Remarks: Merion Mercy Academy Commencement, 2003
Sister Regina Ward, Sisters of Mercy, members of the Faculty and Staff of Merion Mercy, Parents and Friends of the graduates, and you, the Class of 2003: Congratulations on this great day! You, Merion’s Class of 2003, are a remarkable group of young women and I am proud to welcome you into the distinguished ranks of alumnae of our alma mater. Thanks as well for asking me to share this great occasion with you.
Wonderful memories flood my mind today as I look around this gymnasium and remember so many important, solemn, fun and festive moments here. My own link to the tradition of Mercy actually started a few years before I was born, in 1948, when my mother enrolled my older sister Mary Carol in kindergarten here at what was then known as Mater Misericordiae Academy. My sister also served for a number of years as a Sister of Mercy, and several of my brothers attended Waldron for part of their elementary education. So, Mom’s been a Mercy Parent for at least 55 years!
As a college president, I have the good fortune to work with one foot always firmly planted in the land of the young. But as the years go by, and as I greet new classes of young women enrolling at Trinity College, I find myself wondering with increasing frequency how to establish some common bond across the wide span of our years. What can someone from the Analog Era have to say to the Digital Generation?
I learned many valuable lessons here at Merion — the love of language, the ability to write and speak very well, the sense of leadership and responsibility for others. But the other day, as I was thinking of all the noble skills and values that Merion instilled in me — like the ability to sight translate Virgil and Cicero better than most other mere mortals in 1970 — and I was pounding these thoughts out on the keyboard of my laptop, it suddenly struck me as both ironic and iconic that one of the most valuable skills that Merion taught me was the ability to type. And not just on any old typewriter — certainly not a computer keyboard, since such items did not exist, at least in our universe back then. No, one of the required courses in this fine college preparatory school was Typing, learned on good old-fashioned Remington manual machines. Not electric. With cloth ribbons. No self-correcting tape. With a return bar that you had to keep pushing back to move forward on the page. Good heavens! How did somebody who grew up on a Remington learn to beam instant messages across the sky with a PDA?
This is the whole point of education at Merion: the empowerment of students to keep on learning, even when modern invention outstrips the imagination of the previous age. This is an education that has ingrained in each of us the knowledge and skills that are timeless — the structure of language, the discipline of research, the large view of history, even the mundane, but necessary, ability to type. At the same time, our Merion education has prepared us well to be lifelong learners, able to adapt our knowledge and skills continuously, to keep on learning well beyond the days of formal education. This is true liberal learning at its best.
Now, in spite of the obvious differences between the Class of 2003 and the Class of 1970, we have also had remarkably similar high school experiences. We both attended high school in an age of war and terrorism. The arc of war from Vietnam to Iraq is not that long. In the 1960’s, the assassination of leaders (John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King) was its own demented form of terrorism, but we did not name it as such in those days.
We have both been witness to the great American struggle with the issue of race — the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, the debate over affirmative action today.
We both reaped the benefits of being young enough to enjoy the courageous hard work of older generations of women, pioneers who blazed trails for us. Like you, my classmates and I believed that we had the right to do anything we wanted to do, without regard to gender, a great and liberating thought. This was a very different thought from the women who graduated in decades before us.
We both came of age wondering about the dangers ahead. In the spring of 1970 our danger seemed more domestic than international, symbolized in the National Guard shootings of students who were demonstrating for peace at Kent State University. Your danger may be summarized in the phrase “Homeland Security,” a danger that is both domestic and foreign.
When we started high school, whether 1999 or 1966, neither you nor I could have imagined the concept of September 11, and how the echoes of that day will reverberate through our lives for years to come.
When I had the pleasure of meeting you a few weeks ago, I was delighted, but not surprised, to find you as self-possessed, as ambitious, as well-spoken and as high-minded as every group of young women who have sat on this stage before you. There’s a certain timeless mystique, a charisma that comes with being what we used to call the “Mater Girl,” the Woman of Mercy. You, Merion’s Class of 2003, you wear this tradition of Women of Mercy very well. You are deeply caring; you put your good intentions to work in the spirit and practice of service. You have honored the heritage of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy.
You asked me not to be trite, so, if today I say that you are marking a major moment of transition from one stage of life to another, please do not roll your eyes too much. It happens to be true. I promise not to use the words “setting sail,” “embarking,” “new journey,” or “crossroads” —- at least not intentionally!
You are taking your leave of a place that has been both challenging and comforting for you, a source of growth and sometimes frustration, a time of discovery and hard work and occasional boredom with the roteness of certain kinds of learning. Merion is a place where you learned about love and trust; perhaps you lost a few friends but gained better ones; won some respect and earned the right to sit on this stage today. You cannot stay here in this familiar habitat, that’s one of the great rules of human life. You have to graduate from high school and move on. Your eagerness to do so, whether admitted or not, is not any lack of love or respect for Merion, but rather, a natural result of the good job that Merion has done in preparing you for the next stage of your lives. If you weren’t somehow eager to leave, deep down, then Merion has not done its job properly.
Merion has done a great job in preparing you for higher education. You are about to enroll in a marvelous list of colleges and universities, and your list of acceptances and scholarships is a great tribute to your excellence and Merion’s fine education.
When you get to college, you will really begin the test of how well Merion has done its job with you. College is a time of many discoveries, and the test of your Merion education will be found in how well you are able to cope with and master the new learning you encounter.
Long experience has shown me that there are five great discoveries for students in college. First, you will discover great freedom. Second, in freedom, you will find many choices. Third, with choice comes risk. Fourth, the greatest risk will be your journey far into the life of the mind. Fifth, through that journey, you will enlarge and illuminate the core values of your life, those ideas and passions that will give meaning to the rest of your days.
Let’s consider each of these discoveries.
By freedom, I do not mean the absence of rules that indulges so much bad college student behavior. Indeed, the misunderstanding of the fundamental idea of freedom has given more than one college freshman a major headache, while giving deans full employment and keeping parents well supplied with Alka-seltzer.
Rather, the real freedom that you will discover in college is a serious taskmaster, because it is the freedom of the well educated mind, true liberal learning. This is a freedom that liberates the human mind from stereotypes and prejudices; this is a freedom that drives the search for truth that questions old assumptions on the way to new hypotheses. But letting go of old ideas can be painful; exploring new and unfamiliar territories can be frightening. You will learn things about yourself you may not like; and you will discover parts of your soul you never knew existed. This is the real meaning of freedom: the freedom to discover yourself and what makes you whole, so that you can give so much more of yourself to others.
To secure this freedom, take every learning opportunity that comes your way. Go to that lecture, that concert; study abroad, go to museums; play sports — varsity or intramural, no matter, get out there and play. Ask questions, always. Do not sit through a single class in silence. Speak up! Do not copy everything down —- listen to the whole, take it all in, challenge what you hear, debate the premises and assumptions of your instruction. Yes, debate your teachers! College is a dialogue, not a monologue. Your faculty will expect you to be thoughtfully feisty and rigorous in your challenges to them.
Take every course that you can, especially in subjects that you might never study again. Don’t limit your study to your major program and required core. Explore! You’ll have plenty of time in life to become the world’s leading authority on the decline of nation states, or the rise of bio mechanics, or the sociology of Phillies fans. You may never again have the chance to study the physics of music or to excavate old graveyards or snorkel through a Florida swamp to understand environmental destruction. But one daring course may inflame your mind for decades — might even change the course of your life. This is the freedom of college: the moment belongs to you; take full advantage! Give yourself the opportunity to change your mind about everything, from the clothes you wear to the friends you choose to the course of your life, forever.
With such freedom, you will discover choices. Learning to make choices wisely, ethically and in a disciplined manner is the roadmap through the territory of freedom. If it is any good at all, your college should be a place that teaches you how to draw this map properly, how to make choices well.
Learning to make good choices is an integral part of developing your sense of ethics and integrity both professionally and personally. Your Merion education has provided you with a superb foundation for the many temptations that will come. One of the great scandals of our time, made easier by the presence of so much research on the Internet, is the casual acceptance, among college students and young professionals, of the practice of presenting someone else’s work as your own. In academic terms, this is plagiarism, cheating, a thoroughly disreputable act. But as we have recently seen in the case of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who plagiarized and fabricated scores of stories, it’s very easy to do this and somewhat hard to be stopped. His tragic story should be a clear warning for every student and teacher: nobody wins when somebody cheats.
An ethical person does not think about getting caught, the ethical person chooses what is right, all the time, regardless of whether anyone else is in the room to see you.
With choice, comes risk.
If you never take risks, you will not become well educated. A college education that does not pose certain risks for you is not worth the price. What do I mean by risk? Risk is not about doing stupid things (like some of the stunts performed on a certain MTV show whose name is a synonym for donkey). Risk is about having the courage to reach farther than you might have done previously, but with knowledge and skill. Eleanor Roosevelt described it well: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, We Learn By Living)
You have a wonderful example of this kind of risk-taking ingrained in your Mercy heritage. Catherine McAuley was a great risk-taker. She built the foundation for some of the largest Catholic educational and medical systems the world has known. In a recent study of Catholic nuns in America entitled Sisters, the author John Fialka describes the magnetic attraction that Catherine McAuley had for many young women and girls in her native Ireland: “It seems clear that some were drawn by McAuley’s sense of freedom: she made business deals and took risks, much like a man. There was a palpable, driving force behind McAuley “. [which] may stem from the strength of her faith and her feeling that the human soul…had incalculable value and beauty.”
You can use your freedom to take big risks like Catherine McAuley, to focus your passion, which is driven by your faith, on building the means to take action for the great causes of your lives.
Now, with all this talk about freedom and risk, I see some parents rustling in their seats. At some point, if the educational process is really working, you will become very scared for your daughter, and perhaps very angry. Maybe even she’ll come close to breaking your heart, or so it will seem, because her ideas and customs and direction will seem quite strange at times. Do not abandon her. She is on a great adventure. Be there for her. This does not mean that you should indulge her collegiate excesses. Do not under any circumstances give her a gold American Express Card! Do not let her use you to solve her problems. Do not call the dean for her.
The experience we call college is deliberately constructed as a journey deep into the life of the mind, the intellectual life that you will live in your college days. You will learn about the commonality of human experience; by studying the lives of others, you will learn how to make your own choices. You will turn to the voices of literature and the arts to understand more completely the behavior of human beings. You will weep with Shakespeare’s King Harry on the bloody plains of Avignon, and you will feel Portia’s passion for the quality of mercy; you will contemplate the beauty of the Grecian urn and the silence of the alabaster chambers; you will taste the dust of Steinbeck’s Oklahoma plains, and Toni Morrison’s maiden aunts will envelope the corners of your mind.
You will seek clues to your own soul in the movements of Mozart and the brush strokes of old masters and new women artists. And still driven by the desire to understand the humanity that will be yours to lead and to change in the future, you will peer deeply into the microscopes and beakers of the science laboratories, listening for the voices that emerge in the codes and symbols of the components of human life.
Through this journey, as you listen to the old and discover the new, you will find within yourself the core values that will guide your life, the values of integrity, justice, love and service that will excite your passion for those causes that will be your life’s work. You will discover your own voice, and you will learn how to speak up and speak out with confidence, advocating on behalf of justice for those who have no voice, speaking the truth in rooms that echo with deception. You will learn to be leaders of integrity and compassion, servant leaders who know that true justice is not about ‘getting mine, too,’ not about vengeance, but rather, about giving to others because that is what we owe to God for the gift of our lives and talents. You will come to understand more completely why peace is essential for justice to thrive.
You will develop a philosophy of living, which is the whole idea of the university according to the framework established a long time ago by the famous priest and philosopher Cardinal Newman. Your philosophy of living will help you to develop the myriad roles that a woman in the 21st Century must fulfill: executive, professional, civic activist, volunteer, good consumer, wife, mother, caretaker of aging parents and relatives, neighbor, friend, peacemaker.
You will learn that there is no such thing as only one life’s work for a woman, one singular pathway. A woman’s life is consumed with the idea of service and support through a wide web of relationships and actions. The writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote of this in her beautiful meditation Gift from the Sea:
“For to be a woman is to have interests and duties raying out in all directions form the central mother-core, like spokes from the hub of a wheel. The pattern of our lives is essentially circular. We must be open to all points of the compass; husband, children, friends, home, community; stretched out, exposed, sensitive like a spider’s web to each breeze that blows, to each call that comes…
“…When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth….”
Women of Mercy, Class of 2003, with this education may you be faithful stewards of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
As you go forth from this beautiful graduation day, may you never be far from the friends you have now, sitting beside you, who have been so much a part of your learning and living in your days at Merion.
May the lessons of this education go with you, always, giving you the intellectual, moral and spiritual center around which to weave that web of activity that will be your contribution to society.
May you know the joy of achievement and the reward of work well done.
May you grow each day as women of leadership and faith, living the example of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy, knowing the great gifts of hope and charity that are the breath and life of God within us.
Congratulations, Class of 2003!