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President Valerie Smith


I’d like to begin by thanking all who have helped the members of the Class of 2018 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, and over 4,000 cookies to our students and guests! We thank the Grounds and Maintenance crews who set up over 3,300 chairs and installed this “roof” in this bucolic setting, as well as countless other setups and breakdowns over the course of this weekend. We appreciate the EVS staff who keep our campus spaces clean and well supplied and Public Safety for their careful preparation and planning. We thank Media Services and Communications who allow us to stream this ceremony so that a wide audience may celebrate with us. And finally, thank you to the ushers from the offices of the dean, admissions, facilities, and advancement. 

We also want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the friends who gather today to be with you. No member of the graduating class 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. Members of the Class of 2018, 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:  Rachel Merz, professor of biology and Don Shimamoto, professor of mathematics and statistics.

We recognize, as well, the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 20 years or longer: Stu Hain, VP of Facilities and Capital Projects; Teresa Heinrichs, Cornell Library; and Janet Kassab, in Dining Services who sadly passed away on April 6, 2018.  

Please join me in thanking and commemorating these special members of our community who, by their wisdom, service, and allegiance, have played an important role in shaping Swarthmore's excellence and your experience here. 

I invite us all to take this moment to reflect upon and honor Anthony Chiarenza, a member of the Class of 2018, who passed away in October 2015.

Anthony was a humble, deeply cherished member of this community whose spirit enriched and enlivened all who knew him. When we celebrate you, Class of 2018, we celebrate the values of our community, and we celebrate the values which Anthony so strongly lived by: generosity, kindness, and love. During his time at Swarthmore, he had a profound impact upon the lives of  many of you, whether it was through board game nights in Kohlberg, his passion for the sciences, or through his work reviving the Queer Straight Alliance. On April 1st, 2016, the date of Anthony’s 20th birthday, the College dedicated a tree on campus in his memory. We pause to remember Anthony today; he will always be a member of the Swarthmore community. Please join me in a moment of silence in honor of Anthony Chiarenza.

Thank you.

Today the members of the Class of 2018 celebrate their completion of one of the most rigorous and rewarding liberal arts educations offered anywhere in the world. Whatever their major, minor, or combination of majors and minors, they have excelled at an institution that has trained them to think critically, to write and to speak persuasively, to solve problems, and to understand how they learn. They have received an education that is both deep and broad. Their professors have pushed them beyond their zones of comfort and required them to gain some familiarity with multiple ways of knowing. So our natural science majors have taken humanities and social science courses. Our arts and humanities students have taken courses in the natural and social sciences. And students who major in the social sciences have taken classes in the humanities and natural sciences.  Rather than preparing them for a single career path, their education has prepared them to adapt to multiple career paths, and to respond to life’s inevitable developments, disappointments and opportunities. 

Swarthmore College attracts students who possess an innate intellectual curiosity, and we cultivate their desire to be life-long learners. I’ve recently been thinking about what intellectual curiosity looks like and why it’s important. I’m reminded of what it means to be an intellectually curious, life-long learner when I look at the non-linear career path of our alumni – for example, the alumnus who started his career in finance and then became a musician. Or the engineer who decided to found a liberal arts college. Or the history major who became a physician. Our honorary degree recipients are intellectually curious as well; they have seized opportunities to create, produce and contribute in a wide variety of arenas.  

We also see that curiosity and passion for learning among our students everyday. We see it in their poster presentations, in their lab research, in their art exhibitions, in their music and dance performances, in their passion for the work they do in their academic departments, in the projects they develop as social or technological innovators, and in many other areas. We see it in athletic competitions. Anyone who watches our teams can see that our  student-athletes are intellectual as well as athletic. They operate in a distinctly Swarthmore fashion; they are analytic, they think fast, and they know how to work together to problem solve and to get the job done. This year alone, five of our varsity teams have had record-breaking seasons. Let me also mention that three seniors on the baseball team are not here today. They are in Wisconsin with the team competing for a national championship in the Division III World Series.   

I’d like to take a few moments today to  highlight a program that showcases our students’ intellectual curiosity. The President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship Program exists at the intersection of the curriculum and co-curricular activities and exemplifies the core values of our liberal arts education.  

Sponsored by the office of Sustainability, the Environmental Studies Program, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and my office, the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship Program matches twelve students a year with staff, faculty, neighbors or alumni mentors who help them to identify a campus or local sustainability challenge, and to research, develop and implement a project in response to it. The students commit to a year-long course and associated internship. During that year, they learn to bring about change in a large organization and gain invaluable experience with project management, communications and advocacy.

Redesigning our College’s waste management system, developing a plan to steward the Crum Woods in the midst of which we sit today, implementing a campus carbon charge, developing greater energy efficiency in the design and construction of new buildings. These are but a few of the initiatives that our students have undertaken.  Through this program students experience  the multi-disciplinary heart of our education. They learn to take responsibility for the community in which they live; to use their academic talents to solve persistent problems; to work collaboratively with others; and to communicate the importance of their solutions to audiences of specialists and non-specialists alike.  

One student, a Spanish major from California, worked with administrative and facilities staff to design a more efficient waste management system in one of our administrative buildings. We have set a College-wide waste diversion goal of 80 percent by 2022; campus-wide we are now at approximately 40 percent. This student’s work moved the building to which she was assigned to 64 percent -- not bad for one year’s worth of work.  

But the success of her work can be measured beyond the material target she set -- the waste diversion goal. As she describes her project, one can tell that she is especially intrigued by the unanticipated lessons she learned. For example, her work taught her the value of building and sustaining community. As she put the waste diversion project in place, she developed meaningful relationships with Environmental Services and administrative staff, and she also helped these employees forge meaningful relationships with each other. 

In turn, these results have prompted her to reflect about how the amount of time we spend doing work relates to our goals for sustainability. To what extent, she asks, do our workplaces “demand so much from people that we have created a system that forces us to sacrifice stronger social relationships, health, and the environment for our work.” As I listened to her present her findings a few weeks ago, I was struck by her ability to move from the material consequences, to the sociological implications of her project, to its ethical dimensions. And I was struck by the depth of feeling she displayed as she moved from one level of questioning to the next. This ability to peel back the layers of her project; to turn it and come at its key questions from different perspectives, is a mark of the liberal arts mind at work. Through this program she developed her capacity for project management, collaboration, and effective communication. But she also developed what novelist Zadie Smith describes as a capacity for perspective, the “gift” of the “many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility.” 

To the members of the great Class of 2018, you leave this College with a finely-honed gift of intellectual curiosity, one of the hallmarks of a great liberal arts education.   In a world in which machines have taken on much of the work that humans once did, and where work itself may cease to define who we are, that intellectual curiosity, and its inherent capacity for joy and wonder, are fast becoming some of the remaining capabilities that define our humanity.   

I encourage you to be grateful for that gift, to treasure it, and not to take it for granted. Assume that there will always be layers of meaning beneath the surface. That intellectual curiosity will bring you joy, and it will be a source of wonder for decades to come.  

Commencement 2018 Valerie Smith