Remarks at the Senior Luncheon for the Class of 2003
Senior luncheon is always a sentimental moment. It’s the last time we really have together, alone, teachers and students, before the families and friends descend upon us for the joy of Commencement Weekend. On Sunday we are very formal and follow a prescribed script and ritual. But today is a time for the long goodbyes, the lingering on the steps, clutching at the last few hours of your student days to hold them tight, to remember each and every moment of your Trinity experience.
On Sunday you will accept your hard earned Trinity degrees, hold them high for the photo that you will display to friends and family for a long time, and then other photos of other milestones will creep in front of it, and someday years hence your children or grandchildren will find that graduation day photograph far back on the mantle or coffee table, and they’ll shout out, look at mommie or nana or auntie or cousin or friend, look how happy she is, why is she dressed up that way?
And you’ll remember these days and how they influenced the span of all the years that followed, and you’ll try to explain to a new generation why education, especially higher education, particularly the higher education of women, is such a precious treasure and essential resource for human life to reach its full potential.
You have not yet reached your full potential, that’s not the point of your college days. The purpose of the time you spent here at Trinity is to prepare you for the length of the days yet to come, when the totality of your Trinity experience — the learning, the knowledge, the skills, the values — will be put to the test repeatedly.
You have already been tested in ways we could not have imagined when you arrived at Trinity.
For the Class of 2003 everywhere, there can be no doubt that you have lived through one of the most stressful, historic, troubling, challenging and uncertain times in modern civilization. Every college generation thinks they are unique, of course, and each can point to significant events that shaped their learning experience.
But the momentous global events of just a few short years have been galvanizing influences on your education.
Just consider: in 1999, when many of you started here at Trinity as first year students, the nation, and indeed, the world was at largely peace and had been so for quite some time.
The ‘dot com bubble’ was still expanding, and the stock market was reaching highs previously unimagined. One pundit wondered aloud if the Dow Jones Industrial Average would reach 36,000.
President Clinton, having survived an impeachment trial in February of 1999, still had political clout, and the notion that the future presidential election would be in doubt for weeks, and eventually decided by the Supreme Court, was a fantasy that no one could have imagined.
Reality TV was watching Monica Lewinsky’s interrogation by the Senate.
Nobody had heard of a hanging chad.
Nobody, save for insiders at the CIA and Defense Department, had ever heard of Al Qaeda or Osama.
9/11 was a phone call.
The War with Iraq was something you heard about when you were in the 4th or 5th grade.
In 1999, we thought that the biggest problem we faced was something called Y2K. Y2K. Doesn’t that sound quaint already, somehow so naïve, so self-absorbed, so beside the point.
In the relatively short time it has taken you to earn your Trinity degrees, the comparatively complacent world of 1999 disappeared completely. We all have been witnesses to tumultuous events that history will cite as turning points in national and global affairs.
One of the most important outcomes of a liberal education is the ability to adapt to change successfully, to understand historical movement, to have insight into the meaning and consequences of large societal events. When we consider the tumultuous world events of your Trinity years, we must ask how well you have adapted to this new world of economic uncertainty, terrorism and war.
Whether you agree with President Bush’s politics and tactics or not, are you able to locate the appalling oppression of Saddam Hussein in the heritage of tyranny and terror that reaches back through history to the evil images of Nero or Franco, Hitler or Milosevic.
Whether you believe it is the job of the United States to overthrow the dictator in Iraq, or not, are you able to frame the tragedy of the great region known through history as Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization,’ in the broad strokes of religion and ethnicity and greed and exploitation by conquering empires, to take a clear and well stated position on whether pre-emptive invasion by a great and powerful nation is an appropriate remedy to end a murderous regime, to understand how the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Arab world is affecting and will continue to affect your life and the lives of your children and family for decades to come.
What is your contribution in learning and in action to ensuring that the catastrophic conflict between Islam and Christianity, foretold by Pope John Paul II, never happens?
Learning to cope with change effectively, becoming autonomous, self-directed learners as we say in academic jargon, means more than simply hoping to get through another day unscathed by events beyond Michigan Avenue or your front porch. The hallmark of a Trinity education is the large understanding of the world in which we live, coupled with the impulse for action, the passionate pursuit of what is right, what is just, what is likely to leave the people you touch much better for your presence among them.
The roster of Trinity’s Alumnae Association is a roll call of women of action and intelligence, passion and purpose. You know some of the famous ones, like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi or Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius or Presidential Assistant Maggie Williams.
But consider the less well known but equally important work of Dr. Susan Widmayer, Class of 1968, who founded one of South Florida’s largest pediatric AIDs clinics, also providing prenatal education and a broad range of social services to young, impoverished mothers and their families. Susan has built an astounding center of hope and compassion in a place on the back strip of Ft. Lauderdale, far removed from the wealth and comfort of the oceanfront condos.
Here in Washington, consider the work of Mary Anne Stanton, Class of 1990, whose leadership as executive director of the Faith in the City program of the Archdiocese of Washington has provided critical educational opportunities in Catholic schools for thousands of children in some of the poorest sections of the city.
I could go on, we have thousands more. Decades from now, my fondest hope for you is that some future president of Trinity College will stand here citing you as shining examples of service and commitment to future graduating classes.
Your education here at Trinity is a gift first conceived by the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded this great college in the belief that women had every right to become as well educated as men, and that with such an education women would bring the light of their knowledge and faith to bear on the great causes of human life.
What are the causes that you will embrace as your stewardship to the Sisters of Notre Dame for their gift of your Trinity education? What will you care about so much that you will devote all of your time, your knowledge, your energy and passion to the cause that is right, important, life changing for others?
Each of you will pursue a different course of action in your careers, volunteer, family and leisure activities, but in the stewardship of your life’s work we pray that the values we hold dear in Trinity will shine through:
First, you will live the value of service to others and the community. We certainly hope that this education will make it possible for you to get good jobs, provide economic security for your children and family, improve your circumstances and help you to derive lifelong satisfaction from the joy of learning for its own sake. But beyond those goals, an inherent value of Trinity’s mission as a Catholic college is the firm belief that we must use our gifts and talents in the service of others, especially those who are, in the words of the U.S. bishops, “the least, the lost and the left out among us.”
As you move through your brilliant post-Trinity careers, never forget the obligation to give back for what you have received here. You pay tribute to Trinity and our founders through the good works you do for others – and that includes, by the way, sustaining your alma mater so that it can continue to do its good work for future generations.
Second, a corollary of service, you will manifest a passion for justice, which is the essential precursor to achieve peace. Justice is what you owe to others in the community in recognition of the gifts of life and talent that God has given to you. You don’t have an option to work for justice, it’s an obligation that comes with your education.
In her marvelous new autobiography Fire in My Soul, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, remembers her involvement in the heady days of the civil rights movement. She captures the obligation to work for justice so well in this quotation: “We’re caught in a moment of history not of our own making, called upon to unsnarl a racist past. Someone’s got to do it, and, like it or not, it’s now fallen to us.”
You are the heirs and legatees of the leaders of the civil rights, women’s rights, human rights movements. The legacy of justice that these movements created, that all of us in this room benefited richly from, is in grave danger today. “We’re caught in a moment of history not of our own making”.like it or not, it’s now fallen to us.” To you, as well as me, to all of us who have gifts through Trinity, we must accept the obligation to use them in ways that will regenerate and extend the movements for justice, in the name of peace, in this nation and throughout the world.
Third, to be serious about service and justice, you must also reflect Trinity’s values of intellectual excellence and integrity. You cannot and will not be much good in the justice department if you don’t know the truth, don’t care about integrity, think that life is about sliding by, getting by, not getting caught, making it up as you go along.
The very sad and tragic story of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who plagiarized and lied his way through scores of stories is a riveting, sobering lesson for all of us. At the end of the day, nobody actually gets away with cheating. But more than a morality tale about the inevitability of getting caught, his story reveals the great waste, the great shame, the great sin of a fine mind that was allowed to be lazy, to be sloppy, to cut corners, to make lying a way of life. He lost more than his job, he lost his soul, that’s the worst of it. And, by the way, he did enormous damage to his co-workers, his readers, the subjects of his stories, and a great newspaper. There’s no such thing as a victimless crime when it comes to lying.
Honor and integrity are a lifelong commitment for Trinity Women. The whole point of our Honor System is to make you think seriously and constructively about the importance of honesty in every single thing that you do, whether anyone is watching or not, whether you suffer consequences, or not, for cheating, lying, stealing. Honor is not about avoiding bad consequences, it’s about affirmatively choosing Truth as a core value of your existence.
In choosing Truth as your guide, you also come to Trinity’s most important value, the value of faith as the fabric of life. Our college motto is Scientia Ancilla Fidei, Knowledge, the Servant of Faith. Higher education is about the pursuit of Truth, and in our Catholic tradition, like many other faith traditions we honor on this campus, the closer we come to the Truth, the closer we are to discovery of the divine power that gives us life.
When many of you arrived at Trinity on a hot day in late August of 1999, we met for the first time in Notre Dame Chapel and there I talked about the important values of the education you would experience at Trinity. On that occasion I quoted from Archbishop Oscar Romero, an advocate for freedom and justice for the peoples of Central America who was assassinated while he said Mass because of his courageous leadership for the poor and oppressed. Let me remind you of his words:
“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
“This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders. Ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
As you shoulder the responsibility of the degrees you accept on Sunday, may the Lord’s grace enter your lives in new and more powerful ways, illuminated by the wisdom of the learning you have accomplished through Trinity. May you be truly prophets of the future in charity, in justice and in hope for all of those who will depend upon you to illuminate and guide their days. May the power, wisdom and love of the Trinity go with you through all the days of your lives.
Congratulations, Class of 2003.