media sources lifestyles and identities. We have more freedom to live out our own sexual identities and more religious and nonreligious options to express our spiritual natures. This opening has produced much that is wonderful.” But Brooks observes: “But making decisions well is incredibly difficult, even for high educated professional decision makers.”
So given the vast nature of choices today, my final reflection to you is to consider the lives on this platform today –the Honorary Degree recipients, who share your class year, and who by a considered vote of the Board of Trustees have themselves led lives that we hold out to you as consequential. Lives that have made a difference in their family, their community, in higher education, business and service.
Consider President Joan Stewart – who set off to college as the first in her family to attend. She has led a life devoted to the mind. Renowned scholar and administrator – she blended her interests in the study of languages and literature with administrative acumen to lead one of the nation’s best undergraduate institutions.
Judy Melly served her family’s interests in business, raised a family and in the past 10 years has jumped head, heart and feet into the life of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her philanthropic focus and support for the institution borne from her love of our valued alumnus Tom Melly.
John Collins – a life marked by service: to his country as a young man in war; to his hometown as a ‘man in blue’ serving the people of New York City; and to this campus community – sharing his energy and talents over the past 38 years.
While this college degree is his first – his life is marked by consequential service, integrity, gritty determination and principle.
Speaking of gritty determination – Maureen Collins Zupan. First in her family to attend college, she arrived here in Geneva in 1968 graduated magna cum laude Phi Beta Kappa and blazed a trail for many of her family members.
A successful businesswoman, she entered the workforce at a time when she was the only woman at meetings. Raising a family and navigating the complexities of work-life balance at a time with few models of experience. And she always, always found a way to give back to this institution as a volunteer.
And finally – Dr. Cheryl Dorsey. With three Harvard degrees, the notion of starting a mobile health van for the underserved in Boston was not the common choice for her medical school classmates. But Cheryl Dorsey has led a life core to her values of social innovation and entrepreneurship. Today she directs a global organization and is a leading voice for social entrepreneurship.
So there you have it – a roadmap for inspiration: A doctor, a college professor and president, a retired NYC cop and two successful businesswomen.
All of whom, I would observe, have led a life of consequence.
You will lead and define your own life of consequence. But be guided by the exploration of ideas.
Be guided by a commitment to inclusion and equity - values that inspired this institution’s founders to widen the circle of access: as Bishop Hobart did when he ordained the first African American priest in New York state, the second in the nation; or as William Smith did when he had a vision and supported the creation of a woman’s college more than a century ago.
Be guided by models of citizenship and service of our honorands and what that has meant on this very campus, in higher ed, and in social innovation.
And so Classes of 2016 – with our Trustees, faculty and staff - we leave you with our congratulations. We leave you with our gratitude for your energy, commitment and activism you brought to us, shaped us and made us better. And we leave you with our full confidence in your ability to navigate the many choices before you to make a difference in this world.
We need you out there.
When Elizabeth Blackwell accepted her degree here in Geneva, she said: “Sir – by the help of the Most High – it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”
Classes of 2016: Make it the effort of your life to shed honor on your diploma.