Dr. Gregory J. Vincent '83
August 29, 2016
Good evening. President Gearan, faculty, alumni, staff, parents, guests and students, thank you all for allowing me to be part of your 2016 Fall Convocation.
It’s my honor to be here. My name is Dr. Gregory J. Vincent. I am the vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement and W.K. Kellogg Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, but most importantly, I am a Statesman and proud alum of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. It’s great to be back here in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. There is nothing that can equal Geneva when summer turns to fall and the colors begin to change.
I want to begin by both congratulating and celebrating the tenure and legacy of President Mark Gearan. His time at the helm of Hobart and William Smith Colleges is one we rarely see in higher education – one that achieves both greatness and longevity. In a time when a four or five year presidency is considered lengthy, President Gearan has held the position of President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges since the class of 2020 was learning how to walk. Think about how rare that is in this day and age.
At the conclusion of this year, he will leave after serving for 18 years and his legacy will live on through all of you – his final incoming freshman class – which I understand is the strongest ever assembled, save for the much heralded, game-changing class of 1983.
Whether it be increased fundraising, growing opportunities for students both academically and financially, physically expanding the campus or deepening the commitments to environmental sustainability, diversity, inclusion, and civic engagement, President Gearan took great and made it better. It is due to his leadership that I became a member of the Wheeler Society, invested in the Statesman Athletic Association and endowed a scholarship at HWS.
I speak for all of us – alumni, students, faculty, staff, and the community when I say thank you for your dedicated service to our institution and we wish you all the best next fall in your new role as “President in Residence” at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Your presence and calm demeanor will forever be missed here in Geneva. Thank you for all you have done.
Hobart and William Smith changed my life. I’m sure when you all reach my age, many of you will be saying the same. I grew up in NYC, grandson to West Indian immigrants and son to an amazing mother and father. As a first generation American and college student, my father served in one of the last racially segregated units in the Army during the Korean War and then used the GI Bill to earn a degree at the City College of New York. After graduating, he enjoyed a 35 year career as a professional electrical engineer with General Electric and the NYCTA.
My mother went to earn her master's degree while also taking care of her elderly parents, raising three children and serving on our community school board for 13 years. When she was first elected in 1970, five years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, she was only one of 1,400 African American elected officials in the country. Needless to say, but I was raised in a strong community where public service and social justice went hand in hand – that more should always be done for the betterment of all.
Growing up my parents gave me three priceless gifts:
• One was unconditional love;
• Two was a love of reading -our home was filled with books and I was never more than arms-length from a book growing up. I can still remember the pre-Internet experience of spending hours flipping through the pages of our full-set of encyclopedias;
• And third was a church home. Dr. Charles, my Parents, like my grandparents and great parents, are lifelong members of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion and I will always be grateful for this foundation.
My upbringing relied heavily on my faith and my religious community. I never heard conflicting messages growing up. What I heard in church was what I heard at home and vis-versa. It was my religious community that taught me about the value of diversity in building community – and that selflessness is the key to making the greatest impact. So over and over I heard the same message, get involved and be engaged.
Get involved. Be engaged – this was my worldview when I first stepped foot on campus in 1979. In fact it was the Rector of my church that introduced me and wrote my recommendation to Hobart. Thankfully I only heard more of the same in Geneva and because of that, Hobart and William Smith laid the foundation for my life of consequence.
With the rest of my time, I wanted to reflect on three pieces of advice, which is the same advice I gave my own children from my perspective as a parent, college administrator and professor, and law and graduate school admission’s committee member.
First of all – and this should be no trouble for all – be yourselves. I’m sure some of you may have heard this adage, but no two snowflakes are the same, which is also true of all of you. We are all unique and different for a reason – that’s how it is intended that we be. The point is to build your own path and follow your passion. Don’t settle on a major just because. Instead, do what you are most passionate about. You are a class with an average high school GPA of nearly 3.5, representing 28 states and 16 countries from across the globe – from South Africa and China to Ecuador and India. You are all high achievers. Strive for greatness, be you, and study what you love.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an agent for social change and follow in the footsteps my parents and my childhood hero, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Working to achieve that dream has always been my driving force. Figure out what that is for you – what excites and engages you – and pursue it. Fulfilling that passion transitions into my second piece of advice.
Challenge yourselves to own this place. You self-selected to attend a liberal arts college to earn a degree that forces you to explore and adapt to areas of study you are not comfortable with. That is a given, it’s now up to you to get out of your comfort zone and make good on your investment – pursue research, get into debate, ask questions, and to harken back to my first piece of advice, follow your passion.
Literally get to know every inch of this beautiful campus. I had the time of my life as a student here – I played sports, served as a resident advisor and student leader, and was a member of more clubs than I can remember. Some of those friends and teammates, like Mark Pitifer, James Matthews, and others are here today. I’m still close with my freshman year residence hall mates, none of whom I knew before arriving on campus. I was willing to put myself out there and it paid off for me, just as it will for you.
I also encourage all of you to get involved with the community. Although Hobart and William Smith are private colleges, they advocate for taking education and making it a public good. Like UT, Hobart and William Smith is a leader among higher education institutions when it comes to community service and civic engagement. Each year HWS students contribute more than 80,000 hours to local, national, and international communities. By the time you graduate, nearly all of you will have participated in service in some form and most of you will have made it a part of your daily life. I know that was true for me.
Owning the place also means not shying away from opportunities available to you away from campus. Hobart and William Smith Colleges are national leaders in both off-campus study and internship placement. Career Services believes so strongly in the importance of internships that it literally guarantees one to every student on campus in good academic and social standing who completes the Pathways Program. With placements at HBO, J.P. Morgan Chase, American Red Cross, and Condé Nast, this is an opportunity that each of you should take advantage of and work toward from Day 1.
My Daughter Camille is a 2014 graduate of Spelman College and works at the National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta and previously worked as a Park Ranger at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Site. Both appointments are a direct result of her two year internship with the National Park Service as an undergrad.
The same goes for study abroad. The Colleges are known for their commitment to global study and with abroad programs on six continents, I guarantee there is a program to fit your specific interest.
My son Greg is a 2015 Graduate of UT-Austin and he interned and now works at Proctor and Gamble as a direct result of his study abroad experience in Beijing, China. While completing my Doctorate I studied abroad in the Czech Republic and it was one of the most transformational experiences of my life.
The experience of studying abroad changes your outlook on life, knowledge of world issues and how you understand your own cultural identity. All of which contribute to making you a more complete global citizen and more attractive job applicant. Like interning, choosing to study off campus is an experience I promise you won’t regret.
My final piece of advice is to build your own board of directors. Your board should consist of those invested in your success. Of course this should include close family and friends, but it must not end there. You are provided an invaluable gift at the Colleges, a very advantageous faculty-to-student ratio. Get to know your professors on a more personal level, interact with them, ask questions, develop relationships, offer to take them out to coffee. Your professors could teach anywhere, but they chose to be here for a very important reason – you inspire them.
Dean Clarence Butler, Economics Professor William Waller, Professor Emeritus Christopher Gunn and many others became not only my on campus mentors, but through the years, we have grown to become very close friends as well.
I took intro to economics with Professor Gunn, which led to advanced economics, which laid the foundation for the relationship I share with him today. Because we had gotten to know one another outside of the classroom, Professor Gunn became one of my board members and was able to author one of my most impactful law school letters of reference.
Similarly, when I decided to transition from law to higher education, it was Dean Butler who I sought out to gauge his opinion and ask questions – another board member. We discussed where I could make the greatest impact on the issues of access and equity and it was because of his guidance that I ended up at The University of Wisconsin-Madison to start my career as both an administrator and as a faculty member. Choosing not to develop relationships with your professors is to deny yourself one of the greatest opportunities available to you as a student here – don’t pass it up.
So that’s my advice. Although simple, my hope is that you keep these principles in mind as you begin your collegiate careers – be a snowflake and follow you passion, own the place, and build a board of directors.
This is a story that I have shared with very few, but in thinking about the importance of today, I felt it was time it met a larger audience.
At Graduation on these very steps I was awarded the MLK Leadership Award. I was grateful for the honor, but felt uncomfortable accepting it. Simply, I believed I hadn’t done enough to deserve it. Like Justice Marshall, Dr. King was another one of my heroes and the award was not one I took lightly. It really hit me as I was filling out my law school applications to the point where I almost included my undeserved feelings and lack of consequence in my personal statement. In the end I had a moment of clarity, rather than expose my true feelings, I made a promise to myself that I would devote my life and career – my literal life of consequence – toward making that honor true to honor those that saw and believed in me most, my family and mentors.
At 54, this is still a work in progress and I feel that I am just now beginning to earn what I was given more than three decades ago. The blueprint to living a life of consequence is not one that can be microwaved.
Once I completed law school, I served as an assistant attorney general of Ohio. It was all I had ever wanted. I was able to successfully argue major civil rights cases before the Ohio Supreme Court and it was not long before I was promoted to legal and regional affairs director for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
I was a young attorney following in Justice Marshall’s footsteps, doing exactly what I had dreamed of. But how quickly things can change.
I was prosecuting a housing discrimination case where the complainant was denied an apartment because she was Black, despite having a substantial application, solid references, and steady employment. It was an open-and-shut case, which we won, but you wouldn’t know that looking into the eyes of the complainant. She was broken after having been forced to defend her self-worth in the court of law. A picture I can never erase from my mind. The harm to dignity was heartbreaking, but it was also life changing – it was my “aha” moment.
Long story short, in that moment I realized that my greatest impact would not be in the courtroom, but at a university. I needed to get out in front of issues before they arose and impact the younger generation, so I transitioned to higher education where I would have the opportunity to reach thousands of students, maximizing the potential impact for positive change.
This point is all the more important given today’s cultural climate. I have spent the past eight years helping to defend my university’s constitutional right to consider race amid a holistic admissions review. As I hope most of you are aware, in June, The Supreme Court ruled in our favor, affirming deference to academic freedom.
For me, the implications of the Fisher case is less about admission standards, and more about how do we break down stereotypes and progress hand-in-hand with those from all cultures and walks of life. I believe the change must start at our colleges and universities – the place where many of our students confront those that look different than themselves for the first time in their lives.
It’s this unique four-year experience where young people have the opportunity to come together in meaningful ways – learning to work with one another and interact with one another, be that in the classrooms and dining halls or off campus. That is why I believe so strongly in challenging you all to get out of your comfort zones because I believe it is the fastest and most effective way toward eliminating the instances I previously encountered in Ohio. But I can’t do it alone – I need all of you.
So that is the path that led to my life of consequence, what will yours be?
The University of Texas has a tagline – what starts here changes the world, which I believe is appropriate for all of you as well. Your class will have the opportunity to change the world. We are in a moment in time where many great issues have come to a head – be they scientific, political, or social – this is a responsibility that not all generations face.
I have faith in all of you. You are our future, a generation with great moral aptitude which values itself and is unafraid to speak up for what it believes in.
My parents were big believers in the golden rule – treat others as we wish to be treated. It’s vital that given our ever-divided culture that we reject divisiveness and we honor that golden rule.
What I challenge all of you is to never lose sight of what it will take to live a life of consequence. I know that you all have that in you. Don’t hesitate to look to your peers and mentors here at the Colleges to help you get there.
Thank you again, I wish you all the best. You all inspire me, fill me with hope and make me proud to be a Hobart and William Smith alum.