Skip to main content

President Valerie Smith

I’d like to begin by thanking all who have helped the members of the Class of 2016 along their dizzying and dazzling journey: faculty members who have dedicated their energy, talent, and compassion to your intellectual and personal development, and staff members who have cared for you and for our beautiful campus. On this Commencement morning, we extend our deepest appreciation to our dining staff who worked tirelessly to provide 700 meals at breakfast, 1,200 boxed lunches, and over 4,000 cookies to our students and guests! Thank you to our grounds crew who set up over 2,500 chairs in this bucolic setting, as well as countless other setups and breakdowns over the course of this weekend. Thank you to our EVS staff who keep our campus spaces clean and well supplied. And thank you to the Public Safety and maintenance crews on hand for this event. Thank you to our ushers from the Offices of the Dean, Admissions, Facilities, and Development. And we are grateful to our alumni who support this institution so generously and today welcome you into the Swarthmore Alumni Association.

Thank you to friends who gather today to be with you. Not one of you has gone through this experience alone; your friends have been with you in good times and have been by your side when you struggled. You will go on to make other friends, but if you are like many other Swarthmore alumni, the friendships you’ve made here will last your lifetime.

Most especially today, let us say thank you to parents, family members, and caregivers who supported your education, who cheered your triumphs, who helped you learn from the problems you confronted, and who today are filled with pride. Your graduation represents a moment of joy, accomplishment, and celebration for all of your loved ones. Class of 2016, please rise as you are able, turn, and thank your families. 

I ask our entire community, most especially students, faculty, and staff to recognize, with profound acknowledgement of their service, the faculty who retire this year: Sharon Friedler, Director of Dance; Cindy Halpern, Associate Professor of Political Science; John Jenkins, Professor of Genetics; Frank Moscatelli, Edward Hicks Magill Professor of Mathematics and Natural Sciences; and Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action.

We recognize, as well, the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 20 years or longer: Barbara Addison, Peace Collection/McCabe Library; Connie Baxter, development and alumni relations; Carol Brévart Demm, communications; June Cianfrana, art; Lynne Cottman, dining services; Carmelina (Millie) Dappollone, development & alumni relations; Maurice Eldridge, college & community relations; Elaine Hayman, dining services; Richard Kelly, heat plant; Grant Smith, engineering; and Miriam (Mimi) Weiler, advancement systems.

Please join me in thanking these very special members of our community who, by their wisdom, service, and allegiance, have contributed to Swarthmore's excellence and your experience here.            

On a recent flight between London and Philadelphia, I watched a film I had wanted to see since it first came out last year: Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van. The film is based on the true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett, the acclaimed British playwright and author, and Mary Shepherd, an elderly transient woman, played by the incomparable Maggie Smith, who parks her van in his driveway. When Bennett agrees to let her stay on his property, he thinks it will be just for a few days, but by the time it’s all over, she has lived there for 15 years. Near the end of the film, as the Alan Bennett character reflects on the impact of this association on his life, he observes:

Starting out as someone incidental to my life, she remained on the edge of it so long, she became not incidental to it at all. As home bound sons and daughters looking after their parents think of it as just marking time before their lives start, so, like them, I learned there is no such thing as marking time, and that time marks you. In accommodating her and accommodating to her, I find years of my life have gone.

On this Commencement morning, I invite you to pause with me for a moment to consider Bennett’s distinction between marking time and being marked by it. I’m intrigued by this distinction because of what it tells us both about the nature of life’s journey, and about the role of perspective. 

As young people progress through the high-stakes world of middle school, high school and college education, it can feel as if you are marking time, waiting for your life to begin. It sometimes feels that you are getting through middle school waiting for high school to begin; then focusing on going off to college; then waiting for college to end so that your real life can begin. Is Commencement the beginning of your real life?

Bennett’s words are pertinent at this moment because they remind us that none of our moments are in between times, to be gotten through as we race on to the next thing. The journey is not a means to an end. The journey is the thing, it is the end. Or, as Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Each moment is precious and is marking us in some way whether we notice it or not. As graduates of one of the world’s greatest liberal arts institutions, you are uniquely poised to appreciate the ways in which your college experience has marked you. 

You have grown intellectually. In your coursework, lab work, performances, studio work and independent research you have delved deeply into one or two specific areas of study and have gained confidence in your mastery of a particular discipline. By satisfying graduation requirements, you have been challenged to immerse yourself in departments and ways of knowing that lie outside your areas of comfort.  Internships and other beyond-the-classroom experiences have helped you to understand the powerfully human implications of topics like conflict, inequality, and justice, subjects that students often only read about and discuss in the abstract.

Furthermore, I suspect that you have come to appreciate the ways in which your dedication to co-curricular activities: arts organizations, athletics, cultural groups, student government, and other student organizations have contributed to your emotional and spiritual growth as well.  Through these activities, you have learned teamwork, self-discipline, self-advocacy, the art of compromise, and the ability to work collaboratively with others.

Your academics and your organized activities are your foreground experiences. As Bennett suggests, background experiences shape you as well. Did a chance conversation form the basis of a close friendship or relationship? Did a regular chat with an EVS tech, a dining services employee, a librarian, or a member of the grounds crew give you an important insight and make you feel more at home? Did a work-study job help you discover a passion for a newfound hobby or your professional calling? Did a poster or email grab your attention and prompt you to pursue a study abroad program? Did a moment of solitude and contemplation teach you something about yourself? Years from now, you may be surprised to find that, in your memory, these background experiences make their way to the foreground, while others fade away. We cannot always anticipate, plan, and predict the moments that will shape us. What matters is that we are fully present for each of these counters, whether big or small.

Let me give you a more specific example. Last month, I attended the final session of Professor Keith Reeves’ seminar entitled The Politics of Punishment. Offered under the auspices of the Inside/Out Prison Initiative Program, this course was taught at the State Correctional Institution at Chester and comprised 12 Swarthmore students (the outside students) and 12 incarcerated students (the inside students). This course focuses on a topic of great interest to many, namely “the interplay among American electoral politics, public concerns regarding crime, and criminal justice policy.” Together the faculty and the students examine questions such as:

  • Why are so many Americans either locked up behind bars or under the supervision of the criminal justice system?
  • What explains the racial and class differences in criminal behavior and incarceration rates?
  • What does it mean to be poor, a person of color – and in “jail” or in “prison’?
  • How and why does criminal justice policy in this country have its roots in both the media culture and political campaigns?

Since the class I attended was the final session, all the students—the inside and the outside students—were asked to reflect upon their experience in the course and what they had learned. One young woman described how much she had learned about issues of inequality in our criminal justice system; another remarked that she appreciated the fact that the course didn’t merely address the problem of injustice in our criminal justice system; it also allowed students the opportunity to research and propose reforms to the system in such areas as after-school youth programs and resources for transitioning incarcerated persons back into their communities.

So a number of the students spoke about what they had learned from the content of the course. But the majority reflected upon the personal and emotional impact the class had had upon them. A couple mentioned that during the past semester they had undergone health issues or a personal loss. The class was a lifeline for them; they looked forward to their developing relationships with the professor and with each other during a period of grief and suffering. One said that the class taught him how to be vulnerable with other people; another said that it gave him back his humanity. 

I was especially struck by a comment that one Swarthmore student made. She said that in an environment that is as intellectually demanding as Swarthmore is, and where students are encouraged to be rigorous critical thinkers, it is easy to become cynical. Being in class with the incarcerated students, she realized that her cynicism is a manifestation of her privilege. Her incarcerated classmates couldn’t afford to be cynical. They needed to be hopeful. So she learned from the class the value of making space for hope in her life and in her heart. This lesson was drawn not from the syllabus and the readings  -- the foreground if you will -- but from the conversations that took place week after week.

As you leave this place, take time to reflect on the ways that it has shaped you. And as you move forward into the next stage of your life, I urge you to cultivate the habits of open mindedness and openheartedness you’ve learned in our residential community. Our primary commitments – work, family, cultural, religious, and political affiliations – all have much to teach us. But the serendipitous encounters, petty annoyances, in between times, and unremarkable moments are rich with meaning as well, if we take the time to observe and reflect upon them. As the poet Rita Dove observes: “Nothing is too small.  Nothing is too . . . ordinary or insignificant. Those are the things that make up the measure of our days, and they’re the things that sustain us.” This habit of mind can help us to perceive the web of connection that binds our moments to each other; it can hone our intuition; and it can cultivate our sense of compassion towards others.

Neither your education nor your association with Swarthmore College ends here. As your alma mater, we claim you as a member of this family for the rest of your life — whether you like it or! And this is not merely a kinship with your classmates, the staff who cared for you and the spaces you occupied, the professors with whom you worked. You are now part of a global, multi-generational community of people who, like you, have been shaped by this place, and have helped to shape it. And you have a connection to those who will follow you. We need you to help us find, recruit, and support the generations of students who will follow you, whether they call themselves Swarthmoreans, Swatties, Swarthmorons, or some yet-to-be-coined name!

So stay in touch with us, write often, and remember that this place will always be yours, marked BY you, just as you have been marked by it.

Class of 2016, thank you, and all best wishes to each and every one of you.

Watch: Commencement 2016 - Valerie Smith