Looking Back and Moving Forward
It’s not uncommon to frame “commencement” as a beginning. This approach is supported by everything from the name of the ceremony itself to the fact that we will, arbitrarily and suddenly, set forth from this temporary home and answer that all-too-familiar question about what we’ll be doing next. But then we’re left to grapple with the tension between an inevitable fresh start in a moment that feels very much like an end. It’s an odd feeling, to stand in the space before a next step, pausing with one foot raised while you survey the roads diverging before you.
My own route to the University of Puget Sound began as a wrong turn. Although I’d heard of this university, I had no intention of coming to school only forty-five minutes away from home. Then, my dad hijacked a family vacation – he pulled the car off the freeway as we were passing through Tacoma, “coincidentally” piloted us right up to Jones fountain, and towed me around campus insisting that we might as well give it a look since we were “here anyway.” Of course, this virtually guaranteed that when I set out from home, my final destination wouldn’t be Tacoma. But over the next year the university grew on me.
A year later, in August of 2013, we were back to campus for a different reason; to move me into a dorm and drop me off for college. Like today, that day felt like a pivotal turning point when an end meets a beginning. You might have had a pretty good idea that you would do a set of certain things: maybe you were already planning a major, or knew what club you were going to be a part of, or had a spot on a team lined up. I certainly had clear expectations about what my life would look like for the next four years. And then I embarked on four years of twists and turns.
Today I feel pretty similar to how I felt four years ago as an eighteen-year-old on her first day of college. I sort of have a plan, and I really don’t know what my next stop will be. The good news, is that while today is indisputably about the future, it is also about being in the moment, about celebrating an accomplishment, and about thanking the people who have brought us here.
The last time we were all together it was at the beginning, the starting line, when we gathered in this stadium and we listened to President-Emeritus Thomas give a speech. Famously, he talked about home. About leaving one home and finding another, and about Huckleberry Finn and how even a raft and a journey could be a home -- if you cared to make it one. We all made different homes here. We had different experiences, and we found different passions. Some of us might use the word home to describe this place, some of us would choose different adjectives. But despite that variety we intersect, once again, at today.
This year, a different president welcomed the class at the foot of the mountain. As an Orientation leader, I heard President Crawford when he too spoke about the different places we come from and about the communities that we find or build here. He also mentioned a statistic that stuck with me. Less than 7% of the world’s population, he said, will pursue higher education. With every term paper, and late-night lab or rehearsal, and every cup of coffee, we have been claiming our place in the seven percent. And with all the background noise of everyday life, it is easy to lose sight of what a rarity higher education is, and what an extraordinary accomplishment we are celebrating here today.
For both a college freshman and a college graduate one of the great and terrifying things about not being able to predict the future is that it means anything is possible. It means that our lives and our voices and our bravery will matter in ways that we can’t predict, and that others will be better for it. It means that any one of us here today could become the scientist who discovers a better cancer treatment. Or the entrepreneur who invents the next internet, or builds the next Amazon. Or an award-winning author and New York Times columnist. Any one of us could also be the little league coach, or the twelfth-grade teacher, or the neighbor down the street that changes someone’s life. Some of us have already begun to do that, and all of us know those figures from our own lives, because they have signposted our way to today.
In short, when we follow our collective path across this stage in a few moments we are claiming the opportunity to become our heroes, both professional and personal, and maybe both. Today – this end, this beginning – today is a day for gratitude, and it is a day for pride. It’s days like this that remind us what it really feels like to go pros te akra – to the heights – and that remind us that it feels like coming home.