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‘You Can Face the Future with Confidence’

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    University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan addresses Southwestern's Class of 2012. (Photo by Lucas Adams)
    LUCAS ADAMS

Teresa A. Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, gave the speech below to members of the Class of 2012 as they graduated on May 5, 2012.

President Schrum; members of the Board of Trustees; faculty members; proud parents; and, of course, graduating students: I am honored and grateful to have this opportunity to help you celebrate Southwestern University’s 168th Commencement. Congratulations to all of you on your respective roles in making this day possible, but most of all, congratulations to the Southwestern Class of 2012.

I spent a big part of my life 30 miles south of here in Austin, at the University of Texas, where I served in various teaching and administrative roles for nearly three decades. Of course I was a Longhorn sports fan while I was there —  not being a sports fan is not an option when you work at UT.

UT fans take their sports seriously. From their perspective, the Longhorns are the kings of college athletics in Texas —invincible, unbeatable, unchallenged in their statewide dominance.

So I was a little surprised to learn that the first college baseball game ever played in the state of Texas was played between Southwestern and UT-Austin — and that Southwestern won the game[1].

I’m sure the UT sports fans have used their selective memory to forget about that game, but you should remind them every chance you get.

I want to spend the next few minutes speaking to the students, and I want to talk about why, on your graduation day, you can face the future with confidence.

Now, some of the students here — and probably some of the parents and faculty members, too — will smirk at this idea. “Face the future with confidence?!?” you say. “Ms. Sullivan, have you seen the news headlines?”

Yes, I have seen the headlines. I know that the students who graduate today face daunting realities that might cause them to face the future — not with confidence and hope — but with fear and trembling. 

As a society, we face complex global problems. They include uncertainty in the global economy and volatility across markets; the dangers of over-population as the human population tops 7 billion, coupled with dwindling natural resources; environmental problems related to climate change and pollution; the threat of pandemic disease; and global terrorism carried out by extremist groups and by renegade individuals. These are just a few examples of our global concerns.

We face serious national problems, too, and many of these problems are connected to global problems because of the inter-connectedness of nations in this global century. Our big problems in the United States include a sluggish economy that refuses to budge into high gear, with national unemployment standing at 8.1%; a growing Federal budget deficit; fragility in our financial institutions, which we learned about the hard way a few years ago; a crisis of confidence in our democratic system, as our political leaders seem more inclined to grand-standing and bickering than to finding common ground where they can get things done; we see widespread poverty in the midst of great wealth across the country; and various challenges related to energy policy, health care, homeland security, and other thorny issues.

On top of these global and national problems, you face local problems here at home in Texas. They include an unemployment rate that is below the national average but still problematic at 7%; the challenges of rapid expansion in what is now our country’s second-biggest economy (next to California); a disinvestment in education in response to losses in tax revenue, with last year’s legislative cuts of $4 billion for public K-12 schools and $1 billion for higher education[2]; the threat of drought and extreme weather across the state; and the issue of illegal immigration, among others.

Once again, these are just a few examples of a broad set of problems facing today’s graduates. The problems are serious, and they are local, national, and global in scale.

“Now, Ms. Sullivan,” you say, “in light of the laundry list of terrible problems you just gave us, remind us once again why we should face the future with confidence?”

You should face a future full of problems with confidence because you are highly trained problem-solvers. In fact, you are uniquely qualified to tackle the problems I just described. Let me explain what I mean.

Here at Southwestern, you have received a distinctive brand of education. You have pursued knowledge while working in close collaboration with faculty members and classmates. You have listened to the different viewpoints of people from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds, and you have learned to synthesize various streams of information to arrive at informed decisions.

Some of you who graduate today have participated in the university’s Paideia  program[3]. This program encourages students to connect learning in the classroom to the world around them, and to act on their learning. Beyond the classroom, students are involved in civic engagement, intercultural learning, and undergraduate research. The program brings cohorts of students from various disciplines together for small-group seminars, so the experience is enhanced by multidisciplinary perspectives. Students learn to compare, contrast, and integrate knowledge and skills from various areas of study.

This is exactly the kind of preparation you will need to tackle the complex, multifaceted problems that you will face in the future, problems that demand a multidisciplinary approach to solutions. As we know, today’s discoveries and innovations frequently emerge, not only in isolated fields of study, but also in the spaces between disciplines. The educational philosophy at Southwestern and the Paideia program have prepared today’s graduates to think and work in these terms.

I understand that Southwestern just received a $500,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand elements of the Paideia program to all students. This is good news for the students here now and for those who will come here in the future.

Southwestern University, like the University of Virginia, has an Honor Code. This is another important element of the training you have received. The honor system has given you great freedom and great responsibility during your time as students here. You have learned that you are responsible for the integrity of your own actions, and you have learned to hold each other accountable, both inside and outside the classroom. This has prepared you to make honest, ethical decisions when you begin the problem-solving work you will do in your careers and communities. As you face the problems I described earlier, you will understand that the quickest, easiest, or cheapest solution is not always the best or most sustainable solution.

During your time as a student here, we experienced the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Most of you entered Southwestern in the fall of 2008, just when things were getting really terrible. In a sense, you were lucky, because you rode out the worst part of the storm in the safe harbor of a university. But now you will leave the harbor and go out into the world.

You will find that some people out there are worn down and dispirited by the economic stalemate that lasted for years and now the slow progress toward recovery. You will encounter people who have a pessimistic, cynical view of the present and the future.

I encourage you to use your newly acquired knowledge and your fresh ideas and enthusiasm to inject energy into the workplaces and organizations that you will join. In a period of sluggish economic growth and national uncertainty, you can do more than observe the recovery; you can lead it. So when you leave here and go out in the world, instead of looking for leaders and role models in the faces around you, look in the mirror. You are the solution. You are the agent of rejuvenation. You are the problem-solver. And you are arriving just in time.

You should face the future with confidence because you have done great things here at Southwestern and because you will do even greater things in the years ahead. Some of you are using your undergraduate education here as a springboard for advanced study. A few examples: Jordan Johnson received a full-ride scholarship and Graduate Diversity Fellowship at Emory University to pursue a PhD in Women’s Studies, and Eric Godat [GO-dat] received a full-ride scholarship at SMU to pursue a PhD in Physics. Others are pursuing careers in education: Rory Jones received a Fulbright Fellowship to work as a teaching assistant in Germany. Jasmine Thomas has been selected by Teach for America to teach in Houston. Twenty-three of today’s graduates are being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. These are just a few examples of the broad achievement of the members of Southwestern’s Class of 2012.

I understand that seniors at Southwestern, each year, participate in a long-standing tradition. During your last semester, you climb the spiral staircase of the Cullen Tower to sign you name on the tower’s walls, adding your signatures to the signatures of former students — thousands of them, including some from over a century ago. This is your way of connecting yourselves to those who have come before you and those who will sign their names after you.

As you leave this campus to take on new challenges and responsibilities, you are following in the footsteps of the prior generation. Eventually, you will take over where we leave off. The great poet Walt Whitman had some wise words to say about this passing-of-the-baton between generations. One of Whitman’s poems in the book Leaves of Grass is titled “Poets to Come.”[4] In this poem, Whitman is addressing the rising generation of young students — the poets and scholars who will follow him. He calls them “a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known.”

And here you sit today, the Class of 2012: “a new brood, native, athletic, continental”— and, I might add, racially and culturally diverse, high-achieving, book-smart and media-savvy, technologically advanced, politically attuned, along with all the other qualities that define the members of this class.

Walt Whitman had a big ego, but he was aware of his human limitations. At the end of this poem, he paints a picture of himself receding into darkness as the next generation steps forward to take his place. With his work done and his words of advice offered up for posterity, he tells the young poets and scholars that he and the other members of his generation are “expecting the main things from you.”

For the faculty members who have taught you here at Southwestern; for those who have guided your research and scholarship; and for all of us in the generation ahead of you, the role is similar. Teachers here have done their best to help you make the most of your natural ability. They have tried to equip you with the knowledge and training you will need to be a productive citizen in the world. And now our generation steps aside as you step forward, and we watch you go forth — expecting the main things from you.

In fact, we expect spectacular, ground-breaking things from you. We expect you to solve the difficult problems that confounded us in our time. We expect you to find the disease cures that eluded us. We expect you to develop the solutions to environmental problems that we have failed to develop thus far. We expect you to set a new tone for our public discourse to heal the partisanship that has divided our nation. As you take your degrees today, you embody our greatest hopes and aspirations for the future.

No pressure.

This is a day of great joy for you and your family and classmates, but you might also feel some anxiety as you contemplate the future that stands wide-open before you.

I encourage you to enjoy this time fully, and set aside any apprehension you might be feeling — for today, at least.

Be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and also be grateful to the people who made your experience here possible: your parents, grandparents and other family members - many of whom made sacrifices to help you come here; your teachers, both here at Southwestern and through all of your school years, who gave you the foundation of knowledge that enabled you to thrive; your classmates, who have supported you and formed a second family for you during your time here. Remember to thank all these people.

On this day, as you stand on the threshold of the future, recall what Robert F. Kennedy said: “The future is not a gift: It is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future.”[5]

So, Southwestern University Class of 2012, what kind of future will you make? All of us are eagerly awaiting your answers to that question. And because of the hard work you have done here, you can face that question with confidence, courage, and optimism.

Godspeed and good luck to all of you as you begin this new phase of your lives. And again - congratulations!

Thank you.