I have always been a sucker for commencements. I have marched, sat, or stood through maybe 50 of them—at universities and colleges where I attended, at institutions where I worked or from which friends graduated, and even at a few that awarded me a sheepskin. I was at that Princeton Commencement in 1970 when Bob Dylan was awarded an honorary degree and an apocalyptic carpet of locusts covered the ground, inspiring his song “Day of the Locusts.” Mikhail Baryshnikov and Steven Spielberg received honorary degrees when I got my Ph.D. at Brandeis in ’83.
No matter where it was, no matter how memorable (or forgettable) the speeches, no matter how many funny hats and tassels and schmaltzy alma maters, I invariably find myself moved on these occasions. I suppose it’s because commencements are such resonant rituals of expectation, of beginning, of marching out into an undefined future. Then again, maybe I’m just sentimental.
It strikes me at this time of year that there is poetry in the fact that this university is located on the part of Puget Sound called “Commencement Bay.” When the first American sailors who ventured into the great inland sea from which we take our name (almost a half-century before the founding of this or any college here), they named our particularly deep and appealing harbor after an annual academic rite of passage. It was even the right time of year: May 17, 1841.
Of course, the word “commencement” can also mean “beginning.” And that naval expedition was the beginning of American military influence in the region, the start of the eventual strategic incorporation of the territory into the “manifest destiny” of an emerging, powerful nation.
Every commencement is special; but for me there was something particularly meaningful about this year. As I shook the hand and looked into the expectant eyes of each graduate who was launching the beginning of a new life (including our record six Fulbright scholars, two Watsons, and the NSCAA’s best woman soccer player in the nation, to name a few), I realized that this year marked a kind of commencement for all of us.
We are a community embarking upon a new beginning, just as our graduates are. We, too, set out expectantly into a challenging future. This year the trustees approved a strategic plan for Puget Sound to guide that venture, and we have begun visiting alumni and parent groups around the country to introduce it. We call our plan “Defining Moments” because we believe this is a time of great challenge and opportunity.
Our university has commenced from such important points on several occasions over more than a century. This time our defining moment offers us the chance to emphasize how our particular history and values—our intangible human and cultural assets—make Puget Sound a place like no other: an excellent liberal arts college with the opportunities of a great university, an innovative and inspiring community of people who are civically engaged, environmentally responsible, and globally concerned.
You will be hearing more about Defining Moments in the months ahead—in the pages of Arches and at alumni gatherings across the nation. It is time to take off our robes and mortar boards, salute our amazing Class of 2006, prepare for the journey ahead, and set our sails on Commencement Bay.