Congratulations to the class of 2021! You made it! This is no small achievement. Did you know that only half of the students who started at a private college four years ago are graduating this year? For public colleges and universities, the rate is one-third. You are not only survivors, but also success stories.
But you didn’t achieve this success alone. Think of your families, faculty, friends and others who supported you along the way.
Graduation is a time of celebration, for sure. It’s also a time to reflect on what it took to get here, what you will do in your tomorrows and how you’ll repay those who helped — how you’ll justify their faith in you.
Today isn’t the end of the journey to becoming more fully human. It isn’t the beginning, either. It is a point, a marker, on your path to fulfillment. Think of your markers: first day, last day, this day. The day you started, the day you knew you had reached this milestone, and today, when you’ve donned cap and gown, signifying academic achievement.
While you majored in a subject, you learned that knowledge can’t be boxed, that problems require an interdisciplinary approach. You learned, we hope, that an open mind is an analytical mind, a mind that knows the differences among fact, faith and fear; empirical evidence, epiphany and emotion, especially prejudice.
We hope that you reflect on the fundamental elements of advanced education. It consists of history — that is, what came before, whether in politics or science. We hope that your historical approach is open to 1619, and that date’s importance in U.S. history, when enslaved people from Africa were first brought to this land, as well as to 1916, and its significance to women’s rights and national governance. We hope that your studies have ignored neither George Floyd nor Lloyd George, both significant in world history.
We hope that your education fostered the development of your imagination, the ability to ask “Why?” and “Why not?” and the inclination to ask “What about?” Through literature, drama, poetry, painting and other arts, we develop these abilities to wonder and form new ideas, new images and new concepts. Do not let creativity end with your diploma.
Your education has also fostered compassion. By this I mean not just sympathy, feeling sorry for others, and not just empathy, imagining yourself in someone else’s circumstances. I mean compassion, the ability to do something to help others, to make a difference in society.
The fourth dimension of this education that you take with you is reflection, the ability and inclination to think deeply and carefully, to ask, “What can I learn from this experience?” or “Why did this happen?” or “What could I have done better or more of?” To reflect is to consider what values mean the most to you. Surely, trust, integrity and commitment will be on your list. What about civic engagement and community service?
During your time in college, we have witnessed the power of social justice movements. We have been reminded often of the importance of equal justice and just laws. We have witnessed the wisdom of science, we have celebrated the commitment of health care workers and we have become more aware of those vulnerable neighbors who serve in our cafeterias, restaurants, restrooms and hallways. They, too, deserve our respect and compassion. They have inspired us to ask, “What more can I do?”
The pandemic has provoked opportunities to consider issues of fairness, equity and justice. Many learned for the first time that the diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints matters. They learned that multiple voices could contribute to more innovative solutions, and that character is more important than skin color.
The shutdown and remote learning reinforced the need for self-reliance and resilience, and the fact that you can be alone without feeling lonely. You succeeded because you learned how to learn on your own as well as in groups, a lesson that should last a lifetime.
So, graduates, on this day, remember that learning never stops, even if the grading system changes. Remember to listen before responding, to consider facts and alternatives before accepting someone’s explanation and to understand another’s point of view before reacting. We hope you will have the confidence to know that even if we couldn’t teach you everything, we aspired to help you learn anything. That is our mission and commitment.
Dr. Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University and author of “How University Boards Work” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2018, Eric Hoffer awardee, 2019).