President Valerie Smith
I’d like to begin by thanking all who have supported the members of the Class of 2023 along their Swarthmore 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 nourish our students and guests — not to mention their steady support over your years here. We thank the Grounds and Maintenance crews who set up more than three thousand two hundred chairs, as well as countless other setups and breakdowns over the course of this weekend. We appreciate the staff in Environmental Services who keep our campus spaces clean and well-supplied and Public Safety for their careful preparation and planning.
We thank the staff of the Lang Performing Arts Center for supporting so many aspects of producing this event, and the Communications Office who ensure we document the ceremony and make it available so that a wide audience may celebrate with us. And finally, thank you to the staff members who are volunteering today to help make this an enjoyable experience for our guests.
To our graduating seniors — I’m sure you appreciate that you didn’t arrive at this moment on your own. I invite you to pause with me to recognize all those who’ve helped you along the way: our faculty members, who, through their scholarly work and mentorship have nurtured your intellectual and personal development; our Staff members, whose care for your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing has been a constant presence; and the many friends from the Swarthmore community and beyond, who have been there to comfort you, confide in you, and celebrate with you throughout your college years. All played a pivotal role in your Swarthmore experience.
Most importantly, 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 2023, please rise as you are able, turn, and thank your loved ones.
Each year at Commencement, we honor our retiring faculty and long-serving staff members. I ask our entire community to join in recognizing them, with profound acknowledgement of their many decades of service.
Faculty members retiring from the College include: Howard and Ada J. Eavenson Professor Emeritus of Engineering Nelson Macken and James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry Tom Stephenson.
We also recognize the following retiring staff members who have served the College: Michael Devine, Swarthmore Dining; Lawrence Gloner, Facilities; Pam Harris, Libraries; Ruth Krakower, Advancement; Danie Martin, Libraries; Patricia Martin, Off-Campus Study Office; Geoff Semenuk, Advancement; Barbara Watson, Environmental Services; and Kathleen Withington, Title IX Office.
Please join me in thanking and commemorating these long-serving 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.
You, the Class of 2023, have lived through, helped shape, and, in some cases, endured a historic period of transformation at Swarthmore. Some of those changes are more obvious than others. For instance, when you arrived on campus in 2019 — you ate your first meals in the old Sharples Dining Hall. Only part of Maxine Frank Singer Hall was open. You could walk across, rather than around, Mertz Lawn.
Now, you gather with friends to share meals in the beautiful new Dining Center, affectionately known as “Narples.” (That’s “the new Sharples” for all of our guests here today.) Behind me, the former dining hall is being renovated into the new Sharples Community Commons and will serve as a campus hub for students when it opens early next year.
Singer Hall is complete, and in addition to housing biology, engineering, and psychology, it is now a popular spot on campus for students to gather to study individually or in groups.
You’ve navigated — literally and figuratively — the fenced-off Mertz Lawn throughout your senior year. For those who are unaware — behind the fence, we are drilling hundreds of geoexchange wells. I can’t lie — it’s neither the prettiest nor the quietest of projects. But these geothermal wells are essential to our plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, a plan we call To Zero By 35.
These are just a few of a number of campus renewal projects already or soon-to-be underway. Martin Hall is going through a comprehensive renovation into a new home for the departments of Computer Science and Film and Media Studies, as well as the Media Center.
And I’m sure all of our seniors read with great interest and enthusiasm the recent “campus construction” email I sent. That was just the short version. There’s much more to come.
During this time, the campus community has had to endure inconveniences like noise, fewer parking spaces, rerouted walkways, and disrupted vistas. But these inconveniences are in the service of a greater good. We are investing in our facilities to support teaching and learning, faculty research and creative production, the health and safety of all who live and work on our campus, student life, and an environmentally sustainable future for the College and the region.
When you return to campus a few years from now, it will be different yet again. Construction on the Dining and Community Commons and Martin Hall will be complete. We’ll have a new arts plaza by Martin, Lang Music Building, and Lang Performing Arts Center. And the Geoexchange system will be in use in some of our buildings as we work toward building a carbon-free campus. (And yes, you’ll be able to walk across Mertz Lawn once again!)
There are, of course, changes beyond just those to our physical infrastructure. Last spring we launched a strategic planning process to contemplate the future of the curriculum, the student experience beyond the classroom, and the way we live and work in a multicultural democracy and the world. I don’t yet know what recommendations will emerge from the strategic plan, but it’s safe to say that while many programs and initiatives will remain as they are, new ideas and opportunities will surface over the next five to ten years.
I’d be remiss if I did not also mention the profound changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective response to it. It’s hard to believe that during spring break of your first year, we were forced into a sudden period of remote learning. Only in your junior year did you have the experience of being on campus with a full complement of students.
Change, as we all know, is inevitable. It is essential to the rhythm of life, the ebb and flow of experiences that shape us, mold us, and set us on our individual paths. Sometimes — as in our pursuit of a carbon-free campus — change is carefully planned and thoughtfully executed. Other times — as in a global pandemic — it is thrust upon us.
As both individuals and as a community, we need to be open to change. As the novelist Octavia Butler writes in The Parable of the Sower, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” We must embrace change in response to the evolution of work; to political, economic, and technological shifts in the nation and across the globe; and to the new skills and capacities students will require when they graduate. Campus culture must evolve and adapt to the different lived experiences, pressures and challenges, talents and ambitions our students bring with them. But even as the College changes, Swarthmore’s mission to prepare students to contribute to the common good remains a constant. As Jeffrey Scheuer ‘78 observes in his recent book, Inside the Liberal Arts, although Swarthmore offers a wider range of course offerings now than it did when he was a student, it remains a model of the liberal arts ideal at its best: “an ideal that combines intellectual breadth, academic excellence, and moral and civic responsibility.”
As alumni, when you see or learn about changes to the campus, I hope you will be pleased by and proud of the ways Swarthmore evolves. If you are tempted to ask what happened to your Swarthmore, I hope you’ll remember that your Swarthmore lives not in its buildings and spaces, but in our mission, and in each of you. And I might suggest that in ways both perceptible and immeasurable — Swarthmore has changed you.
Earlier this week, I was reading a series of senior spotlights (which can be found in the digital program for this Commencement ceremony) in which several members of the Class of 2023 reflected on their time at Swarthmore. In them, I saw some of the ways Swarthmore lives in them now, signs of how Swarthmore has and will continue to shape who they will become. At Swarthmore, Quincy Ponvert has learned “to live in the extremes, to commit myself wholeheartedly and to love intensely.” Marie Inniss has learned “to experiment artistically in a way that allowed me to fail safely and succeed triumphantly.” Daniel Torres Balauro has developed “a passion for creating positive change in the world.” And through studying abroad and “being pushed outside my comfort zone in the art I made,” Jocelyn Auld “became much more confident in myself.”
Each of you will find Swarthmore in yourselves in different ways and at different points throughout your lives. Your education here has not just prepared you to adapt to change, but to be the architects of it. It has equipped you with the ability to question, to analyze, to create. In your hands, you hold the power to shape the world around you - to introduce changes that can make our society more inclusive, equitable, and just.
So when a library bans books and you are moved to speak out about the emancipatory power of knowledge, you will know that Swarthmore lives in you.
When you read about the plight of the unhoused in your community and you join with neighbors and advocates to seek solutions to this pervasive, seemingly intractable problem, you will know that Swarthmore lives in you.
When you have had enough of what is happening in federal, state, or local politics and you decide to mobilize voters, support a campaign, or even run for public office yourself, you will know that Swarthmore lives in you.
You will know that Swarthmore lives in you when you advocate for and support someone who is treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation.
And when as a parent you encourage your child to love learning and to ask how and why, you will know that Swarthmore lives in you. And we hope that someday Swarthmore will live in them.
When you creatively confront problems, rather than walking away from them; when you seize the opportunity to explore a new career path; when you pursue an activity simply because it piques your curiosity; when you listen deeply and actively to someone whose viewpoint differs from your own – that will be Swarthmore in you!
Members of the Class of 2023, we are beyond proud of what you’ve accomplished these past four years. We are excited to follow your respective journeys ahead. And we look forward to welcoming you back to campus over and over again. Congratulations!