Senior Celebration – May 17, 2020

May 17, 2020
President Robert W. Iuliano
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

As delivered.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our Senior Celebration.

As Callie mentioned, today we mark this special occasion in your lives by conferring the degrees you have rightfully earned as members of this community. While we must wait a little longer to be together, and to see you walk back through Pennsylvania Hall at your Commencement Ceremony—as is our tradition—it is important to honor you today, and to recognize your remarkable contributions as Gettysburg College students.

In a year filled with so many firsts for each of you and for the College, it seems only fitting for us to convene in this first of its kind celebration for the College. There is no doubt that the Class of 2020 will be known as the class that broke the mold and began its own traditions. May you continue to break the mold as you close this chapter in your life and begin to make your mark on a world that needs you, needs your inspiration, needs your innovation, and needs your determination.

But before we confer your degrees and formally recognize the culmination of your college career, I would like to take a moment to share with you a few words, influenced in part by this distinctive moment in time and in part by the enduring values of this College that you have helped shape, and that has helped shape you, over the past four years.

I know that many of you are gathering this morning with family and loved ones to view this ceremony. Perhaps it was within this same familiar setting, as a young child that you voiced that universal phrase so synonymous with one’s emerging sense of self: “When I grow up…”

It is a phrase born of a desire to chart our own path in life. A dream constructed of grand achievements, of bold adventures, of that day when our outstretched toes may finally reach the pedals. These are the words that helped to form your earliest aspirations, and that ultimately led you here to join this community, in this iconic place.

As members of the Class of 2020, you have pursued these ambitions with vigor, and you’ve seen them come to fruition in the classroom, on the playing fields and the stages, and in the Borough and abroad. For this, I hope you feel a real sense of accomplishment.

In many ways, the phrase “When I grow up” is a paean to a world of infinite possibilities. A world where I roam centerfield for the Boston Red Sox. A world where we are together, today, in front of Penn Hall, in caps and gowns, with thoughts of the virus confined to our study of history and literature. But, as the last several months have demonstrated, our path is not always linear or even entirely in our control. We face unexpected obstacles, we make choices, doors open, doors close. Today may not be the day we reach the pedals.

Yet, it is in the crucible of triumph and toil, of accomplishment and failure, that the human spirit is forged. And we have seen that spirit so vividly on display this spring, both on this campus and in the world beyond. We have seen what is possible when people rally together to support one another. We have seen what is possible when we look ahead, learning from the past but with a focus on what we might yet achieve. It is a lesson deeply ingrained in the very land on which our College rests, where the notion of struggle and sacrifice take on special meaning.

I have said in other contexts that it is too early to make lasting sense of all that we have experienced this spring. We need more time, better perspective, more hints about what changes may endure. But it is not too early to know this: what you have lived in your last four months is as integral to your education as any other lesson you have learned here. These events, the transitions we have been forced to make, have taught us about ourselves, about our hopes for the world, about how to navigate disappointment, about the importance of human contact.

And, with this context in mind, I hope you will indulge me as I make two final requests of you while you are in your last moments as students here.

First, take pride in how you have responded to a set of circumstances unlike anything we have seen in any of our lifetimes. It would have been tempting to let uncertainty and anxiety get the better of us. And I recognize that the past few months have not always been easy, that your motivation for that next Zoom class may not have always been at its very highest. Yet, your graduation today reflects the spirit you brought to this College and to this community. Not only should you take pride in how you have rallied, as individuals and as class, but it should also give you confidence that you are ready for whatever life may have in store for you.

My second, and perhaps more important point, is this: the events of this spring demonstrate just how much our world needs you. We have seen profound and indeed abrupt changes to how we live, how we work, even how we interact with one another. What lessons should we take from it all? How do we move from here to advance Lincoln’s unfinished work, to create a more just and resilient society?

Class of 2020, this is your work. Your time at this College has prepared you to shape and reshape society. You have learned to think, both logically and creatively. You have developed the capacity to understand issues through new lenses and beyond boundaries. You have practiced compassion and empathy. You have built bridges across difference. And, most of all, you have seen that the best solutions are rooted not in our narrow self-interest but in advancing the common good.

In short, you have grown up…and into the person your childhood self would be proud of. This is the gift of a Gettysburg education, a gift you have earned through your hard work, your dedication, your support of one another, and through a community that is built to serve society through the students it educates.

When you walked through Penn Hall in 2016, we promised you an education that would ready you for the world. These last four months, indeed these last four years, have given proof that you are ready, and that our world needs—now more than ever—the many talents and insights you offer. I know that you will step forward, and I know that you will make a difference.