19 May 2024 Human Connections Across Difference By Colin Spencer '19

Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn urged students to take intentional action to create “authentic personal, curious, human connections made across difference” during her Commencement address at Hobart and William Smith on Sunday. 

Imploring the importance of being a cheerleader for others, Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn told the Class of 2024 during Sunday’s Commencement ceremony that building connections can be some of the most important parts of people’s lives.

Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn delivers the Commencement Address.

“My call to all of you Statesmen and Herons of the Class of 2024 is to fiercely nourish and seek out connection,” said Spahn. “Do not stay in your bubble or pod; I am talking about the kinds of deeply personal, curious, human connections made across difference, that have the potential to alter the course of human history following a period of deep uncertainty and isolation.”

Reflecting on her graduation which occurred during the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the launch of a technological revolution, Spahn commended the graduates for flourishing during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most disruptive periods in modern history, and urged them to “create and recreate community, again and again, in every interaction.”

“Technology has driven tremendous progress – and for that I am grateful - but we must take intentional action to ensure that it doesn’t continue to push us apart, drive us further into our own bubbles and echo-chambers, a place where we can hide behind the safety of a screen, where we don’t risk that glorious awkwardness that comes from the chance encounter with a stranger or an uncomfortable silence,” Spahn said.  

Read Spahn's full speech.                                      

During Commencement, three members of the HWS community were recognized with honorary degrees. In addition to Spahn, best-selling author, screenwriter and producer Jessica Knoll ’06; decorated air combat veteran and former HWS Director of Alumni Relations Lt. Col. John E. Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02; and the late HWS Trustee Michael Rawlins ’80, P’16, who served at the Walt Disney Company as Head of Enterprise Content and the Broadcast Media Design Team.  

In his valedictory address, President Mark D. Gearan called upon the graduates to honor the mission of Hobart and William Smith Colleges by leading a life of consequence, living a life committed to purpose, meaning and accomplishment. He stressed the latest research reveals the significant impact that even casual interactions with people can have on our mental health and social well being.  

“I believe we all have the opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to make an impact on others even if we don’t realize it in the moment,” said Gearan. “So Class of 2024 – dream big. Live a life with the inspiration of Nobel Laureate - Ellen Johnson Sirlief - the first elected female head of State in Africa: “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.””

During the ceremony, Chair of the HWS Board of Trustees Craig R. Stine ’81, P’17 presented the annual Touching the Future awards, which honor educators from elementary, middle and high school who have had an impact on current HWS graduates. This year, HWS recognized Ricky Bourke, a former coach with Row New York in New York, N.Y., who was nominated by Griffin Reiner ’24 and Julia Maxey, an English teacher at Severn School in Severna Park, Md., who was nominated by Madeleine Meyer ’24. 

The senior speeches were given by Jesse Whelan-Small ’24 and Samari Brown ’24.

Whelan-Small praised the “tangible sense of place” at Hobart and William Smith and the passion he’s developed for his HWS family. “They say that you can’t pick your family. I’d challenge whoever said that to look at us today and tell me that we all didn’t pick to be here. Whether we realized all that this family would come with or not, we certainly did pick it. And, I can say with 100% certainty, that I picked the best family in the world.”

In her speech, Brown commended the challenges the Class of 2024 has overcome. “The COVID-19 restrictions were strong, but the friendships that we have made along the way are stronger. We learned about the world around us while it continued to change right beneath our feet,” Brown said.

Sunday’s ceremony celebrated 383 undergraduates, 25 Master of Science in Management candidates, 10 Master of Arts in Teaching candidates, six Master of Arts in Higher Education Leadership candidates, and three College Experience Certificate candidates.

More information on Commencement can be found here