Bowdoin's Baccalaureate Ceremony Officially Concludes Academic YearPublished by Rebecca Goldfine
President Clayton Rose, who presided over the event, noted that in the weeks preceding this moment, he had wondered how to make the last Baccalaureate of his presidency a memorable one. His son suggested he be shot out of a canon.
"His idea caused my mind to wander," Rose said, and he thought about the feasibility of zip lining from Hubbard or wrestling a polar bear. He at last settled on sharing with the graduating class what was on his mind.
"I hope you’ll set aside some time to reflect on what exactly it is that you’ve accomplished here," he said, clarifying that he didn't just mean academics, artistic work, athletics, or service.
In the pandemic, "almost every person everywhere had their lives upended and every organization around the world was seriously impacted," Rose said. "So many families were affected, including many here."
Taking classes online and having one's college years upended "wasn’t just unfair, it was brutally hard, and it took its toll on everyone, here at Bowdoin and across the globe," he continued. "In addition, during this time the issues confronting our society and the world grew and worsened: political discord, cultural discord, book banning, the climate emergency, the normalization of identity-based and faith-based hate, among others.."
Then he paused before saying, "Now at this point you’re thinking, man, Clayton you are a serious buzzkill."
His point, he said, was not to rehash hard times, but rather to urge the seniors to "think about all that you’ve overcome and all that you’ve become as a result. It is amazing."
"While not a single one of us wished for the any of this, the truth is that you are tougher, more resilient, more savvy, and more capable as a result of what you’ve had to face and overcome, and you should have a powerful sense of your ability to deal with and prevail over what comes next.
"Because of this, with all of you poised to lead and make change, I am incredibly optimistic about our future."
Student Speaker Sarah Lührmann ’23: “Bowdoin, Our Compass”
Each year, a student speaker for Baccalaureate is selected after submitting an essay for consideration. Lührmann's entry, "Bowdoin, Our Compass," was chosen out of the pool this year, an honor that comes with the DeAlva Stanwood Alexander First Prize.
In her remarks—which earned her a prolonged standing ovation from the audience—Lührmann reminisced about the first time she set foot on Bowdoin's campus as a first-generation international student. "I arrived with a suitcase, a sleeping bag, and the sinking feeling that my lack of bed sheets signaled to the entire world that I was missing a crucial map for navigating college."
Now she knows it's likely she was not alone in feeling as if she were missing some important directions. "I realize in retrospect that many of you, whether you share my first-gen identity or not, have experiences that resonate with mine and maps that did not feel sufficient when you first came to Bowdoin."
There were times, too, when she knew the community as a whole desperately needed a map, or even better, a compass. "From enduring the pandemic to navigating the losses of our friends and classmates, the Bowdoin community needed more than a fixed map. Compasses are adept at calibrating to the magnetic fluctuations that are life, using them as reference points, just like I found myself using the Bowdoin values when I needed direction."
She continued: "When I think of my compass, I think of the beekeeping articles my favorite dining-hall swiper Doug shared with me, the kindness of Thanksgiving invitations pouring in every year from those who knew I would spend it alone otherwise, and the classmates that graciously shared the secrets of their maps with me...," she said. "These points of interconnection are what I hope we can take away from here as we are gearing up to face the challenges of this new, post-Brunswick part of our lives."
Baccalaureate Speaker Janet Yang: "Creating the Narrative of Your Life"
Yang, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was one of this year's five Bowdoin honorands. She was elected president in August 2022 following a long record of service to the Academy and is the first Asian American to hold the position.
In her humorous, thoughtful, and warm address, Yang shared some of her life story, saying she understands her biography and achievements "have become a symbol and a beacon of hope for others, especially women, especially people of color, but maybe less obviously, hopefully also for those who feel any uncertainty in their lives, who don’t feel they exactly fit in a box."
She began by recalling her mother's youth in Hunan, China, where her mother gained permission to study in the US at the University of Michigan. There she met Yang's father. But when the revolution swept through China in 1949, their funding was cut off. Scrambling to make a life in the US essentially as refugees, they moved to Queens, New York, where Yang's mother got a job in the United Nations. "Growing up, I had no sense of their agonizing decisions and little sense of their past," Yang said.
Yang's family was the only Asian one in a Jewish suburb. And Yang recalled dreading the walk down the bus aisle where children would tease her by "exaggeratedly slanting up their eyes, and chanting 'ching chang chung, chicken chow mein' or something like that."
"For myself, I stood in front of the mirror and did the opposite of what the bullies did and tried to massage my eyes into a wider and rounder shape, as if that was the key to belonging," she said.
In the early 1970s, Yang's parents sent her to a prep school in New Hampshire, where, for the first time, she met diverse people. She also traveled to China for the first time in 1972. "After packing suitcases full of rice and cloth for our relatives, I found myself in this very ancient, very poor, very populated country that was nothing like anything I had ever experienced."
The family reunion in China brought laughter, tears, chatter, and many stories. Her curiosity about the country grew into an obsession, and in 1980, after graduating from college, she moved to Beijing. "After a lifetime of being singled out as a minority, feeling the weight of scrutiny and anxiety around prejudice, I found it comforting to be in the majority," she said.
But she remembers being horrified once when she watched a busload of American tourists and felt scorn for them, much like many of the Chinese people around her did.
"The brilliant writer Noah Yuval Harrari, in his book Sapiens, ever insightful about human nature, discusses how the very thing that distinguishes our species is that we are compelled to believe what others around us believe...," she said. "Our beliefs are a very powerful force, and can also be a very destructive one."
While she was in China, she also fell in love with Chinese films, filed with "three-dimensional characters who struggled, loved, lost, and gained. Growing up, I simply never had that. And now for the first time, through these movies, I felt seen, heard, valued."
"My excitement in seeing these films came with the realization that I had been carrying deep-seated biases about my own race. With only the most negligible or negative roles of us presented on screen, I subconsciously absorbed the belief that we were not worth being seen unless we were evil seductresses or subservient butlers or nerdy friends. These new Chinese films empowered me to believe that we could tell our own stories and be more than unsavory background characters."
"Empowered and emboldened by seeing these larger-than-life images on screen, I wanted others to have the same experience,' she said.
Returning to the states and living in San Francisco, California, Yang took a job running a theater in Chinatown showing new Chinese cinema.
Then an executive at Universal Studios approached her, asking whether she would help him develop the Chinese film market. "I was suddenly planted in an office at Universal City, now connecting Chinese audiences to American films," she said. "I once again personally witnessed how films were creating palpable bridges between the two nations."
Fast forward a bit, and one day Steven Spielberg came calling. He asked Yang to help him make a movie in China—the great Empire of the Sun. "He heard I was the only one who traversed China and Hollywood," she said. She was hired on a gigantic production with 5,000 extras in Shanghai, working with a great director. "I of course had no business being there... except for all the 'impractical' things I did that led up to it."
Three-and-a-half decades and sixteen movies later, Yang said "my mission and fundamental values to bring underrepresented voices to the fore, and increase empathy through film, have been the steady drumbeat of my work." She's been involved in producing The Joy Luck Club, Dark Matter, Shanghai Calling, Over the Moon, and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
But amid those successes, there have been "flops, or fade-aways." "And that is true of just about every creative path—the line is not a straight one, but more often jagged or dotted or fuzzy," she said.
"That is what I call, maybe euphemistically, the creative path. It is one that all of you can follow in designing your lives," she said, adding that she believes underlying any creative journey are curiosity, courage, collaboration, and calling.
"My wish for you...is that your creation is filled with joy, truth, purpose, and love, and that in the process, you are able to help lift humanity," she concluded.
The audience was led through renditions of “America the Beautiful” and “Raise Songs to Bowdoin” by vocalists from the Class of 2023 and pianist George Lopez, Robert Beckwith Artist-in-Residence.