Dickinson College May 21, 2016
Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Ian, some of which is true. I already have some advice for you. If you are ever invited to speak following Edwin’s performance, you should decline politely. Nothing I say will be as melodious as that.
President Roseman, faculty and staff, families and friends, and most of all, you, the Class of 2016.
It is my deep honor and privilege to share your Baccalaureate ceremony with you. Thank you for the kind invitation.
Madonna, Jessica, Aeysha, thank you for your beautiful prayer. Not only is it always a pleasure to come back to Dickinson, which I consider home, it is always a pleasure to get out of Washington for a bit.
I promised President Roseman I would not talk politics. I usually keep my promises, but I am going to break this one.
Just think about this with me for a minute.
- A billionaire businessman with no political experience
- Clinton, a Democrat, who’s been elected before.
- Bush, with surprisingly low poll numbers.
- A deeply divided campus.
- Dire predictions about our two-party system and indeed, our Republic itself.
- Widespread threats to move to Canada.
But enough about 1992. For that is the American political landscape I returned to Bologna, Italy. As you know, Governor Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush and billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot. I appreciate Reverend Hughes telling us about the history of Baccalaureate, which, despite having participated in several of these myself, I didn’t know. So I looked it up.
Bacca from the Latin, meaning bachelor, and luri, from the Latin, meaning laurels.
The good news for you - I have no intention of giving you a sermonic oration. The better news for you - in 1432, candidates for Bachelor were required to deliver their own sermon in Latin to graduate. So you and I both get a pass on this today, and the laurels I offer you are congratulations on your successful completion of your course of study.
I cannot think of a better poem for you to have chosen for this time of reflection than “Live in the Layers” by Stanley Kunitz [Q-Nitz], who was twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, first in 1974 when he was 69 years old, and second in 2000 at the age of 95. Among the lessons in that for all of us is that you can contribute to your nation throughout your entire life.
I want to highlight two passages from Live in the Layers that are especially relevant to today’s ceremony and your Dickinson experience, because they also reflect mine.
“When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey”
Today you reflect on your Dickinson experience, and what has brought you to this weekend. Look back … look back… right now… Look back at all of the love and support of your family and friends, and the faculty and staff of Dickinson. That love and support can give you the strength to proceed on your journey. And please join me in thanking all of them.
When you look back, consider the milestones along your way. Kunitz wrote the poem when he was in his 70s, so he references his milestones dwindling against the horizon, but you are just getting started.
It may surprise you, but I am still closer to you in age than I am to Kunitz when he wrote the poem, and to this day, the support I received from the faculty and staff here continue to propel me forward in my own milestones, as they will for you.
And in case you are wondering, yes, it’s okay to look back fondly to grilled cheese day in the cafeteria, Madeline that bottomless jar of Nutella dances at the Depot (in my day it was the Lumberyard), time spent at 146 and White Elephant, and the happy hours at the G-man that helped you through your Orgo and Managerial classes.
And as Julia sang, your lives are made in these small hours.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
You have joined many tribes during your time at Dickinson, whether a sports team, a sorority or fraternity, an extracurricular club, or those with whom you share a major or a residence hall – you have made tribes out of your true affections.
I would like to welcome you to the tribe of Dickinson alumni. You are a Dickinsonian, and you will be for life. While it is true that your tribes will scatter, as a member of the Dickinson tribe, you all now share memories and experiences that will bond you for life.
I still talk to my sophomore roommate almost every day. More accurately, text him. You should conclude nothing from the fact that he is a clinical psychologist. But the friends you make here will be friends for life, even when they scatter geographically. I still call on faculty for advice, and they always are generous with their time.
Kunitz also references loss in the poem, and I know that you have already experienced the painful sting of losing a first year student.
Part of living in the layers is the growth from all the various stages of your life that make you who you are. Hopefully those layers will give you the strength and perspective that allow you to remember the fallen with gratitude for how they touched your lives.
I want to close with just a few more thoughts about how my Dickinson education has affected me. Dickinson taught me how to learn, how to think critically, how to communicate. During the four years I had the great privilege to serve on President Obama’s National Security Council staff, I had to learn many new things, and rapidly.
In 2009, I was driving to Carlisle from Washington for a Board of Trustees meeting when my phone rang, and I had to turn around -- because I was advised that a new flu virus, H1N1, had emerged and subsequently, as we all know, turned into a pandemic. I had to learn how new viruses emerge and mutate, how to make and distribute vaccine quickly, how to communicate to the American people about what the risks were and what they could do to protect themselves. We’re experiencing that right now with the Zika virus.
In 2010, during our response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I learned all about oil well blowout preventers, methane hydrates (which is gas trapped in ice) (what I described to the WH Press Secretary at the time as snowballs you could light on fire), and how many different ways you can try to stop an oil well from leaking a mile under the ocean’s surface.
Finally, during the 2013 Fukushima nuclear emergency, caused by an 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, I had to learn about how nuclear reactors work, spent fuel pools and why they matter, and how to communicate levels of radiation to the American people that provided information without unnecessary alarm. I cite these examples to you not because of my role in those events, but because the ability to learn new things quickly, to analyze disparate information and develop a cogent path forward, and communicate –Matt -- complex information -- are all components of your Dickinson education. I assure you, you will be called on in your careers to use those same skills. You will find that Dickinson gave you many layers of knowledge to live in rather than the litter of long-ago memorized and forgotten facts that are no longer relevant.
Matt, I don’t know what you did. But from the sounds of it, I think I need to buy you a drink later, and then convince my colleagues to erase the video.
At the end of the day, I believe the most important things you have to give away in this life are your love and your labor (and the fruits of that labor). I am fortunate enough to have many tribes. One of them is public service, which I hope you will consider at some point in your lives.
And I have also chosen to give my love and labor to Dickinson. After tomorrow, I hope you will do the same.
Like Gregory Boles, I encourage you to get to know the people you meet. To ask, rather than assume. And remember, always, to be kind. Because everyone you meet has a challenge that you can’t see. Shayna, nervous and awkward – it’s going to continue to happen, and that’s ok. When you brief the President of the United States and do not have good news, you will be nervous, you will be awkward. When you face a hostile Congress, you will find it uncomfortable. Particularly if you have failed to live up to the public’s expectation.
And Madeline’s mention of the number of days you have been on this campus, and many of you abroad during your time at Dickinson reminds me that the days are long but the years are short.
Thank you for letting me be part of your tribe today, and with my deepest affection, congratulations again.