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‘Interrupting Business as Usual’

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    President Jake B. Schrum addresses members of the Class of 2013. (Photo by Lucas Adams)

Text of the commencement speech that President Jake B. Schrum gave to members of the Class of 2013

First, let me congratulate you on what may very well be the most important accomplishment of your life, thus far! And with the unemployment rate for college graduates at less than four percent, compared to close to eight percent for those without a college degree, your hard work may, indeed, be worth it from an economic point of view.

But that’s not what we told you we would urge you to do with your Southwestern education. In this same room four or five years ago, we told you that we were fostering a liberal arts community whose values and actions would encourage contributions toward the well-being of humanity.  And that’s what we’ve tried to do.

Before you and after you, streaming forth in a line of splendor, our goal has been to produce graduates who are bright, moral, and courageous.

In his best-selling book on the purpose of college, Andrew DelBanco writes that he came across a manuscript diary from a student at Emory & Henry College written in 1850:

          One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college

          president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the

          following entry in his journal:  “Oh that the Lord would show me

          how to think and how to choose.”

Isn’t this what a liberal arts education is all about?  Why should we study different cultures, religions, artistic expressions, mathematical designs, languages, etc. if the purpose is not to broaden our horizons, to open our minds and hearts to difference, to make us a warmer and more inviting persons to be around.

People who have a small view of the world rarely have the ability to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.  They simply cannot extract themselves from their small world in order to make contributions toward the well-being of humanity.

This is the reason our world is yearning for, and some might say desperate for, our graduates. I am talking about you, each and every one of you.

One of America’s social critics had this to say about our daily lives:

The paradox of our time and history is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers.  Wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints.  We spend more, but have less.  We buy more, but enjoy less.  We have bigger houses and smaller families.  More conveniences, but less time.  We have more degrees, but less sense.  More knowledge, but less judgment … . more experts, yet more problems.  More medicine, but less wellness.  We drink too much, smoke too much.  Spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry.  Stay up too late, get up too tired.  Read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.  We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.  We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.  We learned how to make a living, but not a life.  We’ve added years to life, not life to years.  George Carlin

You might ask, “What does this have to do with us, President Schrum?”  We’re JUST trying to get a job or get into a graduate or professional school.  We need some more time to prepare - to begin to organize our lives as adults before we tackle the world’s great problems.

Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes that we all need the poetry of possibility.

Your time here at Southwestern should have helped you to become more open to the poetry of possibility; to look at life’s challenges in a way that encourages you to interrupt business as usual even at this early stage in your life. 

We have two recent graduates who are interrupting business as usual by starting a 10-acre organic farm using hydroponics.  They hope to replicate their idea all over the country, and maybe, the world.

What about the Southwestern graduate who earned a Ph.D. in childhood development and then spent her own money to start a charter school in the poorest part of a Texas city where some of her students were sleeping in cars and most were making low scores on standardized tests?.  Fifteen years later, it is an exemplary school and all of the graduates go to college, many with several hours of college credit. 

Then there’s the Southwestern alumnus who has made millions in the automobile business, oil and gas, professional sports, outdoor advertising, and radio who has given back tens of millions of dollars to create better colleges and universities, public schools, as well as programs to revitalize cities.

I could go on and on and give countless examples of how Southwestern alumni are interrupting business as usual and living our core purpose of using their liberal arts education to contribute to the well-being of humanity.

All of you know how to think. It is our hope that you have honed that ability to a much higher level while at Southwestern.

And now it is your time to choose. Will you concentrate all of your life on taking care of yourself or will you temper your natural desire for success with a passion for doing good in the world? Both can be done, and both can be meaningful.  A liberal arts education is the best microscope for really looking at how the important aspects of life are connected and interconnected. Louis Menand, professor of English at Harvard has written, “College is a way of producing a society of people who can talk to one another about things that matter.” My question for each of you is this:

Do you want to do something that really matters?

Each of you has been marked by your years at Southwestern.  It is now your time to leave your mark on the world, by whatever you choose as a career, by how you treat those around you, by whether you stand up for what you believe, and finally, by whether you do something inspiring with your life.

And now, let me share a poem that has touched me deeply.  It was written by Dr. Carmen Tafolla, an award-winning author, who last year was named the first poet laureate of San Antonio.  Dr. Tafolla and her husband, Dr. Ernest Bernal, are with us today.  Would you both please stand and let us recognize you? 

Now, I would like to present “Marked.”  It is from Dr. Tafolla’s book of poetry, Sonnets and Salsa.

“Marked” 

Never write with pencil, M’ija.
It is for those who would erase.
Make your mark proud and open,
Brave,
Beauty folded into its imperfection,
Like a piece of turquoise marked.
Never write with pencil, M’ija.
Write with ink or mud, or berries

Grown in gardens never owned, or sometimes, if necessary, blood.”

And so, my fellow ‘graduates,” go from Southwestern with a deep sense of the possibilities for your life and your work.  Leave here knowing that you can always come home.

Always remember that you, each and every one of you, hold a very special place in our hearts.

Finally, God bless you Southwestern University, and all of your daughters and sons.  This place where young scholars begin to imagine their poetry of possibilities, where the dignity of all and the search for justice is core to the search for a peaceful world. God speed to each of you throughout your life and may you continue to be a part of the loyal voices blending to sing Southwestern’s everlasting fame.