2007 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 26, 2007

Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and of course, above all others, members of the Class of 2007, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 186th Commencement.

Earlier this week, the College held an event for alumni, parents, and friends in the Portland area calling attention to the goals and successes of the Reaching the World campaign. Three members of the Class of 2007 spoke at that event, to the interest and delight of all in attendance. I was extraordinarily proud of those students, who represented so well the attributes of your remarkable class.

At the reception that followed the program, I told the students how much I was looking forward to speaking to them at the baccalaureate service. They confided that they were unsure as to what the baccalaureate was all about, and that it was something of a mystery to your class. With this advance intelligence in mind, I am eager to explain why we gather in this way.

The baccalaureate service has a very long history at Colby. We have been coming together in this particular manner since 1821 — for as long as students have been graduating.

The program has changed with the times. I remind each class that the first 87 baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers. The Colby histories indicate that their baccalaureate sermons were very … very … very … long.

We have not continued with the sermons, which I’m sure is pleasing to hear on this warm May day. But we continue to meet in this special place and company. Faculty colleagues process in their robes; the seniors meet as a class for nearly the last time; the president rises from the pulpit to speak. It has been so for 186 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more.

Part of the reason for our commitment to this tradition has to do with the timeless urge to say farewell, and to do so in this somewhat private and focused way.

But this ceremony also reminds us of what these years have been about and where the most important things have happened — among students and teachers, and students and classmates, in both formal and informal places and ways.

The president is supposed to say something meaningful about all of this in a time frame not exceeding 20 minutes. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, let me now summon my own form of farewell on behalf of all those assembled here today — your teachers, others on campus who have touched your lives at Colby, and members of the Board of Trustees.

If it’s important to fit this moment within the long tradition to which it belongs, it’s also important to recognize its uniqueness. The most obvious aspect of that uniqueness is you. There has never been, and never will be, another class exactly like yours. And no other class has had, or will have, the same precise experience you had in this place.

The world you are about to enter is different, too. Not completely different, of course, but still in some ways unlike the world your predecessors encountered as they left here. It’s this interesting and unique confluence of who you are with what waits for you beyond Mayflower Hill that I want to talk about this morning.

As I think back on your experiences here, I am struck first of all by the immense physical changes you have witnessed — some might say endured — on this campus. You arrived in the fall of 2003 just as we concluded our campus master plan and quietly began the Reaching the World campaign. The Colby Green came into being during your first year. Then the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center (soon to be your new home at Colby) came along. The Bill Alfond Field followed shortly thereafter, and then the Diamond Building and the Pulver Pavilion at Cotter Union, still underway. Not to mention the new Bobs and the complete reconstruction of the tower on Miller library and some other things I am sure I am forgetting.

Looking back on the dirt piles, the inconvenience, and the incessant growling and beeping of trucks and backhoes and Payloaders, I hope it’s in some way gratifying to know that you witnessed the most rapid and dramatic physical changes on Mayflower Hill since the College moved here from downtown more than 50 years ago. If that isn’t gratifying, all I can say is: Thank you for your patience.

You witnessed and influenced other important things here, too. During your time at Colby, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement came into being, with deep and impressive forms of student involvement, particularly from many of you. The greening of Colby gained momentum because of you, as did civic engagement of many kinds. Colby Cares About Kids flourished because of you, along with a number of other community service efforts. Several among you were closely involved in the movement that persuaded the College to examine its investments abroad and to use our power as shareholders to influence companies aiding the regime in Burma and assisting Sudan’s repressive rule in Darfur. That was the first instance, I believe, of sharehold activism at Colby since the days of apartheid in South Africa.

A number of you spent time on a Jan Plan in Houston working with children displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Without any support or, indeed, encouragement from the College, others among you were inspired to travel to Sierra Leone to help combat malaria. One of you was awarded one of two Katherine Davis Projects for Peace grants extended this spring to Colby students and will soon pursue her project in China. Several of you participated this year in the remarkable Jan Plan course at a school in India. And the highest-ever number of Colby seniors is planning to work for Teach for America following graduation.

Of course your class knew the lighthearted as well as the high-minded. If the Echo’s headlines over the past four years are any guide, your appetite for active social life was prodigious, or so one would assume from the steady interest of some local officials. The infamous Doghead ebbed and flowed in its always mysterious ways during your time here. And I am sure you will not forget that it snowed on Friday, April 13th, this year — one final meteorological joke, and certainly a keepsake from the challenging climate of Maine.

But along with the fun came more than your fair share of sadness. In my formal welcome to you in the first issue of the Echo in the fall of 2003, I wished for you “the opportunity to engage in conversations that stretch your understanding and compassion” and “the chance to be knocked down and get up stronger than you were before.”

I had no way of knowing how completely knocked down all of us would be several weeks later when we learned of Dawn Rossignol’s terrible death. Other losses followed — Ian Holt, your classmate, in that same year, and just last month, Meghan Kuhn, a junior.

We often hear that we live in a bubble here on Mayflower Hill — an ivory tower that somehow exempts us from the difficulties of the “real world.” But in the realm of personal loss, and in other ways too, your experience as a class demonstrates how misleading the bubble metaphor really is. Your Colby — your experience of one another in this place — was most certainly of and in the real world in ways that caused you to laugh as well as cry, to celebrate as well as lament.

The educational process you have undergone here has always been about the real world, whether that reality is construed as the subatomic foundations of matter, or the genetic foundations of our biological lives, or the political and economic and social figures of our collective lives, or the sometimes tragic realities of simply being human.

And so you were stretched, both intellectually and emotionally. And not just by your teachers. Four years ago we met in this very place, and in this company, for the first-year convocation. I am quite sure you do not remember the subject of my remarks that day, but my remarks were relevant to what you have become as class. I spoke primarily about the challenges and opportunities inherent in your many differences — differences of background, belief, culture, and values. And I shared my conviction that a central part of your education would be learning to comprehend and value those differences.

As you now know, this is not an easy thing to do. Getting there requires the determined exercise of respect and interest and openness, especially where the stakes are highest and where the differences matter the most. The college experience is really exasperating in just this way — it pushes us to develop strong convictions about things that matter most while insisting that we listen patiently to the opposing views of others. It is the very opposite of almost everything we hear in the contemporary discourse of our politics, or on talk radio, or read in Internet chat.

But I trust you will now agree that the prize is and was worth the effort. When we met here four years ago, I described that prize as an emotional bond among people who have shared a collaborative intellectual journey and the underlying civility — the respect and the openness — that made it possible. This has been your journey, together, and the friendship you now enjoy is its permanent and very special gift. I admire your accomplishment.

If your experience at Colby had not presented sufficiently challenging material to “stretch your understanding and compassion,” the period of history you lived through as a class certainly would have.

The United States went to war in Iraq in 2003. Today, on the eve of your graduation, we are still at war there, and in Afghanistan. And so it is the case that this country has been at war for the entire period of your college experience. Even for those of us who experienced college during the Vietnam war era, this is a sobering thought.

Partly because of these conflicts, the national and international political context of your lives at Colby has been both tumultuous and provocative. I can’t recall a time when political circumstances and fortunes seemed to change so abruptly and completely. You will be amused to recall, as I was, that when you arrived here in the fall of 2003, Howard Dean was leading in the Democratic primary polls. Or consider the fate of the “mandate” claimed by the Administration in the wake of the general election during your sophomore year — just two and a half years ago. How quickly things change.

The swiftness of change — political and otherwise — is one of the great truisms of our times. Another, and equally characteristic of your tenure at Colby, is the ascent of the term ‘globalization’. When you arrived in 2003, the idea of globalization was making its way through the academic disciplines. It is now the common stock of television news, the daily newspapers, and Internet chatter. This ubiquity is consistent with one of the striking aspects of your time here — how often and insistently you have been asked to consider and care about people in faraway places, places that were almost certainly not on your intellectual or emotional maps even five years ago.

At this busy intersection of your class experience and the world lies an important question: are you ready for all of this? More precisely, how has your Colby education prepared you for what’s next? This is an especially important question to ask in the presence of your teachers and your classmates, from whom you probably learned the most.

What’s next includes lots of things, of course. You can’t be blamed if that pesky question of ‘the job’ is at the top of your list. On that suddenly interesting topic, I offer this bit of perspective.

Some of you leave here with a clear sense of vocation and the opportunity to pursue that vocation soon. Others among you can look forward to that discovery at some point further down the road. Wherever you find yourself on this continuum, I predict that the professional world that now summons you will be one of surprises. They will arise from several sources. As I just noted, one of the newer but now permanent features of our economic circumstances is the pace and relentlessness of change. Organizations come and go at a dizzying clip, and so, too, do occupations. Most of you are destined to have multiple careers in numerous and different places. On top of that, you will find that your professional inclinations change according to their own rhythms and the serendipity of our lives. All of which will assure you of professional challenges you cannot now imagine.

I recommend several things to cope with the element of surprise. First among them is a very full sense of irony: a readiness and tolerance — maybe even an appetite — for unexpected turns and redirection. The real world is a pretty ironic place, I’ve learned, in most ways that matter.

I also urge upon you the vivid recollection of what you acquired here. This will help you answer the question I asked before about whether Colby has prepared you for what comes next. What we have tried to do above all else here is to empower you — to help you develop the kinds of intellectual capabilities you will need in any kind of life. In the bracing circumstances in which you will live and work, your greatest assets will be your ability to think creatively and powerfully about complex problems, your ability to speak and write with clarity, persuasion, and conviction, your ability to sort through complex moral issues, and, most of all, your ability to learn. Suppleness and agility and strength of mind are now your very greatest assets.

My second observation about this next phase of things is that you will find it very stretching. Your professional and personal commitments will require you to reach and grow and stretch beyond your known limits. Most of you will face a steady diet of moments when something is asked or demanded of you and you are not completely sure you can deliver.

Here, too, I know that you will find that Colby has made a difference. We intended to stretch you and to give you the confidence that you have what is required of you. And you do have it. Like good distance runners at the end of a long race, you will find it when you need it most.

My third and last thought about the day after tomorrow is that of all the stretching you will have to do, most of it, and the most important part of it, will reside in thoroughly familiar and obvious realms that reveal themselves in a set of persistent questions: What does it mean to be a good friend, wife, husband, parent, lover? What does it mean to be a good citizen? What does it mean to be a good human being?

The questions may sound abstract, but they are among the most practical you will ever have to face. Addressing them will require you to struggle with both personal inclinations and social arrangements that make the answers difficult to find.

I really do believe that your lives at Colby — in and out of the classroom — have helped you prepare for these morally complex and testing moments. I hope that among the lessons you have internalized is that there are, finally, no abstract, theoretical answers to the thorniest questions, but only answers discovered in the living of real and committed lives.

Surprise, stretching, moral complexity, and testing — those are my predictions about what you will find in the so-called real world. And by now you will not be shocked to hear me say that in these respects, the real world is not all that different from this nearer world you have been a part of for the past several years.

If we have done our work well, all of you have been surprised in some way and at some moment by the intellectual journeys you have taken; all of you have been stretched in some way; all of you have been impressed with the hard work of living with other people. Your experience here, then, has not been so much a different world as it has been an imaginative and highly condensed variation of what awaits you soon.

I also predict that your sense of belonging to one another and to Colby will deepen in the time ahead. You carry this connection with you in your memory and feelings and in your relationships with classmates and teachers. Now you can look forward to encountering it among other Colby graduates. Like all large and extended families, this one has lots of members. You will find them in every place you work and live, and you will discover in their presence the part of you that is still here. Call on them for help, advice, and friendship. I know you will find them eager to know you — it is one of the greatest benefits of belonging, as you do, to a community like this one.

As you meet these people, I hope you will come to feel, as they do, a keen sense of responsibility for Colby. I spoke earlier about the remarkable changes that you have witnessed during your time here. When you think about it, you will realize that the most profound and moving changes have names associated them — the names of the people who made them possible. Some of these individuals are in the room with us today; others are here in spirit. Wherever they are, this aspect of our community is one of the truly remarkable things about Colby. And I am sure that its celebration is the constant and most important purpose of this baccalaureate service.

As alumni, then, this place now belongs to you in a new and powerful way. Its future well being, and its future generations of students, will depend on your affection and support, as its present strength depends on those who have preceded you.

Thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, and for your commitment to this place. And thank you, above all else, for letting us be involved in this remarkably interesting time in your lives. That is why we are here, after all. It is in this wonderful, exhilarating work that we find our most important satisfactions.

I hope the deep mystery of the baccalaureate is now resolved. Tomorrow is a more public day and occasion, with happy crowds of family and friends looking on. And the sun will be shining. In the meantime, I am grateful, we all are grateful, for this one last chance to think quietly about where we have been during these past four years.

Thank you for listening; good luck to you all; and goodbye.

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