“Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.”
It was with these words, first spoken more than 130 years ago by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., that Hobart and William Smith Commencement Speaker David Gergen L.H.D. ’15 – Harvard Professor of Public Service, best-selling author, CNN senior political analyst and trusted adviser to four U.S. Presidents – called upon the Classes of 2015 to reflect on the lessons of service learned during their four years as undergraduates.
At the Colleges, Commencement 2015 marked the 190th graduation for Hobart and the 104th for William Smith. This year, 244 Hobart students and 346 William Smith students earned bachelor’s degrees, and four graduate students received their Master of Arts in Teaching.
“Service to others is a profound and passionate thing,” Gergen said during his address.
Looking back on the lessons he himself learned over the years about service, to separate “what was meaningful from what was trivial,” Gergen emphasized that “we have a powerful drive to protect and help others. Unleashing that inner drive will carry you to places you’ve never thought of before.”
He remarked on the many and varied experiences that members of the Classes of 2015 are soon to begin: this spring, six have earned Fulbright U.S. Student Awards, five have been accepted to Teach for America, four recent graduates have joined the Peace Corps and three will serve with City Year.
During his address, Gergen shared his memories of conversations with President Richard Nixon and former North Carolina governor and U.S. Senator Terry Sanford, for whom, Gergen said, the “early years of service when he was unknown seemingly meant so much more than the honors showered upon him later in life.”
“You can find some of the most important work you will ever do right in your home town,” Gergen added. During his work on Sanford’s civil rights team in 1960 North Carolina, Gergen said, “we didn’t change our beloved state overnight, but I look back on those summers as the most satisfying of all my years of public service. It was service in the trenches for a righteous cause.”
Today, he said, “the most important question before you now is not how to make a living but how to make a life. One day, a friend or grandchild will ask you to look back at your long life and reflect on what was meaningful. I hope you have found your greatest joy in family and service to others, that your hearts have been touched with fire, that you have lived lives of consequence.”
During his valedictory address, HWS President Mark D. Gearan ruminated on the contemporary nature of identity and how to serve others in an increasingly fast-paced world.
“You will live and work in an exciting and dynamic century — filled with opportunities and promise, as well as challenges and conflict,” Gearan said. “It is a time marked by fast paced change and innovation. You have already seen it since you arrived in Geneva four years ago. Our hope is that this new part of your identity as an HWS alum will provide you with the skills to navigate these changes, to analyze issues with care and empathy, to think critically about the challenges ahead, and to actively engage in solutions.”
“We all know that we are living in a time of rapid change,” he added. “And while change is inevitable, progress is not. You will live in a time when there are many more democracies around the world — yet face challenges caused by growing economic disparities and conflict. You will now benefit from what only 1% of the world enjoys: a college degree. You have a responsibility to insure that future generations of students with talent and promise receive such an opportunity.”
This year, the Colleges conferred five honorary degrees to individuals who have dedicated their lives to public service through the creation of innovative non-profit organizations and through leadership at the local and national levels. They included: Gergen; Alan Khazei, co-creator of City Year and founder and CEO of Be The Change, Inc.; The Hon. Louise Slaughter, congresswoman, (D-NY); The Rev. Lesley Adams, chaplain of Hobart and William Smith Colleges; and Lucile Mallard, president of the Geneva, N.Y. chapter of the NAACP and resource coordinator for the Canandaigua City (N.Y.) Court system.
Loren Hiser ’15 and Nick Donovan ’15, who delivered the student addresses to the Classes of 2015, reflected on the challenges of chasing one’s dreams and the accomplishments and potential of their fellow graduates, who met those challenges head-on.
“We can assume leadership positions in the arts sector, the non-profit sector, and the entertainment sector. We can be politicians, global ambassadors, and molders of young minds. We can conquer New York; conquer L.A., conquer D.C., London, and Peru,” Hiser said. “We have the potential for our reach to expand far beyond any conceivable notion we hold now, and we can do it with compassion, grace and intelligence.”
Donovan said: “We can debate yet concede when we are wrong. Our research and coursework is done to the best of our ability because we care so deeply about what we are studying. We’ve been published in the fields of political science, psychology and chemistry among others. To those going on to grad school, it brings me great pride seeing some of you accepted into some of the top law, dentistry and medical programs in the country. We all are chasing a career and have used our time here to make sure that we are in a good position for the future.”
Chair of the Board of Trustees Maureen Collins Zupan ’72, P’09, presented the “Touching the Future” Awards, which celebrate and honor educators from elementary, middle or high schools who have had an impact on current HWS graduates. The 2015 honorees are Matthew Bindig ’98, an English teacher at Orchard Park High School, and Arlene Eddington, a third grade teacher at North Street Elementary School in Geneva. This year marked the first time a Hobart alumnus and a Geneva City School teacher were recognized with this award.