2004 Baccalaureate Address

President William Adams, May 23, 2004
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 2004, welcome to this Baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby's 183rd Commencement.

Standing in this place on this occasion always prompts me to call attention to the tradition we continue here today. The Baccalaureate service has a very long history at Colby. Indeed, we have been gathering in this particular way for as long as students have been graduating—since 1821, to be exact.

"And still we gather in this place and in this special company....It has been so for 183 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more."

The program has changed, of course. I am reasonably sure this is the first time African drumming has been featured in the procession. And we should also recall that the first 87 Baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers.

In spite of my reputation on certain social matters, and the implications of that wonderfully inventive phrase, "Brohibition," I am not a minister. And you will surely be relieved to know that what I have to share with you this morning will not be delivered in the form of a sermon.

And still we gather in this place and in this special company. Faculty colleagues process in their robes; the seniors gather for nearly the last time; the president rises from the pulpit to speak. It has been so for 183 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more.

A part of the reason for our commitment to this tradition has to do with the timeless urge to say farewell. But this gathering also reminds us of what these years have been about and where the most important things have happened—between students and teachers, and students and their classmates, in both formal and informal places and ways.

The president has the impossible task of summing up these encounters in the form of some last words about what all of it has meant. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, let me now summon my own form of farewell on behalf of all those gathered here today and others who have touched your lives at Colby.

I must confess that the farewell I offer to the Class of 2004 is in some ways deeply personal. For this class is special to me in a way that no previous or future class could be. We came to Colby together, and we have experienced the past four years as classmates of a sort. So I am eager to share my personal perspective on what we experienced here together.

I remember clearly the day you arrived. You were the first class I had ever greeted at Colby, and I was probably the first college president you had ever seen, at least that close. I won’t mind if you have no specific memories of that day. It was a long time ago. But let me share with you some of my own.

I remember especially the anxieties: I was nervous, I was unsure, I was worried. Would I make it? Would I be happy? What would the next four years be like and how I would feel as they progressed?

Most of all I was wondering—I bet you were too—if this place would ever feel like home. By ‘this place’ I mean the Mayflower Hill campus, so prominent in everyone’s image of Colby. I also mean the place of Waterville and central Maine, so different from the place I came from. But by "this place" I mean most of all this community of people. Would this part of Colby—these people—permit me to feel at home?

"...this class is special to me in a way that no previous or future class could be."

The years have answered this question for all of us in one way or another. And I hope I speak for most of us in saying that this place now is home in some important ways, even as you find yourselves on the verge of moving on to new places.

My own feeling of being at home—and I bet yours too—has several sources. I think again of the remarkable beauty of this place, so evident today, which has become forever a part of my inventory of beautiful places. And I think of the people who have become a part of my life here; friends, colleagues, and students. For they—and you—are what make this place what it is. And perhaps most of all I think of the feeling I have that I will always be able to see a part of myself here.

For me—I bet for you too—this journey to feeling at home has not been without its challenging moments. There were many times in the past four years when we felt stretched and stressed and pressured in some pretty serious and consequential ways. There were moments when we felt deeply uncomfortable. And to be perfectly honest, there were probably moments when we felt challenged in ways we were not sure we could live up to.

Some of these challenges involved the intellectual discomfort of encountering ideas or arguments or facts that upset or confounded our certainties and beliefs. If those encounters did not alter our thinking, I am sure they strengthened it.

Other challenges had to do with the unavoidable personal discomfort we all must have experienced in the context of our differences. Those differences are various and at times complex; as a community, Colby has ceased to be a simple place. Our differences include the ways we think about and value things, the places, traditions, backgrounds and cultures we come from, the ways we express and experience feelings—love, among other things. We cannot and should not have expected the erasure of these differences, but the challenge of living with them has hopefully us persuaded us to see them as sources of insight and understanding.

Somehow, most of us made it through all the challenging moments to something on the other side, in spite of times of discomfort. In my own case—I bet in yours too—that 'something on the other side' is a feeling of capacity, of accomplishment, of primordial confidence. It’s the feeling of, "Hey, I can do this…."

What I am describing, of course, is nothing more or less than the process of learning. Learning about the world, of course—there has been a lot of that—but also learning about oneself, about one’s limits and capacities, about one’s strengths and vulnerabilities. So for me—and I hope for you too—Colby is now mingled in a deep way with who I think I am and with what I think I can do.

I hope you know in the fullest possible way that this sense of capacity and confidence is portable, that it travels with you as you leave here tomorrow. Indeed, that has been the point of our work here. This is a community whose sole purpose is to empower you so that you might go off and do things that matter in the world. And I know you will.

"We cannot and should not have expected the erasure of these differences, but the challenge of living with them has hopefully us persuaded us to see them as sources of insight and understanding."

Not all of the challenges we faced together, however, were by design. Indeed, some were both unexpected and unintended.

For each and every one of us, I am sure, the most unexpected of all was the tragedy we experienced at the outset of your senior year. The meaning of that tragedy was in the first instance terribly personal and concrete—the sharp pain of the loss of a friend, student, family member, classmate. But it was also tragic in a more ancient way—the intrusion into our collective lives of something that threatens our most basic sense of balance, safety, connection, and meaning.

Each of us struggled to comprehend these senses of tragedy in our own ways. I will confess that my own late night ruminations took me back to a book I first read as an undergraduate: Virginia Woolf’s remarkable novel To the Lighthouse, which some of you surely know. I rediscovered there a passage that expressed perfectly what I was feeling. It occurs toward the end of the book, in the thoughts of one of the principal characters, Lily Briscoe, as she paints a landscape scene on the English coast. Her thoughts circle the death of her friend and mentor, Mrs. Ramsay, and the harrowing experience of the First World War, which forms the backdrop for the novel. She thinks:

What was it then? What could it mean? Could things thrust up their hands and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from a pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be… that this was life?—startling, unexpected, unknown?

I now understand that what resonated for me in this passage was the way in which a very particular kind of grief threatens to undermine a broader framework, reference, and sense of belonging in the world—how loss, especially senseless loss, can detach us from one another and from what matters.

Like Lily Briscoe, you have had to wrestle with events that seem to elude our efforts to give them meaning. Like Lily Briscoe, I am sure you have wondered about the firmness and fairness of the world.

I have wished many times—along with most of your teachers, I suspect—that you had not been required to encounter this particular form of adversity, so stretching and so deeply vexing, in the course of your undergraduate careers. But I also know that Lily Briscoe’s poignant question—'is there no guide, no shelter'—and her feeling of the ground slipping away—"leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air"—is an important and finally unavoidable dimension of what it means to be human and to live a human life. And that, of course, is what we have wanted most to speak to you about here at Colby—what it means to be human, particularly in this time that has been given to us. The lexicon of that conversation now includes for you and for all of us the close acquaintance with a certain kind of tragedy and with the doubt and anguish that lurk within it.

But that is not the end of the matter or of the conversation. For you have also learned much about how to confront and transcend this particular form of adversity. You should know how I was and am of the way in which you rebounded. You grieved for and recalled the memory of your classmate, fittingly and meaningfully; you reengaged one another and the world around you in all kinds of important ways—in your classes, your friendships, your sense of community—; and, most important of all, you cared for one another.

"You grieved for and recalled the memory of your classmate, fittingly and meaningfully; you reengaged one another and the world around you in all kinds of important ways—in your classes, your friendships, your sense of community—; and, most important of all, you cared for one another."

As Virginia Woolf certainly knew, the passage through grief can produce a powerful form of knowledge. If I understand Lily Briscoe’s story, it’s a knowledge that reaffirms our fundamental sympathy with others; that causes us to search for ways to make our lives matter; that reasserts a kind of order in the world against the background of its frailty. Lily Briscoe finishes her painting, even as she struggles to grasp the world. And you have concluded your careers with a similar kind of determination and grace and artfulness.

In ways that you may have yet to discover, I am pretty sure that this knowledge, too, is now a part of your capacity as human beings; it, too, belongs to you as one of the basic acquisitions of your experience here.

And so, too, most importantly was your sense of belonging to one another and to Colby. You carry it with you in your memory and feelings, and in your relationships with classmates and teachers. And now you can also 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.

As you do so, I hope you will come to feel a keen sense of responsibility for Colby. For as alumni, this place really does belong to you in a new and powerful way. Its future well being will depend increasingly on your affection and support, as its present strength depends on those who have preceded you.

Well, those are some of my thoughts on what we shared these past four years. And we now arrive at that moment when we must cease being classmates. You are heading out to do all those splendid things in the broader world, and I am staying behind with my colleagues to greet another group of eager, uncertain learners next fall.

But as you go I want to assure you that no other class will be the same for me. Thank you for enduring a new president. Thank you for your hard and splendid work, for your achievements, and for your commitment to this place and to one another. And thank you, above all else, for letting me learn from you. You have been able and very patient teachers.

Good luck to you all; God bless you; and goodbye.