The following address was delivered by Dr. Dan Vasey at the 2010 Commencement exercises on Saturday, May 15, 2010
WHEN COMMENCEMENT ADDRESSES COME TRUE
When Father Hutchins invited me to give the address, I was, in order, surprised, delighted, and then wary when I thought of the graduations I have attended, the crowds focused on the speakers.
And I thought of our graduates, who have persevered, studied, self-examined, and made slices of other cultures their own. How could I grasp the moment? For that matter, why do we have commencement speakers? The occasion could stand on its own, thank you.
Perplexed, a bit concerned, I did what the 21st century commands, googled and found 380,000 web sites. One recommended, never use statistics. Sorry. Far more common was this simple recommendation: say something new.
Every spring thousands of addresses sound through colleges and universities across the nation and abroad. Over the years and by my rough estimate, they have numbered more than two million. And I should say something new.
The advice continued, avoid clichés. Beware themes that repetition has left as limp as microwaved lettuce. Purge them.
That sounded wise. Motivated, I studied speeches and the complaints of people who have heard too many. Here are the most frequent offenders, the themes that cause eyes to roll, or worse—shut.
· Life is a journey, so live your dream.
· Share your education and make a difference.
· This is a wonderful time to be young.
· Life is not about to get easier; you’ll soon wish that all you had to worry about were exams and papers.
· Your education is not ending; it’s just—everyone help me—beginning.
Thus forewarned, determined to live up to this invitation, rising from my computer with raised head and clenched fist, I vowed, avoid building a speech around any one of those wrinkled veterans. Instead I shall use all of them.
After all, each is good advice and must have seemed helpful and stimulating the first time it rang across an auditorium. They just need a little tailoring for graduates of a seminary college. And so I’ll try a few variations.
My message is that wherever you go, however you pursue what you take from Divine Word, each nugget applies especially to you. Hopefully tired advice can find new life.
Life is a journey. You already know that, and the understanding brought you here. If you measured education by the size of waiting paychecks, life away from the classroom by fantasy football or chug-a-lug contests won, you would have gone elsewhere. Here you entered into guided formation, went on retreats, reflected, and shared your thoughts, doubts, puzzlements and certainties with your peers.
You found two buildings on a tree-studded campus, with a view of a highway and cornfields, nothing spectacular, but everything pleasing. Here you met other journeyers, many of whom had come far in physical distance, crossing cultural boundaries.
And you stayed, having discovered a place that suited you, that would steer you into becoming what you want to be.
Consider how unusual this institution is. Other colleges develop majors to meet new demands, maintain placement services, sponsor internships and host job fairs, but few, if any, match Divine Word for preparation. On entry our students begin a process of discerning whether a single end, mission service, is for them.
Where they go from here is not obvious while they study. Over the years I have known freshmen who expressed doubt, but ended up graduating, many taking their vows. One or two whom I could picture in a heavy-metal band, wearing black leather and spiked hair, now wear vestments.
What is my advice to graduates? Continue. You have evolved a plan and are living it. Make the rest come true. Don’t just glow when you can throw sparks.
Share your education. Apply what you have gained. Those who take their vows, share. Those who enter cultures new to you, removed in multiple ways from Iowa fields and from the streets or paths where you grew up, serve.
You have studied where sharing and service are integral parts of education and formation. Students do apostolic service at Hills and Dales and other good places that welcome the help. During breaks some have volunteered for community service in Indianapolis or Appalachia. None that I know of go to Cancun to party.
Be actors in communities, not just watchers. In that capacity your skills will serve you and others well. You have learned second hand from scholars past and present, knowledge they gained through hard quests, but if we have done our job, you have gained respect for everyday wisdom, often based on principles different from what you knew growing up.
You may work where people communicate by speaking and looking into each other’s eyes, without typing, and memory refers to the human kind, to gigabytes the elders carry in their heads. Although there may be Internet cafes, and a few I-whatevers may occupy palms and busy fingers, people take time to pass along news, and know each other’s moods from reading hands and faces.
For all that the virtual world offers—flying a space ship, swelling to 400 pounds of rippling muscle fibers and wrestling in a flaming pit—it can never match the real world, where you might baptize twins in a Papua New Guinean village, cap a weeklong Vietnamese wedding by celebrating mass, or go from a lay job to build a house for a homeless family, thus continuing the habit of service Divine Word has reinforced in you.
This is a wonderful time to be young. When is it not? When I graduated college, people were heading to the moon. Whether this time is better than those when other graduating classes heard the same words, I cannot say. Yet that does not fault the advice.
Consider this logic. When things go well, you can share the joy, bounce the children and dance. When hard times come, where tragedies leave behind despair and crying mothers, youth are the first voice of optimism and bear the load of recovery.
From priests and brothers, people expect hope. From college graduates there should be leadership. Give both, and you make wonderful the days when you are young, then middle-aged, then old.
Come back with or without a good reason to Divine Word College, keep in touch with your classmates—it’s easy to do these days—and go to reunions now and then. Your peers, wherever they have gone, will surprise and challenge you.
Life is not about to get easier. I hate to bear bad news, but it’s true. When I finished college classes, we loitered on the grass in a New Jersey sun not yet too warm, spoke of our relief and watched with pity the underclassmen who walked past. No longer would we go to a table-filled gym twice a year and scramble to register for classes before they filled and closed.
When evening approached, we filtered away. Soon many went to war.
Let us expect peace, but even if it endures, out there are pink slips, tax audits, old friends who stop returning calls, underwater mortgages, law suits, feuding parishioners and termites eating the church, to name a few of the scourges waiting for you. Try reading a stack of exams and papers some time. And you thought three finals in one day constitutes a tragedy.
Many of the students at this college know real adversity. Because they have marched far, waited long in immigration limbo and experienced losses, they know the trials the world imposes. They know that preparation can head off many tribulations, but not all of them.
Divine Word College has given you the base, readied you to make the most of life. Take it, and use it well.
Your education is beginning. Indeed it will continue while the diploma still carries a warm hand-print. Whenever I hear someone make too hard a distinction between book-learning and lessons gained outside the classroom, I detect a person who has learned too little in either place.
Nowhere more than at this college does the living experience among varied cultures integrate more with classroom learning. Nowhere does information better combine with a personal search.
Why would that end on a Saturday morning in May?
When do you stop learning a language? The day when you acquire no new word or twist on an old phrase would be a day when you have hidden. You will not shut your eyes to art, your ears to music. Philosophy and science, you now realize, answer a question by posing another. The goal of the Cross-Cultural Studies programs is to make you informed citizens of the world, not intellectual dropouts. Spiritual formation is a process, not a product.
Do not sit on what you have learned. Be creative. Try new metaphors. Spread joy the way a sheepdog sheds hair.
The College has given you knowledge and honed your skills at finding more. Both matter.
Think about what you would want in a pilot or physician who safeguards your life. It would be someone who carries a wealth of information, understands the meaning and knows where to go to learn more. Accept that the tools of discovery you have gained will become outdated. Thanks to the efforts you have already made, upgrading will be easy.
It is no different with the information people give you firsthand. Failure to ask is the reason people fail to learn. A liberal arts education hones your ability to inquire, providing the critical skills to dig and question.
When a meteor crosses the sky on an August night, stop and watch for a shower. Think chunks of metal or stone whose eccentric orbits brought them into Earth’s atmosphere at speeds measured in tens of miles traveled every second. Ask what your companions think, listen to their stories of when the heavens met the earth.
Learning atrophies if its integration with life ends, thrives the more you connect principles with surprises. So dissect what you encounter, seek understanding, but retain your awe.
There it is; commencement themes never grow too old, and the addresses come true if you live them. Enact your dream, share your thoughts and labors, grow, meet the hardest tasks with determination, and never stop learning.
And keep in touch; 10,000 miles is not so far.