June 6, 2010
Good morning and congratulations to the Class of 2010. It is my special pleasure and honor to be here to speak with you today. You continue a tradition of accomplishment at The Governor's Academy that has historic roots. This school traces its history to 1763 and to the very birth of America. With that distinguished history comes a special obligation for everyone associated with Governor's to advance the timeless values and record of excellence so evident here. To the graduating class: your parents, families, and friends are proud of you and all that you have achieved. We know you will cherish forever your experience at the Academy and the commitment this school has made to you and to your future.
My connection to Governor's is somewhat remote. I did not attend this institution. I went to a public high school located only about 100 miles from here in Rhode Island, but in many ways, it was a place much farther away. And while my high school did not have the history and traditions of Governor's, I did attend-and am now privileged to serve as president of-Bowdoin College in Maine. Bowdoin is an institution not quite as ancient as Governor's, having been founded about twenty years later in 1794, but Bowdoin is certainly a place with a similar heritage. Your school and Bowdoin are both named in honor of former governors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Samuel Adams signed Bowdoin's charter, while John Quincy Adams served as secretary of your Board of Trustees. Bowdoin's founding principle that literary institutions are founded and endowed to serve the Common Good, reflects your school's timeless motto: Non Sibi Sed Aliiis (Not for self, but for others). So at Governor's, and at Bowdoin, there is a shared history, and a deep appreciation for common principles and common values.
Truth be told, my more personal connection to Governor's-aside from Bowdoin students who are alumni of the Academy-comes from lacrosse. For it is through lacrosse that I met your headmaster, John Doggett and his wife, Patty. My son Henry, (a goalie), and their son, David (a defenseman), are members of the Williams College lacrosse team together. Commencement speakers come to institutions in curious ways, but probably not often through connections made on the sidelines of a lacrosse field. In any event, I am delighted to be here today and I am grateful for the invitation to speak and to join with you in this celebration.
Just a week ago, I presided at Bowdoin's Commencement exercises-my ninth as president of the College. In those years, I have listened to many graduation speeches, so I appreciate the challenge I face today. At Bowdoin, we don't have any fancy folks give talks at Commencement. For more than 200 years, Bowdoin students have competed for the privilege to address their classmates. So, without celebrity to wow the crowd, there is even greater pressure to come up with something to say that folks will recall an hour later.
For my talk today I have decided to speak to you about your future. In referring to your future, I choose not the glorious, inchoate future of your long and successful lives to come. The future I would like to talk with you about briefly this morning is your future starting next September-namely, your future at college and university.
I meet every student entering Bowdoin during the first week of their first year and we talk about the college experience as they come to my office to sign the Matriculation Book-a tradition going back over two centuries at Bowdoin. So, right now, picture yourself walking into my office for a conversation at the start of "blank" college (you insert the college you plan to attend). It is conversation that I hope feels personal, and I know from experience that four years later, many of our students remember that first day in my office.
So, first relax and take a breath. You are now about to begin college. All that hard work, the making of lists, the box checking, the standardized tests-all of that is behind you. It is time now for college. You have worked hard, incredibly hard in high school, to get to this place. But it is time to change the focus-you are at a new stage of life and ready to take it on. College is the time for intentional learning, experimentation both in the classroom and maybe out of it (more on that in a moment), for getting involved in the life of the college, and yes, for having fun.
Students know that college is about fun (and the parents among us remember their fun too in college, even if some might not want to admit it.) Sure, you are about to embark on a great adventure that will require serious reflection and commitment of purpose, but that adventure will also be fun in so many ways.
College is new for everyone. Some of you have been boarders here, others day students. You probably think (or maybe quietly hope) that given your experience on this campus, you are ready to slip easily into college life. In many respects you will, but be ready, because college is really new for everyone, and everyone has insecurities and issues that will keep them up late at night. For you, given your experience here, it is likely that your late night panics will be fewer than for many students who will enter very foreign environments, but even for you there will be new issues.
You will have to decide what courses to take. You will have to decide what activities to get involved in. Most likely, the advice you get will be good, but perhaps not fulfilling for many of you, at least initially, given what you are used to here. College will reveal what you are good at, and expose in ways you can't imagine where you might not be so talented. You will be joining a new community that will almost certainly be much bigger than the community here at Governor's. It will be at time to make new friends, and to move away from old ones. How will you find your way? How will you navigate through the new community you are about to join?
Okay, it sounds intimidating. It is, a little, and it should be. But, in fact, that is the joy of college.
High school is a little like Mapquest. A colleague of mine described it to me this way a number of years ago; all sorts of people telling you where to turn left, turn right, courses to take, community service to do, sports to play, songs to sing. The journey was long and difficult, but the road markers were pretty well set out, even if the obstacles were challenging and, at some points, exhausting.
College is different. It is a bit like navigating by the stars. There really isn't anyone to tell you what to do or what to study. There isn't anyone to direct you to figure out how to structure your lives, especially because you will have enormous amounts of unstructured free time. It will all be largely up to you. You will have to teach yourself to do the navigation-with the help of your faculty, the staff, your friends, and through your own ingenuity. And that is the way college ought to be as you start and develop in a new phase of your life.
What is the biggest difference between college and high school? Free time. In college, you are only in class a relatively short time during the day. How you manage so much of your time and your life is a new responsibility and one that students can find awkward. So spend some time between now and then thinking about this new "freedom." In fact, as hard as it may seem to do, spend some time this summer thinking hard about what it is you really want to get out of college, particularly during the first year. Life is all about preparation, and thoughtful consideration about where you sit in life at this moment and what you hope to accomplish next year is reflection that will have enormous payback as you enter your college years.
Let me make two suggestions that come from experience and are reflected in Richard Light's book, Making the Most of College. During that first year, find a faculty member (or graduate student, if you go to a big place) and get to know that person. Your experience academically will be better if you make that connection, something you know well from your experience here. And get involved in the life of the place. Find an activity or activities-a sport, theatre, dance, debate-and get involved. Experience tells us that students involved in the life of the college have a happier college experience and do better academically.
In a broader sense, my message to you is that it is time for you to take responsibility. You are going to college to become your own person-to study what excites you...to grow into a mature person, comfortable in your own skin. It is your time to figure out what is right for you and to just do it, in the classroom and on the campus.
This requires you to follow your academic interests and to work hard. College is first, foremost, and always about getting a solid education. You should chart a course that works for you, and do it seriously. You will hear a lot in life that it is about common sense, leadership, and personality-that these are the keys to success-and that these life skills are best learned on the playing field or through some other extracurricular activity. To some extent that is true, but before you will be in a position to use those talents as an adult, you actually have to show you can learn at the highest level and that you have a sophisticated mind. In life, I have found it is essential to have the life skills I just mentioned, but it is even more essential to have the solid grounding in education-in real substance-to allow those life skills to be truly useful. So, my message: study hard, be intentional in your studies, and make it a priority for you to do well academically in college.
Also, make good decisions in your life at college. I spoke earlier about experimentation and having fun. You will do both. I guarantee it. We all read about what happens on these college campuses-it does happen everywhere, and given my recollection of college, it has happened everywhere for a long, long time. So my advice to all our students: have fun, make good decisions and stay safe. My mantra for our students: have fun, stay safe.
Now, so far, I have spoken only about students. I have left one very important group wondering, "What about me?"-Your parents. Where is my space-how did I get left behind?
As I walk around Bowdoin, everyone is on his or her cell phone talking or texting. And as I walk by students on the Quad, I often say, "Say hello to your mother, from me," and the students (both men and women) reply, "My mom says, hi."
The new slogan on campuses today should be: "Can you Hear Me Now?"
There are many college presidents who will tell you to get out of your child's' life and let them go. College is exclusively about them and you parents need to land the helicopter and back off.
Well, actually, you do need to back off. But I do find it ironic that we lament the close connection between parents and their children. Given the age of my own kids, I understand and appreciate this bond, and I believe we should promote this vital relationship more broadly in this country.
But for all of us, there has to be a balance and you have to let you're the students make decisions for themselves, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
I grew up in a very conservative household in Rhode Island. My dad didn't finish high school and my mom refused to drive to Providence from Warwick. In my junior year at college I came home for spring break, and as my mom was doing my laundry, she found a copy of Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" in my bag. Now, this was 1970 and to say that my parents were concerned that their son was becoming a radical communist, is an understatement. But they gave me some space, I matured, and for better or worse-but certainly as a capitalist-I spent 25 years as a corporate lawyer in New York City. My point is: your children need college to mature and you need to have the confidence in them to allow them to find their own way. Not always easy-but almost always the best course.
So my advice to you parents as your children begin the next stage of their lives is to find the proper balance but stay involved in the their lives. Question them about the books they are reading, support them in their sports, plays, and a capella groups. Encourage your sons and daughters to take some risks in their studies. But give them the space to find themselves and to chart for themselves a path for the future. Experience tells us students will not excel in everything they do in college, but they will excel in most of what they choose to do. Students will be happy and healthy if the life choices they are making are choices they have made for themselves. And fundamentally, while we all want our children to be successful in what they set out to do, our real dream is simply that they be happy, confident, and healthy individuals ready for their role in a complex society.
Let me leave you with one final thought. About 100 years ago, Bowdoin's seventh president, William DeWitt Hyde, wrote a book titled "The College Man and The College Woman," in which he offered advice to students as they considered college and the opportunities awaiting them.
As preface to the book, Hyde wrote "The Offer of the College." "The Offer," as we call it, has become the mission statement of Bowdoin College but it is genuinely applicable to all of you who are about to take this next important step in your lives.
I leave you then with "The Offer of the College," both for its message and the pure simplicity in describing the adventure awaiting you.
TO BE AT HOME in all lands and all ages;
To count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
And Art an intimate friend;
To gain a standard for the appreciation of others' work
And the criticism of your own;
To carry the keys of the world's library in your pocket,
And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
To make hosts of friends...
Who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
To lose yourself in generous enthusiasms
And cooperate with others for common ends -
This is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.
This elegant statement by Hyde says it all, reminding us of the importance of liberal education, the importance of our environment, the global nature of our society, our commitment to the arts, our responsibility to be serious, and the essential nature of critical thinking and debate in a respectful, but direct manner. Hyde encourages us to be leaders-fearless and principled learners-in support of common ends. I hope these words from Hyde, like the mission of this great Academy, will serve as an inspiration to you. I wish you all the best as you embark on the best four years of your life-a life lost in generous enthusiasms.
Congratulations and Godspeed to the class of 2010.