The following is a speech that I was invited to give to graduating seniors at the pre-graduation awards ceremony known as Convocation. If you’re not at UMW, some of the inside jokes will not make as much sense so I’ve included some links or annotations).
May 11, 2012
Thank you for that introduction, Austin, and thanks to the Senior Class Officers for this opportunity to talk to the graduating class of 2012, and our honored guests, family and friends.
As Austin mentioned, four years ago I was the first faculty member to talk to all you graduating seniors as a class of UMW students [as part of the opening Honor Code ceremony]; I’m honored to be the last faculty member to do so before you walk tomorrow.
Four years ago I told you all about my own Honor Convocation. Four years ago we were preparing for a presidential election, much as we are today. Four years ago I talked about having iPhone envy; now it’s iPad envy.
In the last four years, Facebook gained hundreds of millions of users, tens of billions of dollars, its own tell-all movie, and, very recently, a few questionable UMW Grad Ball pictures. In the last four years, Twitter became so mainstream that President Hurley has an account (though I wish he’d stop competing with Lady Gaga for followers—it’s getting embarrassing). In the last four years, we saw the beginning and the end of Kim Kardashian’s marriage, but sadly not the end of her 15 minutes of fame.
On a more serious note, as a class you’ve witnessed a nation involved in multiple wars/conflicts; you’ve seen a world coping with man-made disasters of massive oil spills and natural disasters of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic ash; you’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and of the Occupy Movement; and the so-called Great Recession has, more or less, spanned your time here.
Of course, you all have been busy these four years as well. A few weeks ago, I asked you for your favorite UMW memories. Hundreds of you responded and for that I thank you. I was moved by your passion for this school and for your time here.
When I asked what three things you would most remember about your time at UMW, several items stood out. Your professors, your campus, your friends, your community, your Honor.
Several of you asked me to convey to your families “the essence of UMW and why [you] love it here: the honor code, the beauty of campus, the [caring] professors, the engaged classmates, knowing so many people as [you] walk down campus walk.”
Whether it was playing on Ball Circle, lounging in the big white chairs, fountain swimming, eating at Seaco or McDonalds or Hyperion, watching or joining UMW sports, or studying in the library, you told me of “Good friends, good times, and good memories.”
A number of you remarked on the visit by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama to campus in the fall of 2008.
Others remembered how distraught you were to have classes cancelled during Snowpocalypse 2010’s 50+ inches of ice and snow.
[The student in the laundry basket seems particularly distraught, no?]
Several of you commented on the constant state of campus construction; others talked about the change in University presidents. One of you combined the two, remembering that some presidents came, started construction (including some really nice book cases) and then went. [Actually quite a few of you remarked on how wonderful and approachable President and Mrs. Hurley are.]
Over and over, you told me about the power of the time spent in your department, your academic community, of your close relationships with faculty and fellow majors, of the process of “Mentors…becoming friends”. Many of you wrote of being challenged by rigorous professors, about the discomfort and benefits of trying out new things, about how much you learned when operating out of your comfort zone, even if you weren’t able to do it easily.
Now, students who have taken my classes know that I have a phrase to describe that sweet spot in which real learning occurs: uncomfortable, but not paralyzed. The comments you all made reflect that your UMW experiences were full of these moments of uncomfortable learning, real learning. Scary at times, yes, but if you were ever paralyzed you knew you could turn to faculty and friends and family to help you through it.
Even more importantly, you’ve learned to handle that discomfort of new things on your own. As one of you noted: “I think part of becoming sure of yourself is not always being given advice but finding your own way.” So, like your fellow student who began four years ago as a pre-dental, bio major who became an art major and will soon be an art teacher, you all have found your own way, tried new things, and learned about yourself and the world around you.
Tomorrow you will walk in front of your families, your friends, and your faculty. I, as many people have done and will do over the next few weeks, asked about your plans after college.
You told me of plans for graduate schools or jobs or internships or taking time off.
But one of you challenged the simplicity of the question itself, saying, “instead try and imagine a life that will forever change, evolve, adapt, revolt and challenge the complex conventions of life that are so commonly reduced to a series of words.” I like that reminder that graduation is just the beginning, not the end, of figuring out who you are, what you believe in, what you do.
Now, when I asked what else you wanted to hear about in this speech, many of you asked me to inspire you, to tell you it was going to be okay, to tell you that life after college would be good.
So…in order to do all of those things, I’m going to tell you about moving back in with my parents.
Four years ago I told you about how amazing it was to walk across the stage in Ball Circle in 1994.
I didn’t mention, that after walking across the stage and shaking the president’s hand, as you’ll do tomorrow, I walked back to Alvey Hall, packed up my things and moved back home. I had been conflicted my senior year about what I was going to do after college. For a while I was sure that I would become a minister. That didn’t work out, though it was not because, as one student recently suggested, of any youthful indiscretions on my part. [Honestly the student in question seemed disappointed that I wasn’t that cool.]
Instead I applied to graduate school in history. Now, in retrospect, I realize that I didn’t know how to present myself or my time at Mary Washington; I didn’t tap into the resources on campus. I didn’t make the case, as I should have, as you should, that the liberal arts & sciences at Mary Washington had helped to create me as an adaptable, engaged, well-rounded citizen, a critical thinker eager and able to continue learning throughout my life. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was only accepted at one of the six schools to which I applied. Without any funding, it wasn’t something that I could make work.
So, moving back in with my parents (who are wonderful, wonderful people, as your parents undoubtedly are), I went back to working at a movie theatre making minimum wage, a movie theatre I had worked at in high school. I had some moments where I wondered what I had done with my four years of amazing time at MW.
I interviewed for a few jobs, though none of them worked out. I did turn down a chance to manage a movie theatre for the princely sum of ~$300/week and all the popcorn I could eat. Instead, I offered to volunteer on one of the first digital history projects and ultimately was hired as a paid employee.
With this experience under my belt, and with the help of my professors here I applied again to graduate school, this time to 11 schools, getting into six, including a fully funded scholarship to Johns Hopkins University’s History PhD program. Within four years I was back teaching here at this place we all love.
[Oh, and though I didn’t know it when I graduated 18 years ago, I’d already met the fellow Mary Washington student who I would somehow figure out how to propose to while in graduate school, the woman I’ve now been married to for 15 years.]
I tell you all of this, not because I think you should follow my path (my wife is already married), but because I want you to know that it’s okay not to know yet what your path is. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, but don’t be paralyzed.
Some of you have jobs. Congratulations. Some of you are already set for graduate school in the fall. Congratulations. Some of you are planning to work, then go to graduate school later. Congratulations. But even if you don’t have a job yet, and you’re not alone if you don’t, congratulations. Why? Because historically, liberal arts and sciences graduates may take longer to get their first job, but are more likely to hang on to jobs and to adapt as fields change.
Know as well, that for some people, not going to graduate school, not getting a job immediately is the right choice. You have fellow graduates who are planning to backpack in Latin America, or to work for volunteer organizations, people who are excited by the chance to do something different. Try being uncomfortable, just don’t let yourself be paralyzed.
Four years ago, I told many of you that you were entering an academic community of scholars, engaging in a partnership in learning with me and with my colleagues. You have done so. You have thrived, you have grown, you have joined us in an academic enterprise of consequence.
As you walk across that stage in Ball Circle, know that we, your professors, are proud of you and all that you have achieved. Know that we are grateful for the time we have spent with you and hope that you have felt challenged, inspired, and ultimately rewarded by your time with us. Know that we look forward to hearing of your opportunities, successes, and accomplishments in the years to come. No matter where you go, or what you do, you will always be alums of Mary Washington. That community lasts a lifetime.
So, go, be uncomfortable in new jobs, new internships, new business ventures, new schools, traveling to new places, or even with just a new attitude in your old room at home. Be okay with being uncomfortable, because that’s where the real learning, the real change, the real fun is. And come back and tell me in 18 years how it all turns out.
Thanks to Tim O’Donnell and Carter Hudgins for their help/inspiration on earlier versions of this. Thanks as well to the hundreds of 2012 UMW graduates who responded to my request for feedback, information, and memories of their time at Mary Washington. I included as many of their words and ideas as possible here.
- Word clouds from Wordle.net, based on response from hundreds of 2012 UMW Graduating Seniors.
- Obama Visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/panandrao/
- Snowpocalypse Collage: Heather Thompson, Jenn Arndt; http://umwbullet.com/files/2010/02/igloo-300×201.jpg; http://fourword.umwblogs.org/files/2011/01/DSC_1325.jpg
- 1993 graduation photo: http://archive.umw.edu:8080/vital/access/HandleResolver/10154/1459
- 2012 Ball Circle photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/7174181426/