President Will's address

Greetings and Charge to the Class of 2008
May 18, 2008
Katherine Haley Will


•    Good morning, and welcome to the one hundred and seventy-third commencement exercise of Gettysburg College.

•    It is my pleasure to greet you today and to draw your attention to our graduating class, the young men and women before you who are about to receive their bachelor’s degrees.

•    I love ceremonies, especially graduations, and this particular graduation is very special to me. This is my class. These students and I arrived at Gettysburg within a couple of months of each other.

•    This amazing place never feels better than it does on a day like today—when families, faculty, alumni, distinguished guests, friends, and trustees come together to celebrate our graduates—extraordinary young people who will go forth from Gettysburg and use their educations to help change the world.

•    The ceremonial nature of this occasion connects us to a centuries-old chain of human discovery and accomplishment. Virtually all parts of our commencement ceremony have been handed down from the Middle Ages. This medieval regalia that we wear, and the colors that identify our academic specialties and alma maters remain faithful to the academic customs of the Middle Ages.

•    This year for perhaps the first time in Gettysburg’s long and distinguished history we have two people on our platform who wear academic robes to receive honorary degrees but who also wore robes in their professional lives—Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Reverend Rudolph Featherstone, class of 1956. These robes are nothing new for them.

•    Gettysburg College has been conferring degrees for nearly two centuries, but our first graduating classes did not wear caps and gowns.

•    At that very first graduation in 1834, degrees were awarded to three students—Misters Smith, Bacon and Barnitz—who were among the first students enrolled in 1828 in the Gettysburg Gymnasium, or “Prep,” as it was widely known.

•    Our only record of that first commencement is a letter from the valedictorian of that class—David Grier Barnitz—to his sister Mary.

•    I’d like to read a small section of that letter, which provides an interesting mental image of that historic occasion and how it contrasts with today’s celebration.

•    “We met at the college at nine in the morning and proceeded from there to the Lutheran Church. If I had the pen of a Cooper or some other great character, I would commense by telling you how the bright morning sun shone on our new black suits and made them shine like satin. By the bye my suit was
splendid. It was of black $10.00 cloth. The coat fit like a ribbon and the nether extremities as tight as the shin. You must imagine how well I looked.

•    We went to the church and a Latin Salutatory was delivered by William Smith, an oration on the Greek language and literature by Jacob B. Bacon, and the Valedictory by your humble servant. Smith and Bacon did very well, and so did I.

•    The audience was drowned in tears, and so abundant was the discharge of pearly drops that the next day I was obliged to pay the sexton for wiping up the tears from the floor. We had excellent music for the occasion by the college band.

•    Mother, Jan, Aunt Jane, & Grandmother were there to hear us. Grandmother was almost tickled to death. She said the music was “heavenly,” and so were the speeches. We are the first graduates of Pennsylvania College, and I assure we are a fair specimen. We gained a great honour and a diploma.”

•    The clothing, music and location may have changed, but I think our graduates also consider themselves “fair specimens.”

•    And so do we. They have accomplished much during their years at Gettysburg, and they are well on their way to becoming educated persons.

•    This education has been the work of many: Our faculty have taught, mentored, coached, and cared about this class. Please join me in expressing your appreciation for the great work they have accomplished during your four years.

•    Our Gettysburg College Board of Trustees gives generously of their time, talents, and resources to ensure that the College provides students with a world-class liberal arts experience. Please join me in giving a hand to our trustees for everything they do.

•    And your families. Your parents, siblings, extended family members, and friends. They have cheered you on, supported you, and believed in your dreams. Please join me in expressing your appreciation for the love and support they have offered during the last four years.

•    When your class assembled before me here in front of Penn Hall for convocation four years ago, your class flag was flown for the first time. Today it flies again signifying the end of your undergraduate experience. After you have received your diplomas, you will have an opportunity to sign your Class Book, which will be permanently placed in the Alumni House—linking you to Gettysburg College forever.  

•    Welcome, everyone, to the commencement exercises of the Gettysburg College of 2008.


The class of 2008 has been remarkable in so many ways. So as proud and happy as I am for all of you, I approach my final official act at Gettysburg College with a certain bittersweet feeling. I shall miss you.

This class is a unique compendium of 644 bright and accomplished men and women. Each of you came to Gettysburg with special talents and aptitudes, and for the last four years, you wove your aspirations, your insights, your strengths, your insecurities—all of your humanness—into a fabric of shared experience. You will go on from here into hundreds of directions.

•    Several of you are headed to law, medical and veterinary schools. We have several students who are entering the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and the Teach for America program. We have a young woman on her way to Cameroon to do research, another heading to the University of Erfurt in Germany to study changes in attitudes about American foreign policy, a young man who will be interning at the American Embassy in London, another on her way to China to study advanced Chinese; others on their way to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, Oxford, Princeton, University of Chicago, Penn, and my alma mater, Tufts. Many of you—to the great relief of your parents—have already accepted employment at companies such as Lehman Brothers, PriceWaterHouse Cooper, the Miami Heat, and Disney Latin-America.

•    Today is all about the future of the Class of 2008, but for a moment I want you to think back to August 27, 2004—the day I officially welcomed you to Gettysburg College at Convocation.

•    On that warm August afternoon, which seems to you, I’m sure, like a very long time ago, I encouraged you to be open to the new experiences that would come your way during your college years

•    As an example, I told the story of a college professor who moves to Tuscany and has a chance to “live in another version”—to try out a new self and make the most of a special opportunity to grow and change.

•    During these last four years, I am hoping that you have taken full advantage of all of the encounters in and outside the classroom that offered a new perspective—that stretched your comfort zone. I hope you embraced change—because the familiar, although it is comfortable—won’t help you grow.

•    On that sunny August day, you were at a crossroads, and perhaps full of apprehension about what was in store for you. Now Gettysburg is familiar, you know your way around, you see familiar faces wherever you go, you feel comfortable, and here you are again on the edge of a new adventure.

•    My charge to you is an extension of my message four years ago. Then I asked you to open yourself to new experiences. Now I’d like for you to take that one step further: actively seek to get out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Go where there are no guarantees. The road less traveled may be fraught with barricades and bumps, but it is on that road where your character is truly tested—and your personal growth realized.

•    And that growth is not just metaphorical—brain researchers have discovered that as we try new things, we create new neural pathways and even entirely new brain cells. The more we step outside our comfort zone, the more inherently creative we become.

•    Here at Gettysburg, you have been challenged by multiple viewpoints, confronted by different perspectives on important issues and offered life-changing experiences. Trying new things, thinking about something in a different way is what the liberal arts are all about. Our campus brings the world to you and you out into the world.

•    Once you leave here, you may not find yourself in such a lively and provocative environment. “Real” life—beyond campus—will offer you many choices, including an option to seek safe and familiar havens.

•    We can live in neighborhoods inhabited by people just like us and communicate online on blogs designed for people who share our interests. Rapid advances in communications technology have made it so easy to stay within our comfort zone. Media fragmentation—the 500 channels on cable, satellite radio, the Internet—has turned the shared marketplace into a collection of specialty shops where like-minded people may gather. Rather than stretching our boundaries, we can make choices that confirm our own biases.

•    Resist that temptation. Seek change; continue to challenge yourself. Your life will be the richer for it and your brain will thrive.

•    One other request—my final one to this Class of 2008, my class—Cherish time—it’s the only aspect of life over which we have no control. Life goes by in an instant. Slow down enough to savor the many things you will experience. In her “Short Guide to a Happy Life,” Anna Quindlen wrote:  “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves to make room for them, to love them and to live, really live.”

•    Members of the Class of 2008, you will always have our support, our esteem, our affection and steadfast devotion. I wish you great happiness and God-speed in all your endeavors, and…..

•    Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2008—do great work.