Campus News

Bowdoin Graduating Class Encouraged to Heal Fractured Civil Societies, Build Cathedrals

Story posted May 25, 2002

For commencement speeches click below:
Homa Mojtabai Speech
Tara Talbot Speech
Barry Mills Speech

As at so many recent occasions, the normal celebration of Bowdoin College's commencement was tempered by memories of an academic year that began with the attack on the World Trade Center, and ends with the U.S. and other nations engaged in "the war on terrorism."

Saturday's ceremony, at which 410 bachelor of arts degrees were awarded, included a moment of silence in honor of those lost and those in service.

President Barry Mills, Class of 1972, presided over Bowdoin's 197th commencement, his first as president. He acknowledged that the academic year "began amid the horror, chaos, and confusion of September 11th. It was a day that changed us all and ushered in a new and unsettled perspective of the world and of our own vulnerability."

Because it has been some years since the nation faced a challenge of this magnitude, he said, "Some believe that America had become 'soft' - that the young people of this generation in particular, growing up in an age of peace and prosperity, had missed out on the 'character building' experiences of past generations raised in troubled times.... For over two hundred years, conflict, hardship, and uncertainty have served as defining moments for generations of Bowdoin students. These events may have been 'character building,' but I, for one, regret that a new generation of students has now experienced a tragedy that will be forever imprinted on its collective and individual psyche. And I regret that our graduating seniors leave here today with the extra burden of an uncertain world.

"But Bowdoin - like America - is a resilient and optimistic community. We have had an exciting year here brimming with achievement.... We have also seen time and time again that Bowdoin's dedication to the common good remains unabated. In a year when it might have been natural to turn inward, Bowdoin students devoted themselves to their community with enthusiasm, recording over 20,000 volunteer hours....

"Today you receive much more than a credential or some certificate that you'll be able to exchange for a job," Mills concluded. "Today you receive confirmation that you have mastered the ability to question, to analyze, to serve greater purposes than your own, and to keep on learning. No matter what your specialty or how many times you trade one for another, these abilities will serve you and society well."

Two graduating women--fitting in a year marking the 30th anniversary of coeducation at the College-also gave addresses. The two speakers reminded classmates that they must accept their charge to help heal fractured civil societies worldwide; and that the building of cathedrals begins with laying one brick.

Homa Mojtabai, of Boston, Mass. (formerly of Wellesley, Mass.), gave a speech titled "On Recalling the Offer."

Mojtabai cited the "Offer of the College," published by Bowdoin's seventh president William DeWitt Hyde in 1906, and presented the concept of a civil society as a useful example to illustrate the "widespread importance" of Bowdoin's offer.

In a civil society, non-government institutions "educate and create citizens capable of partaking in the democratic process. A critical part of this civic education includes developing the capacity for tolerance."

While September 11th proved that our corner of the planet is not immune to disaster, there is a difference here "in how we approach education, especially higher education.... Thanks to the education offered by Bowdoin, I am one more young person who has learned how to formulate my own opinion, and understand the viewpoint of another person.... I know that every individual who graduates from Bowdoin has been similarly prepared. It is this education that sets apart and strengthens the unique civil society that is the United States."

Mojtabai concluded, "[The] single most important gift Bowdoin has offered us is the ability to be astute, critical thinkers.... Although we will soon have our degrees in hand, our work as scholars and earnest students remains unfinished. If we are to be the true patriots, defenders of freedom, and lovers of liberty, then we must begin by making every day a conscious exercise in what we have learned here: tolerance toward different beliefs, and a love of educated discourse.... Remember also that our struggle to further the common good, and to heal our civil society, is the only real war that, we, as patriots, must fight, and that we cannot declare victory until every single nations is free, and every civil society healed."

Tara A. Talbot of Canton, Mass., gave a speech titled "The Pride of the Bricklayer."

Talbot reminded her classmates that while they arrived at Bowdoin four years ago and started simply by "laying brick," their hard work and vision would lead them to "build cathedrals."

Talbot offered the example of a visionary classmate to illustrate a point first made in the old story of three bricklayers: the first says he is laying brick, the second says he is building a wall, and the third says he is building a cathedral. Her classmate similarly began sketching and testing designs in a physics lab. She then went on to build and install "auto-samplers" -- devices to collect air samples to help scientists understand global warming -- in California and in Tasmania. Late night lab experiments on campus, she pointed out, led to "a small effort to save the world."

Her own vision, she recounted, took shape as a high school tutor in a black township in Cape Town, South Africa. The tutors had to lure the starving students with sandwiches. While sandwiches were hardly a solution to the region's complex problems, they were an example of "laying brick," because they brought the students back to learn: "Without learning, the students could not overcome the lingering evils of apartheid and become the doctors and teachers and singers that they now had the freedom to become.... Without that one small brick, the larger vision could never take shape."

She said of her classmates' Bowdoin careers: "Somewhere during our sophomore year, the wall began to take shape.... As juniors and seniors, we began to see an even larger purpose to our everyday efforts.... Gradually, the separate brick walls came together and our unique cathedrals began to take shape.... We have laid the foundations that have allowed us to reach such heights. It would be foolish to say that we've solved global warming with auto-samplers and erased the legacy of apartheid with sandwiches.... But we have laid a few important bricks for the cathedrals of the future. We have discovered the pride of the bricklayer."

Bowdoin awarded honorary degrees to Marsha Johnson Evans, retired Navy rear admiral and head of the Girl Scouts of the USA; Edward J. McCluskey '51, director of the Center for Reliable Computing and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University; and Kenneth Paigen, director and senior staff scientist at The Jackson Laboratory. Evans was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, and McCluskey and Paigen received honorary doctor of science degrees.

To open the ceremony, Maine First Lady Mary Herman delivered greetings from the state. The Rev. Jill H. Small, interim senior minister, First Parish Church, delivered the invocation. "The Star-Spangled Banner" and “Raise Songs to Bowdoin” were sung by senior members of the Bowdoin ensembles BOCA, Chamber Choir, Chorus, Miscellania, and The Meddiebempsters. Chandler's Band led the processional and recessional.

Biographies of the student speakers follow:

Homa Mojtabai is a Spanish major, with a minor in computer science. She was the recipient of last year's Latin American Studies Summer Travel Grant, and spent one month in Cuba researching attitudes of Cuban youth toward modern literature. She also studied in Chile. She's a member of Global Help Club and through them participated in a community service trip to Nicaragua last spring. She played on the inaugural women's varsity golf team, and played rugby. Next year she will be participating in the Congress-Bundestag Exchange for Young Professionals. This is a one-year fellowship funded by the U.S. and German governments in order to foster intercultural relations and understanding.

Tara Anne Lang Talbot is a history major, with a minor in education. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and earned highest honors in history by completing an honors project on the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools. She is the recipient of this year's Lucien Howe Prize, awarded by the faculty to the member of the senior class who has shown the highest qualities of conduct and character. She also won the Community Service Award for Women given by the athletic department. Talbot was among those who studied abroad in the first ever Colby, Bates and Bowdoin Off-Campus Study program in Cape Town, South Africa. Next year, she will be teaching social studies in a public high school outside of Boston.

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