President Joyce P. Jacobsen
May 22, 2022
The Classes of 2022. The bicentennial graduation Classes. How does that feel? Do you feel old already? Even though you're just getting started on your adult lives? I know that the thought of two hundred years of people studying makes me feel old.
When I first came here, someone told me that the term "consequence" was old; old fashioned. And indeed, it is an old word, from Old French consequence and before that from Latin consequentia; it is "that which follows from or grows out of any act or course," and later also developed the meaning of importance or significance. (1) That someone said that people these days don't like that old fashioned term, and that it was equated with the negative idea of suffering the consequences of their actions, in a bad way. But I didn't care. I liked the simplicity and directness of the Colleges' mission statement: preparing students to lead lives of consequence.
Consequence. Eric Andersen. Aliceann Wilber. Chris Beyrer. Vladimir Zelenskyy. This Commencement is all about lives of consequence. One of the most pleasant duties I have as president is to guide the process of choosing the honorary degree candidates. I am particularly pleased with this set of recipients. They represent consequential lives across a wide range of fields, something that the Colleges should be celebrated for: our excellence across multiple domains. Eric Andersen represents our strength in artistry, in song, in protest, in going on one's own path through life, even though it took him until now to come back and get an HWS degree. Aliceann Wilber represents our strength in athletics, in community, in staying power. I was particularly struck with how, last fall, when we were not yet able to do as many social activities indoors, the student body and the Geneva community came out regularly to support the Herons soccer team throughout their season, the Liberty League tournament, and the NCAA playoffs. Aliceann and her players gave us a bright spot to rally around in a time of darkness. Chris Beyrer represents our strength in the sciences, in public health, in advocacy for the underdog. When Chris was at Hobart, he worked to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues on campus. When his partner died, Chris doubled down on working to combat AIDS.
Vladimir Zelenskyy. I am not generally star struck, although I do have to admit a soft spot for Hugh Jackman. But I was so struck by the pure bravery of President Zelenskyy's actions on February 24, as Russia launched their invasion of Ukraine, and he refused to be evacuated; stood his ground against the invasion and urged others to join him in the fight. In that moment, he rocketed from being just another politician to being a hero for the ages. Yet he has described his actions humbly. In an address earlier this week to the American Association of Universities, in response to a college president stating that Zelenskyy has been an unbelievable model of courage, President Zelenskyy said: " I don't think of myself of a model of bravery or anything. I think every adequate person in my shoes would do the same." (2)
But even more than representing consequence, our honorary degree recipients today represent bravery, including the willingness to engage with life fully, to live in the moments that we are given, and to share their gifts and their lives with others. This is particularly striking during this time in all of our lives when I think many of us would rather retreat from the world, go under our bedcovers, binge watch escapist videos on our phones and computers, and not watch the news or engage in political, environmental, or social actions because the issues that we face right now—violence, racism, sexism, intolerance, inequality, environmental degradation, the continuing pandemic—can seem so intractable that we may sink into despairing and then into inertia and apathy. But we all have to fight those tendencies, particularly you who are young and have the time and space in your lives to make a difference. President Zelenskyy, in his address the other day, spoke to you, as college students, directly, saying "are you an actor or just an observer? Do you try to change anything or not? That is the choice you make every day." (3)
Now I know you all know Latin, because we printed your diplomas in Latin and I don't think we would have done that if you couldn't read them to see that we got your information correct. Therefore you probably also all know from your classical education the Latin proverb Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat, or audentes Fortuna iuvat: Fortune favors the brave; Fortune favors the bold. (4) Or: Only if you try can you succeed. So, let's all decide to all become a little braver day by day. And then we can be the actor rather than the observer; be the person of consequence.
This may seem daunting, but you can start by practicing, along with random acts of kindness, random acts of bravery. Start small. Talk to someone who seems unapproachable. Try out for a local play. Apply for a job that seems like a reach. Ask someone out that you think might say no. Disagree with someone when they say something that you think is wrong to say. Stand up for someone who is being bullied. Every time you try a little bravery, it gets easier. And then, one day, when you really need to be really brave, like when someone you love is very ill, or someone attacks you or attacks someone you care about, or you need to take an unpopular stance and stand your ground even if you are attacked for it, it will be easier to rise to that occasion with the necessary bravery.
I leave you with one final Latin proverb to send you on your way: Fortuna Eruditis Favet. Because the other thing about Fortune is that Fortune favors the prepared mind. We at Hobart and William Smith have helped to prepare you. Now go out there and be brave, fortunate, and consequential.
(2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJPIHWeNcDk; circa minute 40.
(3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJPIHWeNcDk; circa minute 6