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If the 502 members of the Colby Class of 2013 thought they had their plans figured out, the career of commencement speaker Gregory White Smith ’73 serves as a reminder that twists and turns may be life’s only certainties. At Colby’s 192nd commencement Sunday, May 26, Smith told seniors that, in this time of “fluid careers and people’s self reinvention,” they can count on serendipity.
Smith’s life is an example. An English major, he spent a year studying music, earned a law degree, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography as well as true crime novels, and started a legal database that serves 70 countries.
A series of unexpected moments propelled him over the years. A chance meeting with a law school classmate led to his first published book and a life partnership that has lasted almost 40 years. When at 34 Smith learned he had an inoperable brain tumor, a comment from a friend inspired his first “really serious book”—the biography of Jackson Pollock that won a Pulitzer. A casual suggestion from an editor led to the creation of the legal database that flourishes despite growing competition.
“Life is full of surprises,” he said. “It’s full of unexpected turns and reversals, and setbacks and sidesteps, and recoveries and magical interventions—good and bad—and serendipitous encounters, and serendipitous suggestions, serendipitous acquaintances.”
Exactly 40 years after his own graduation from Colby, Smith reflected on the state of technology, which he said offers unprecedented opportunity but also introduces challenges. “To use these tools effectively,” he said, “you need to exercise good judgment and discernment—that is to think critically. You need to distinguish fact from falsehood, opinion from persuasion. …
“You have to embrace curiosity and open-mindedness and always keep a healthy dose of skepticism,” he said. “You have to practice sensitivity to others and always treat respectfully the people with whom you disagree—even on Amazon reviews. And you have to develop a secure sense of who you are. Now if those things sound familiar, they should. Those are the things that you’ve been learning for the last four years.”
Senior class speaker Michael Langley offered his own review of the last four years. The Colby experience, he said, challenged him and his classmates in unexpected ways. “We’ve all had those professors that have worked us harder than we ever thought possible, who set high expectations, who led us through difficult papers, problem sets, projects, and tests, and showed us that, without exception, we could always reach higher than we thought,” he said.
The Short Hills, N.J., native who majored in English and started a humor magazine at Colby, sought to remind fellow seniors of their good fortune. “While I’ve had bad days here, the balance leans more toward the days where I walk around, as if in a dream, pinching myself on the forearm, disbelieving the privilege I’ve had to be able to come here and live here and work here. And other days, I run around pinching other people on the forearm, because I want them to appreciate their privilege. They may act offended and scream, but I can tell they’re thanking me on the inside.”
Serendipity brought some unexpected guests to commencement and kept others away. Jean-Jacques Ndayisenga ’13, a native of Rwanda, had accepted that financial constraints would keep his mother from attending. But his friends had another idea. They secretly raised funds from classmates and others, collecting more than $4,500 that allowed both Ndayisenga’s mother and brother to attend, and they surprised their friend three nights before commencement.
And one of the few names read in absentia was Brittney Bell of Poland, Maine. She was traveling home from a national track meet where she won All-America honors late Saturday as a member of the Colby women’s 4×400 relay team, which took second place and set another school record. She arrived back on campus too late for the convocation, so a special ceremony including family, friends, and teammates, was planned for the afternoon.
The procession of seniors was led into Wadsworth Gymnasium by Alexander James Rasmussen, a mathematics major from New Gloucester, Mass., who, as the student with the highest grade point average (4.10), served as senior marshal.
Other honors bestowed included the Condon Medal for constructive citizenship, which went to Madison Louis ’13, a global studies and French studies major from Wellesley, Mass. Eight honorary degrees were presented to alumni who represent the strength and breadth of a Colby education.
President William D. Adams presented degrees to each of the graduates. In this bicentennial-year commencement, he said, Colby would celebrate another milestone: the 30,000th graduate crossed the stage during this ceremony.
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