Baccalaureate 2011 Address
May 27, 2011
We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to begin officially our Commencement activities — the time when we honor and say farewell to the members of the Class of 2011 who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.
It is a time for celebrating all that you—our seniors—have accomplished, and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on Bowdoin’s proud traditions, particularly our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education and our commitment to serving the common good.
It has been my custom at Baccalaureate to speak to important issues affecting our College generally. Today I continue that tradition, but with a special focus on our graduating seniors. Next week, Karen and I will be in the same position as the parents here today. Our son, Henry, graduates from Williams College next Sunday, and we, like all of you, are filled with anticipation about the future of our college graduate.
Let me begin with an observation:
"To anyone who teaches or works at the College, it is apparent that… students are working very hard to master their undergraduate program of studies and to gain entrance to the increasingly competitive ranks of graduate study and employment after college. The recent downturn of the economy and the overcrowding of many professional fields have forced students to give careful attention to their career plans. The Dean of Students reports that during the year, the concern for personal survival in a highly competitive world emerged as a major motif of student discussion."
These are not my words — they were written by Bowdoin's tenth president, Roger Howell, on May 9, 1972, and they describe perfectly the world that I graduated into in the spring of that year.
These were very complicated days back in the early 70s, with our country engaged in another war that was tearing at the fabric of our country. Like so many in my time, I graduated from Bowdoin without a clear sense of my future. My career path is well documented here at Bowdoin—from biologist to corporate lawyer to college president—but suffice it to say that I was in school for a long time after Bowdoin, and nearly 30 years old before I got my first real job. My parents were convinced that I was going to try meteorology school next just to avoid going to work!
I’m not suggesting that the situation I faced nearly 40 years ago is identical to the very challenging job market and graduate and professional school environment students face today. For one thing, we know that, nationally, this generation of students is graduating with very burdensome debt. The Wall Street Journal reported on May 7th that the Class of 2011 in America will graduate with the most debt of any college class in history. At Bowdoin, we are pleased to have a policy that has eliminated loans from our financial aid packages, replacing those loans with Bowdoin grants. I apologize to the Class of 2011, for they benefitted from this policy for only three years. Adopted in the fall of 2008, this policy is very important to our graduates as they make life choices after Bowdoin. Many of our students will, at some point, attend graduate or professional schools that are expensive and that carry debt burdens that can be very high. We are very proud that so many of our students can make those careful choices without the burden of debt incurred at Bowdoin.
Many of you know that among the many roles I play at the College is that of rogue consultant to the Career Planning Center. I meet with many students over their four years to talk about life after Bowdoin, and I am visited in particular by many seniors. These conversations are a quite a bit more direct and perhaps a little less comfortable for our students, as I relate my own job experiences to help them think about their future. So, for instance, last week I met with a student who wanted me to review his resume. I asked him if the message he sought to send to employers is that he has a passion for social activism. Make no mistake; this is an impressive and worthwhile passion. I just wanted to make sure this is what he intended. I met with another student genuinely confused after four years of preparation for medical school—did he really want to be a doctor? And, I meet often with students not at all sure what they want to do, but absolutely certain they want to “make a difference” in our world, especially in the realm of public policy. (To these students I suggest gently they might want to gain some experience before they charge off to set policy!). The range of ambitions of our students is impressive.
I enjoy these conversations and my sense is, the students find them valuable. So, since not all of you have come to visit me, let me briefly take you through the advice.
Imagine you are walking down the hall in Hawthorne Longfellow Hall to my office where almost four years ago you came to sign the matriculation book. I assure you that you will find a job even if you don’t have one yet. I meet with many of our alumni over the year or two after they graduate from school, and nearly all have found good work or are enrolled in graduate or professional school. In large measure, this success is due to the Bowdoin network. Bowdoin graduates are devoted to this College and they are eager to help. When I was a lawyer in New York City, I would always meet with any person who graduated from Bowdoin or was from my home state of Rhode Island. I believe it is this networking that allows our graduates to find their start more readily than many others. So, I encourage our students to go out and meet Bowdoin alumni and parents. My encouragement is quite specific and I remind them to meet the folks prepared with what they want to say and informed about what they do. This is about personal contact, not just sending an email expecting a job offer to be conveyed through the computer. You have to go out and make personal connections. The alum might not hire you, but they will likely help, and you will have a new friend and maybe a mentor. This is the strength of our Bowdoin community.
Now, it is quite likely you will change jobs several times over your career, especially in these early years after college. My advice is to find a job where you will learn and get experience. Not everyone will be in a position to cure cancer right out of college, so the goal is to go someplace and work hard. It is possible you will be asked to wash windows or beakers, set schedules, organize pitch books—even collate, fold and staple—and you may very well wonder why a Bowdoin education was necessary.
But the fact is that each of you is talented, and that will be recognized. You’ll gain more responsibility, and you’ll be on your way. In the meantime, it is important to get started with the right attitude. Leave your ego at the door—or better yet, locked up in your apartment. That is a hallmark of a Bowdoin person, and when you do it, your talents will quickly be evident.
I also ask students to think about taking a risk. Many of these young men and women have quite an entrepreneurial spirit and I encourage them to put themselves out there. Consulting is a great job, but creating a business is a great job too. Working at a start-up business where there isn’t much security is something to consider. Just ask the two young men from the Class of 2004 who created a very successful apparel business right after graduating from Bowdoin! Or the guy I met just two days ago who with three other Bowdoin young alums started a fly fishing reel manufacturing operation! Our country needs entrepreneurs and innovators, and this is actually a great time for taking these risks.
And while you’re at it, think about going global! Take a job internationally, it is much easier at this state than when life gets more complicated.
My overall message is one about doing something where you learn, where you continue to grow, and where you are always open to new opportunities. For so many of us, life is serendipity, but we also appreciate the truism that those who work hard create good fortune for themselves.
I also remind our students that, in most cases, it will be important for them to think about more education. The truth is that it can be very difficult to make the impact they desire without this additional education and, candidly, the credential it provides. That said, I also often encourage people to take the time to gain some other life experience before heading back to school. And I encourage them to think about whether the debt they will incur is worth the opportunity they have in graduate or professional school.
Finally the last three pieces of advice I offer that I think are important throughout your career:
Be fact-based, analytical and the most prepared person in the room. All Bowdoin grads are powerfully smart, but it isn’t enough to be the smartest person in the room. To have the impact our students desire, they have to be the most prepared, analytical, and imaginative person in the room. At Bowdoin we are about education, so I remind them always to do their homework.
I tell them to be willing to be the one to write the first draft, create the first proposal or design, prepare the first plan. The power of the pen, the keyboard, or maybe Dragon speak, is profound. The simple exercise of putting your ideas into words sharpens your ideas. And, often the first person to take the initiative can importantly control the outcome.
And, finally, I tell them to be true to themselves and their values. Success, in my view, is largely being “comfortable in your own skin.” You will be faced in your personal and professional lives with difficult problems. Be genuine. Be true to the values you grew up with that have now been informed by your time at Bowdoin. Serving the Common Good is not a Bowdoin experience, it is a life lesson. And at Bowdoin we expect you will grow not just to be a leader—but also a principled leader.
At this point, most students have heard enough. I give them three to five specific suggestions of things to do or people to meet. We shake hands, and as they walk down the hall, I think about their future and Bowdoin’s future as we stand here in their reflected glory.
Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty: Thank you all for your dedication to your students, to your scholarship, and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research, and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the fall.
To our dedicated and fantastic staff: Thank you!
To our graduating seniors we wish you all the very best as you prepare to leave Brunswick. We are proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you on the Quad tomorrow morning.
Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with “The Offer of the College,” those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:
“…to make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends.”
To the Class of 2011—you future artists, leaders, statesmen, and stateswomen—to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come, I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.