Good afternoon, members of the Class of 2012. The Baccalaureate ceremony signifies the official beginning of the activities surrounding your graduation from Dickinson College. At the close of tomorrow morning’s ceremony, you will commence forth from these limestone walls as alumni of Dickinson. This afternoon is the perfect occasion for you to begin thinking about the momentous transition you are about to make and how your Dickinson education has prepared you for the wider world. The Baccalaureate ceremony asks you to pause and reflect on your years at Dickinson just as tomorrow’s Commencement will urge you to look ahead. You are, in other words, beginning to establish the bridge that will connect your experiences as students with your life as alumni.
Your classmates, in cooperation with the college, designed today’s program and very appropriately chose the theme of “Engage Your World.” As our speakers today will describe, there are many facets to our often-used phrase. For one it means taking time to stop and learn from those who surround you, rather than just blindly going about your life and work. For another it means engaging in difficult conversations with people who bring very different perspectives to a situation. And for yet another, it means engaging in something for which you have great passion. I encourage each of you to find your own individual way to engage your world. Some of you may have already found your engaged path while some others are still seeking theirs. And there are undoubtedly others who may still think that this is all just rhetoric or a meaningless catch phrase.
To that point, I recently received an e-mail from a young alumnus from the class of 2009 which I think you will find most interesting, as it describes how he came to find meaning in “engage the world.” It reads as follows:
“Dear President Durden ... Years ago, we butted heads as I was headed into my senior year. I had self-elevated my gripes with not being allowed to live off-campus to the point where I addressed you directly. At the time, I believe my argument centered around my accomplishments at Dickinson and my academic record. In essence, I felt I deserved the “right” to live off-campus because I had not misbehaved and got good grades. How misguided was I.
I’m writing this letter to you because I was recently named a partner [in my company.] Less than three years after graduating Dickinson, I am an owner. While I feel proud about this accomplishment, it also gave me pause to reflect upon the true meaning of the lesson you were trying to teach me. You had replied to me that while my record at Dickinson was impressive, I still had much growing to do and needed to think about the world beyond that of myself.
You were right. When I graduated Dickinson in May of 2009, I had already seen my carefully-laid career plans vanish due to the recession. An offer was rescinded, and I found myself desperately searching. I remained unemployed for six months, some of the hardest months of my life. I was fortunate to have a wonderful and caring support network during that time, and when I landed an entry-level position working at a well-respected pharmaceutical software and consulting company, I was thrilled.
Soon enough, though, I was once again fuming in my own stew of arrogance, self-importance, and feelings of entitlement. I felt my degree and my education had made me out for bigger and better things; and yet for all my posturing, I did nothing. Except wait. Wait for opportunity to come to me, wait for graduate schools to want to accept me, wait for a promotion, wait for a raise—wait, wait, wait. And it was because, similar to my confrontation with you, I felt I “deserved” these things. It was all about me.
Eventually [and I’ve edited here, but retained the meaning], I pulled my head out of [the sand] far enough to put in the work and effort to where I was offered an opportunity to join a small staffing and recruiting firm near my old high school, right outside Philadelphia.
The moment my attitude changed was when our CEO told me about his vision for where the company was going to go, and more importantly, from whence it came. He told me about starting the company with his entire savings. The struggle to get and retain new clients. How much of a personal battle every day was. He had earned everything that he had through perseverance, strength of will, and sheer determination to not lose. Who was I to think I deserved anything in comparison?
Then I remembered the phrase, “Engage the World,” that you told us over and over. Many of us thought it was a silly catchphrase thrown around by the college to emphasize and sell the study-abroad programs. In hindsight, we missed the point entirely.
I realize now what you meant by “Engage the World.” I further realize now exactly what it doesn’t mean, having seen the same flaw(s) in myself and in countless other young people I’ve interviewed. Engaging the world means being active. None of us “deserve” anything. None of us, simply through the virtue of acceptance, matriculation, and graduation from a great college or university, have truly “earned” anything other than opportunity. The greatest gift Dickinson gave us was the opportunity and tools to do. Engaging the world means utilizing one’s education to its full extent, not merely resting upon its credentials. Engaging the world means late nights at the office, missed dates, and often, rejection. Engaging the world means that we are not passengers, sitting in our cubicles and passively watching the world slip by. Rather, we are to seek out opportunity, thrive in the face of adversity, and above all, create a positive impact upon the world around us. Locally, regionally, nationally, globally—we can engage the world on so many levels. We should always seek to be intellectually curious, to expand our personal horizons even when facing the discomfort of the “new.”
I share this e-mail with you as testimony as to how one young alumnus has made “Engage the World” his world. I encourage each of you to make this phrase your own.
I also encourage each of you, if you haven’t already, to find a mentor in your life—a professor, colleague, boss or perhaps a family member. I have had several mentors during the course of my career and they have been instrumental in guiding my personal and professional life. In fact, some may remember a year or so ago, I sent out a piece titled “Notes to a 21st-Century Student” containing a collection of life lessons learned from my mentors, as well as an outline of a 21st-century skill set that we hope every graduate has developed through his/her Dickinson experience. I encourage you to re-visit this piece as there are lessons in it that can be useful to you throughout your lives. It is linked from my President’s Page on the Web and will also be linked from the copy of my remarks which will be posted on the Commencement site next week.
It is important to remember that you did not just “go” to college in the common “passive” sense of the word—you engaged Dickinson and as importantly, we engaged you. In this engagement, there was life, energy, thought, resistance, pushback and ultimately productive, formative tension. It is this push/pull dynamic, and your success within it, that you take with you for life.
Again, congratulations on this wonderful achievement of graduating from Dickinson College. And enjoy immensely with us, your family and friends this special weekend that marks such a momentous occasion in your lives. And above all, engage the world—you are ready!