Campus News

Bowdoin College Celebrates 194th Commencement

Story posted May 15, 1999

May 29, 1999, BRUNSWICK, Maine -- Public service and changing the world for the better were the theme when Bowdoin, Maine's oldest college, conferred 430 bachelor of arts degrees at its 194th commencement exercises on Saturday, May 29. During the ceremony, speakers, including Honorand Cornel West, offered advice to graduating students.

President of the Maine State Senate, Mark Lawrence, delivered greetings from the state to an estimated 4,000 family members, friends, alumni, faculty, staff and participants. He advised the graduates to take inspiration from past Bowdoin students, such as former Senator George Mitchell and explorer Robert Peary.

"Bowdoin's core and its culture has always been...a belief that Bowdoin existed not for private advantage of those who came here but for the common good," Lawrence said. "You are but an infinitely small number of the people on this planet today who are receiving degrees. But if the past repeats itself, you will have an impact on world events, whether it is in Moscow, Northern Ireland or the Arctic, well beyond your small numbers...May you leave here and carry with you the courage of those who have been here before you and found that destiny has placed them in an awesome situation and that duty commanded courage beyond belief."

Bowdoin President Robert H. Edwards began his remarks by asking graduates to applaud their parents and faculty. In light of tragic events of the past year, such as school shootings and the war in the Balkans, he encouraged the graduates to go forward and use their personal strengths in public service.

"Always, since the foundation of the College, the aim has been to encourage and develop individuality in every way...No one rejoices more in the turbulence and creativity that you bring than its admiring president. It's this individualism and that fact that you, the Class of '99, now enter the world to place these resilient individual virtues in service to the common good, it is that, that is the glory of this place from which you graduate today, and my warmest congratulations to you."

In keeping with a Bowdoin tradition dating back to 1806, graduating seniors delivered the commencement speeches. Joy Cushman of Caribou, Maine, gave a speech titled "Lessons from a Northern Maine Farmer," in which she challenged graduates to learn from those around them. "[W]e have had an infinite number of opportunities to learn from housekeepers and departmental coordinators, cooks and dish washers, cashiers and mailroom clerks, Brunswick residents and Bowdoin employees.... These individuals know what it means to grow up and live in a coastal Maine community. They know the challenges of making ends meet, and they know what hard work really means. The knowledge they share is as valuable as that acquired in classrooms and lecture halls; it is a knowledge that will test your intellectual theories and the boundaries of your comfort in multiple and meaningful ways."

The second student speaker was Amit Shah of Calcutta, India, who delivered a speech titled "The Bowdoin Gift." Shah had never been to the United States before arriving on campus to begin his college education; he spoke of the responsibility to the community that comes with learning.

"[B]uilding a community is not a process that can exist in a vacuum -- it requires assiduous nurturing," he said. "It requires an understanding that the common good is precisely this: an intensely personal commitment to create communities wherever our paths lead us to, whether it is to Uganda as a Peace Corps member or to Wall Street as an investment baker. And as we have learnt from our experiences at Bowdoin, communities result from overcoming barriers -- of being black or white, of being rich or poor, of being American or Indian, of being gay or straight, of being liberal or conservative."

Bowdoin awarded honorary degrees to Kaiulani Sewall Lee of New York, an actress and Maine native; Horst Albach of Berlin, Germany, a professor at Humbolt University, director of the Berlin Science Center and member of the Bowdoin class of 1956; Marvin Howe Green Jr. of St. George, Bermuda, chairman of the board of Reeves A/V Systems, MSW Travel Group and Glendower Ltd.; and Cornel West of Cambridge, Mass., author and professor at Harvard University.

Each of the honorary degree recipients delivered brief remarks during the ceremonies.

West urged the graduates to use their lives to struggle towards the betterment of society. He began with advice that came from his father.

"My father used to say, Cornel, never forget that there&8217;s an old man inside of you on his way to your house," he said. "Even at this moment of celebration and jubilation let us never forget that we are who and what we are because somebody loved us, somebody cared for us, somebody sacrificed for us. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before, the many thousands gone who may be in the grave...But we can and we will make a difference."

"Why? Because, one, the Class of 1999 has a deep sense of history...And that deep sense of history means that you're going to situate and locate yourself in a story and narrative greater than you...You can not keep the tradition of Bowdoin, let alone the tradition of democracy alive without fighting for it. Is that a promise Class of 1999? Are you going to fight for it?"

Other commencement participants were Frederick G.P. Thorne, of the Bowdoin Class of 1957 and chair of the Board of Trustees; Justin Kennedy of Webster, Mass., as student marshal; Helen Cafferty, William R. Kenan Professor of German and the Humanities, as College marshal; William Wadman, of Cape Elizabeth, as alumni marshal; Chuck Beitz, dean for academic affairs, as faculty marshal and Father Chris Laroche, who delivered the invocations. Music was provided by senior members of Bowdoin's a cappella choirs B.O.C.A, the Meddiebempsters and Miscellania.

Text and audio from Commencement addresses are available in 'Archived Speeches.'

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