Gwendolyn Dungy Remarks

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Greetings graduates, platform guests, families, friends, faculty, staff, administrators, students and all other well wishers.

It is a special privilege for me, as a former member of the Gettysburg Board of Trustees, to make remarks in honor of the graduating class of 2011.  Because I work with colleges and universities, colleges and universities are familiar places for me, but none are more special to me than Gettysburg College. 

Today, I feel like a kid with a secret that I'm just bursting to tell.  You see, I am in a wonderfully unique position to bring messages to all of you from the 2011 graduating class.  Several of these extraordinary students afforded me an opportunity to speak with them candidly about who they are, what they hope for, and what their experiences have been here at Gettysburg College. 

About the College and their experiences, the graduates indicated that:

  • The college is living its mission in giving them many opportunities to use all they are learning in class in real situations of service for which they have developed a sense of responsibility and passion.
  • The college provided a safe environment, a cushion and safety net in case they might fall during their experimenting. Don't ask about the experimenting, just know that they were safe.
  • This safe environment was engendered by faculty who helped them select majors, challenged them to broaden their thinking, and offered personal attention.
  • They told me that administrators and staff fostered what one student cleverly termed an "assisted-living" environment, balancing the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of living together in community.
  • The students said that all of you taught them to have an open mind to experiences and, for some, the most treasured moments have been in the company of professors, administrators, and staff who treated them respectfully as peers.
  • Some even had the privilege of being invited to professors' homes for the holidays.

Graduates, as I listened to you talk about your experiences, it seems that the College has neither failed you nor the nation by producing just another college-educated person. The college has taught you to think about what problems are important and why, and it has equipped you to take action as citizens of the world.

I asked the graduates what message they would want their parents and guardians to receive today:

  • They said that they wanted to give a huge shout out and thank you, not just for the money, but for supporting them when they were freaking out. Freaking out. Their words, not mine.
  • They want you to have confidence that the College has prepared them for life, or, as one student put it, "Mom, be proud to know that Gettysburg is helping me to become the kind of person that you are."
  • They want you to know that they're coming home, but not to stay, so don't be sad when they visit and leave.
  • They wanted me to be sure to tell you that their classroom experiences along with all the opportunities for learning outside the classroom in clubs, organizations, and sports made coming to Gettysburg worth the money.
  • The main message they wanted me to give you is: "We're ready! After our time at Gettysburg, we're ready to spread our wings and do what you and the college prepared us to do."

Now that I've shared messages from the graduates, I'd like to take a few minutes to give a message to the graduates that I hope expresses the sentiments of all of us who are so proud of the 2011 graduating class.

As I mentioned earlier, during the course of my work, I have the opportunity to visit a number of campuses, and whenever possible, I take time to talk with students.  I told some students that I would be speaking with you and asked what they would want to hear if they were going to have remarks made at their commencement.  Some students said that they didn't want to hear any clichés about "you can be anything you want to be, and the world is your oyster and yours for the taking." They wanted to hear the real deal. 

Others said that they hear enough bad news every day from the media, and they would like to have someone bring a message of optimism and hope.  And so I will attempt to walk that tightrope and fine line between the two opinions.

Certainly, during the 2008 presidential election campaign, we heard a lot about hope and change. That was two years ago and with all that has happened in the world since then, it might seem like a life-time ago.  In the 25th Year Special Edition of The Economist, Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post declared that 2011 would be the year of "hope 2.0."

The Economist cited several landmarks for 2011: China overtaking America as the biggest manufacturer; President Barack Obama turning 50; Wikipedia having its tenth birthday; Twitter its fifth; and with sadness, America will mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  For all of us, your graduation is the marker for the year. 

Let me share Arianna Huffington's description or vision of "hope 2.0." Here is the quotation:

Thousands upon thousands of acts of compassion will take place all across America-with people reaching out to help their neighbors, even when they are strangers. It will look like Seth Reams, a man who lost his job, and, while looking for work, he started a website called We've Got Time to Help.   The website connects people with extra time on their hands (usually people who have been laid off) with those in need of help.  

Hope 2.0 will look like all the people discovering that by helping others, even when they themselves are suffering, they end up improving their own lives.

It will look like Americans accepting that democracy is not a spectator sport, and that no fundamental change can be accomplished without a movement demanding it.  As Frederick Douglass put it, 'Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.'  

Huffington writes, so if America's politicians continue to 'lead' by sticking a finger in the wind to see which way it's blowing before deciding what to do, hope 2.0 is about changing the direction of the wind."

I believe that your Gettysburg education has prepared you to change the direction of the wind.

How many of you have seen the movie Limitless that came out last month?  It was all about a miracle drug in the form of a pill called NZT that would give one unmatched and phenomenal intellectual and physical powers.  Imagine a little pill that would work in 30 seconds and cause one to see the world in an enhanced dimension.  It would give one access to all the information one had ever experienced in a coherent and useful way.  For example, it gave one powers to learn something complicated like how to play the stock market to advantage, therefore becoming wealthy quickly; you could learn a foreign language in a day even while jogging; you could recall fight scenes, and if you needed to protect yourself from a gang, it could give you energy and agility to use any technique in fighting that you had ever seen from Karate to boxing.

But even with all of that, there were side effects:  (1) There was a limited quantity of NZT.  (2) The pill could be lost or stolen. And, (3), the ultimate side effect was lethal.  

Graduates, you have your equivalent of the, no side effects, NZT pill with all you have learned at Gettysburg College through classes, experiences outside of class in extra or co-curricular activities, service, and your practice in leadership.

You leave here with all you need to be powerful leaders, not in an abstract sense but natural leaders, living in community, where leadership is everyone's job.  Everyone is needed and knows when to lead and when to follow.

You told me that you have a vision of your future and you have the ability to use every skill that you've learned here to make that vision a reality.

When I spoke with some of you, I asked you what label you would assign to your generation.  I told you that the class that began college in the year 2000 was called the Millennials because they were the first generation of college students in the new millennium.  These students were like the generation described in Levine and Cureton's insightful book When Hope and Fear Collide.  

We could call them the transition generation because they were straddling two worlds, one dying and one being born.  

Some have called you the technology or digital generation, the connected generation, the privileged, and the lucky generation.

You said that if you had to give your generation a label, it would be the "Dedicated Generation" because you put your full efforts into everything you do and you simply use technology as a tool to help accomplish your goals.  

In my conversations with you, it was apparent that you have the vision and the tools to be the Unstoppable Generation.  You have big hopes and even bigger dreams.  

With confidence, you said that if something threatens to thwart your efforts, you will persist; if you're told you cannot do something, your first response is, "says who?"

You told me that you're prepared.  Prepared to work for the common good; prepared to safe guard the earth; prepared to share resources; and prepared to advocate for justice and the rights of people everywhere.

But are you prepared for the job interview? I was reading The Color of Money section in the Washington Post about some of the mistakes others new to the work world have made.  I want to share some things the article recommended that you not do in a job interview. 

Don't wear a hat to the interview that says "Take this job and shove it." Yes, someone did this.  Don't take your parents to the interview with you.  It may have crossed your mind.  But don't do it. 

Don't tell the interviewer that your favorite pastime is to walk around in your pajamas all day and do nothing.  This kind of honesty can severely reduce your chances of being hired.  And, finally, as caring and compassionate as you are, don't hug the hiring manager when the interview concludes.

Now, I know that some of you want to assure your parents that though your major may not be as clearly connected to a specific career as they may have hoped.

But as Parker Palmer, writer, teacher, and activist so aptly says, "you are doing what you can't not do, for reasons that you cannot necessarily explain to anyone else, and you may not fully understand why yourself, but the future you're straining toward is compelling."

To me, you are preparing to use the tools you have earned to commence upon your life's journey.

I share this truth from Parker Palmer about the journey:  He says that "some journeys are direct, and some are circuitous; some are heroic, and some are fearful and muddled.  But every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking [you] toward the place where [your] deep gladness meets the world's deep need."

To me, this is the ultimate purpose of life and the ultimate happiness.

We often hear that you - today's students - are wired differently, and I am so glad that you are.

You live and think globally, you live more gently and collegially on the planet, embracing diversity is a habit of mind, and you are strong, decisive, smart, attractive, and self confident.  According to John Zogby in his book The Way We'll Be, you are the most outwardly looking and accepting generation in American history.

You told me that when you came to college, you took it over, immediately becoming engaged and involved.

You have been through hard things together; you developed strong bonds and held one another accountable.  Gettysburg's mission of globalization and service has become your own.  I, for one, cannot wait for what you will do next as you leave this place.

When our family attended our son's graduation years ago, the commencement speaker was Bill Cosby and in his own inimical and humorous way he advised students not to go out into the world, to just stay in college and avoid some of these new responsibilities.  His advice was "Don't go!"

With your quality education, your strong sense of community, the lifelong friends you have made here, and your sense of social change and justice, I say RUN! Run out into the world.  The world needs you now more than ever.

Congratulations Gettysburg Class of 2011!