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Dartmouth Commencement 2009

Posted 06/14/09

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Valedictory address by President James Wright

President James Wright
President James Wright
Listen to Commencement remarks by President Wright (11:37, 10.7mb)

Members of the class of 2009, this moment has annually afforded me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to the graduates—and I do so now for the eleventh and final time as president. I salute the Class of 2009. This is your day. I am confident that you will forever cherish this occasion; there will be few times in your lives when you will be surrounded by so many who care so much about you.

Your hearts, I know, are filled with many things on this day. My custom, and my pleasure, is to participate with you in acknowledging one of them: a sense of gratitude. I join you and ask you to join me in thanking the faculty who taught you, as well as learned with you, the staff who supported you, the families who sacrificed for you, and the friends who sustained you. Thank you all.

And I also would like to extend a special salute to all who received graduate and professional degrees. We celebrate your accomplishments, and we are enriched by your contributions to this community of learning. We have full confidence in you and all that you will accomplish.

So here we are at Commencement, by definition and design a beginning, not an end—hard though it is for some of us to get our arms around that distinction today. But we shall. My approach to this ceremony has been to encourage graduates, on a day filled with memories, to embrace the future.

We acknowledge that this is a beginning in a world that is different from the one you likely imagined when you came to Dartmouth. And that fact alone should provide all the rationale you need for the value of a Dartmouth education.

The liberal arts provides you with the intellectual capacity to deal with the unexpected. And the best advice I can give is that you should always expect the unexpected.

The Class of 1959, whom we welcome today in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their Commencement, can affirm that the world in which lives are lived and dreams are pursued is an unpredictable place. Despite this, they accomplished much, and we salute them with pride and welcome them back with affection.

But you also know about unpredictability. Your class matriculated during the same year as the tragedy of Katrina; you saw war in Iraq reach its most violent depths; you were horrified by acts of genocide; you spent your senior year facing the headwinds of the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. But you also shared in the excitement of the historic inauguration of an African American as president of the United States, bore witness to the first Olympic games hosted in China. You experienced firsthand the power of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which will change the ways in which we interact with one another.

In your time here, you have engaged the forces of change, the twists of fate and the turns of history. Some of you volunteered to support Katrina’s victims; others joined the political campaigns. You advocated for the people of Darfur; you decided to enlist in the military or to join the Peace Corps or to teach or to participate in service groups. And all of you are imbued with a commitment to make a difference and the confidence to believe that you can, whether you seek to do that on the world’s stage, in your profession, or in your local community.

Over the years I have shared with graduates some of my observations about the potential they have in a world of change. I would summarize them:

It is fine to seek fame and fortune. You never need to be defensive about pursuing material dreams, which many of you will succeed in achieving. But the best things in life cannot be counted or owned. Rather, they can be enjoyed—and they can be most fully enjoyed with those whom you care about and those who care about you.

A corollary is that each of us associated with Dartmouth is privileged, regardless of the degree of privilege with which we arrived here.

And with privilege comes responsibility, a responsibility to those who do not share our good luck. No personal accomplishment is as rewarding as watching those whom you have encouraged, mentored, taught, and supported accomplish their dreams.

Thirdly, be independent and self-sufficient, but be those things without also being selfish or lonely. Reach out to help others or to seek a helping hand when you need it.

And, finally, even though many of you think you know what you will do with your lives and when you will do it, you are due for some surprises.

Embrace the surprises and pursue the unplanned. Lives are things to be lived; they are not agendas to be followed.

My approach to this ceremony has been to encourage graduates, on a day filled with emotion, to embrace the future. I still do that even as I grapple with the same bittersweet feelings of not being quite sure about letting go of the present.

Each of our lives is energized by our dreams and aspirations and is anchored by experiences that fill our memories. Memories are wonderful, but for the young it is dreams that must dominate.

You can all be forgiven for allowing memories of friends and experiences, of the sights and sounds of this place, to fill your thoughts today. So they do with me. But we all need to resist surrendering to memory in ways that suggest that the best parts of our lives are done. Dartmouth encourages our aspirations and our confidence; let us not relegate this place of optimism and hope to the fixed frame of memory.

As I told you four years ago, we have work to do, you and I. And so now we each move on to another phase of that life assignment.

As we do, Susan and I will follow your accomplishments even while we pursue our own new adventures and dreams. If the memories of my life enrich it immensely, I am not yet ready to allow them to crowd out the dreams. But I surely shall cherish those dreams and those memories.

But now, now it is time for leave taking. And this takes on a new and more personal meaning for me today. As Dr. Seuss asked, “My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late, so soon?”

But finally this day is about you, and surely it is for you. We know that you go forth from Dartmouth in good and capable hands—your own.

Near the end of the nineteenth century Walt Whitman wrote, "the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung." We leave them, still, for your voices. But know too as you leave today that the door here is always open. The Inuit sculpture standing in front of McNutt Hall reminds us of Dartmouth's historic ties and ongoing commitment to Native American education. But that is more than a reminder of our history. It also whispers to each of us "welcome," welcome as you always will be here. You are ever a part of Dartmouth undying, as Dartmouth is forever a part of you.

President John Sloan Dickey always concluded his annual commencement address by saying, “And now the word is ‘so long’ because in the Dartmouth fellowship there is no parting.”

So, good and sustaining friends, congratulations. I am so very proud of you. Good luck.

And… so long.

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