Senior White House advisor Valerie B. Jarrett Saturday urged Colby College seniors to engage, connect, and fully embrace their citizenship in order to have the most impact on the wider world.
Jarrett, who has served President Barack Obama throughout his presidency, told students and faculty at the College’s 195th Baccalaureate that, as technology makes the world smaller and brings people closer together, fear of change and the unknown has caused conflict, has polarized politics, and has stagnated progress.
“We are in fact inextricably linked, and it tests our humanity, tolerance, and core decency in profound and fundamental ways,” she said. “As historical boundaries and traditional social norms give way, we see these uncomfortable and threatening changes, and people are desperately trying to hold onto the status quo—building barriers both literally and figuratively to try to regain their sense of identity, certainty, and stability.”
Baccalaureate, which marks the official start of Colby’s Commencement Weekend, is an opportunity for seniors to join with faculty for their last time as students. This year it included readings by faculty and students and music from students and a klezmer trio.
President David A. Greene urged the seniors to take advantage of the relationships forged at Colby and connections they will make in the future.
“These relationships are key to what impact you will have on the world,” Greene said. He described several key relationships in his life that taught him, among other things, that “equality of opportunity is not an academic exercise” and “gentleness and power must coexist.”
In her remarks Jarrett said one challenge is how graduates can have an impact in a rapidly changing world. She offered four pieces of advice, foremost that people must embrace the responsibility of citizenship, especially by voting, “and not just in cool presidential elections,” she said. “Don’t disenfranchise yourself.” She also urged seniors to serve in government and run for office. “We are strongest when every voice speaks up and when we do more than passively love our country.”
Graduates should build bridges and get to know their fellow citizens. “It takes work to ensure that we make it safe for diverse perspectives to contribute to our community’s richness rather than deepening its divisions,” she said. It also makes it easier to be a critical media consumer, Jarrett said.
It’s important to assertively choose compromise, Jarrett said, citing the rocky passage of President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, which required adjustments by both the administration and Congress. Such compromise is necessary to make progress on new ideas.
Finally, she urged graduates to take the long view and to understand that incremental progress counts toward success, however frustrating it may be.
Jarrett invoked Colby alumni Mary Low, the first female graduate of the College, in 1875, and Elijah Lovejoy, the publisher murdered for his abolitionist views—Colby change-makers who nonetheless could not predict the outcome of their work. “Change requires patience, perseverance, and resilience,” she said.
Jarrett said the diversity of the class, augmented by the bonds forged at Colby, is impressive. “You are an extraordinary mix,” she said. “You are just what our country needs.”