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Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 47th Vice President of the United States, told Colby College graduates on Sunday to help the nation return to basic principles of equality and dignity and to understand each other’s stories to develop a deeper sense of humanity.
“When you know somebody’s mom has breast cancer and you know somebody’s dad just lost his job,” he said, “it makes it hard to dislike that person. You get to understand and see their humanity. We used to know those things in Congress.
“Life can’t be lived in this self-referential, self-reinforcing, self-righteous echo chamber we’ve built for ourselves online. Living in our screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it easy to reduce others to stereotypes. … They’re not some flattened version of humanity, reducible to a collection of parts and attributes. They’re a whole person, flawed, struggling to make it in the world just like you. You have to work to ascribe to your opposition the same emotional complexity you find in yourself that you possess.”
Noting that polls have shown that Millennials are capable and tolerant but reluctant to engage in politics, he exhorted graduates to join in the civic process. “No graduating class gets to choose the world they graduate into,” he said. “That history gets written by those who came before you. But now it’s your job to put your hands on the wheel and bend that arc of history closer to where we want to be as a nation.”
Of a trend toward rancor and loss of civility, Biden said, “I assure you it’s transitory. The American people will not sustain this attitude.” But, he said, change will come only if graduates use their education and abilities to join in “the ceaseless work of perfecting a more perfect union.”
Under a vivid blue sky, Biden spoke to a crowd of more than 3,000 at Colby’s 196th Commencement, as the College conferred degrees on 478 graduates from 36 states and 42 countries.
“This is a class that has dazzled and challenged us, and these graduates are ready to use their exceptional and unique talents to address the most pressing needs in our complex world,” said President David A. Greene. “If their time at Colby is any predictor, this graduating class will lead the way into the future with sharp, creative intellects and compassionate souls, with respect for others, and an openness to new ideas and perspectives.”
The nation needs more individuals who embody those skills and traits, Biden suggested. He acknowledged that globalization and evolving technology have hurt many Americans, and left them fearful about the future. But, Biden said, his voice ringing from the podium, “You cannot define an American based on their ethnicity. You cannot define an American based on their religion. You cannot define Americans by anything other than the acceptance of the notions contained within our institutional structures. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Biden has spent nearly a half-century in public service, in the U.S. Senate and as vice president. Since leaving office, Biden has continued to work on issues that include gun violence and violence against women. In his address, he recounted the loss of his first wife and daughter in a car accident shortly after his election to the Senate, and the ways his colleagues there, including Senator George Mitchell, a Waterville native, helped him to go on with his work and career, despite the overwhelming tragedy.
In recent years in Washington, Biden has seen a shift away from bipartisanship to polarization that stymies real debate and prevents compromise. “It’s always appropriate to question another man or woman’s judgment,” Biden said. “But it’s never appropriate to question their motive.”
He also recalled graduating from law school in 1968, when the country was in the throes of the Vietnam War and assassinations had claimed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. But he and others in public service at the time never doubted their ability to change the course of history, he said.
Before shaking the hand of—or hugging—every graduate who crossed the stage, Biden left them with a key takeaway from their Colby experience. “The thing that I hope you remember most from your time here is the ethos at Colby, that sought to instill in each and every one of you your sense of obligation that you bear to one another as individuals. A culture of mutual accountability—accountability and caring,” he said. “You have to hold onto the Colby mentality once you leave campus. Because it will not only serve you well, it will serve the nation well.”
Biden received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Colby, one of four honorary degrees awarded Commencement Weekend. Amy Walter ’91, political analyst and commentator and national editor of The Cook Political Report, received a doctor of letters degree and spoke at Colby’s baccalaureate May 20. Warren Washington, a pioneer in computer modeling of Earth’s weather and climate, received a doctor of science degree. Yoshihiro Takishita, an antiquarian and architectural preservationist who worked with the late John Roderick ’36, L.H.D. ’66 to preserve hand-crafted Japanese farmhouses, received a doctor of fine arts degree.
Class speaker Muhebullah Esmat of Kabul, Afghanistan, recounted his journey to Colby and the ways the College sets out to turn students into well-rounded clear communicators and “sends them away as friends.” Esmat also spoke of the importance of personal connections and the relationships built at Colby. Of his time at Colby, Esmat said, “the unifying factor, and most certainly the highlight, has been the people around me. The ones, the strangers, who have become part of me.”
The class was led in the procession by Baturay Aydemir of Kayseri, Turkey, who, as the graduate with the highest grade point average, was class marshal. Aydemir, a biology: neuroscience and chemistry major with a minor in classical civilization, plans to study medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Michelle Boucher, of Fryeburg, Maine, was given the Condon Medal for constructive citizenship, the only award presented at commencement. Boucher, a psychology major with minors in human development and sociology, was active in campus organizations and programs aimed at reducing sexual violence, supporting first-generation students, and destigmatizing mental illness, among others.