Commencement Address

Suzanne Dunham Fong gave the address to the class of 2015.

So here we are. We are graduating. You are about to enter the fellowship of “learned women and men.”  These funny hats (which I can’t keep on my head) and floppy gowns remind us that society stretches back a thousand years, when students gathered around learned masters to study. Robes kept them warm and identified pupils of different subjects; beer lubricated the discussion and led to such frequent brawls that, even today, at Harvard the sheriff of Middlesex County, horsed and in knee breeches, leads the academic procession as a symbolic reminder that order must be kept.  So even that headache a few of you are probably nursing today – it has historic roots. 

Suzanne Fong gave the commencement address.Suzanne Fong gave the commencement address.Was it worth it?

When you attended your first convocation with Bobby four years ago, none of us knew quite what the next four years would hold. For all of us, it was our first year at Ursinus.  We were excited—you arrived, ready to make friends, a little nervous.  The campus waited for you with days of orientation activities planned to help you get settled….and the power went out.  And stayed out.  And you have never seen Dean Nolan and Bobby Fong as frantic as they tried to figure out what to do with 350 eighteen year olds with nothing to do. So you went to the movies. And do you remember Hurricane Sandy? Parents day turned into a massive campus evacuation, with many of those who lived far away being taken in by those of you who lived closer. I broke my leg – Ursus helped — but still managed to dance with Bobby at his inauguration. An unexpected snowstorm deprived a Sunday Messiah performance of organist, musicians, and soloists—-but the music was glorious. A president died, followed by a dearly beloved professor and former ambassador, mentor to so many of you. Oh, and a fountain disappeared by you did naked Slip N’ Slide anyway. You have certainly learned one lesson over these four years: life is what happens when you are making other plans.  You can do much, but your powers are limited. A bachelor’s, or master’s, or doctoral degree will not make you invincible, or guarantee a path or success. 

So, was it worth it?

The people behind me think so. They have poured their hearts and souls into teaching you.  They have donated hours of time and many, many dollars to keep this college vibrant.  The people behind you think so. They have driven you, reassured you, given up vacations, new clothes, meals out, worked long hours to make sure you made it to this moment. The people all around and behind this tent think so. They the ones who ushered you in, parked your cars, they’ve done all they could to make things run smoothly for all of us here, they think so.  They have dedicated their lives to creating a safe, beautiful place where teaching and learning can flourish.  Never forget that your presence here is the result, not just of your very hard work, but of the care and dedication of all of the people now surrounding you with pride and love. They’re going to continue to care for you whatever happens to you, whatever you do. So when life gets hard remember this: these are all people who are rooting for you.

But, still, IS IT WORTH IT??

For many of you, the answer is “YES!” You entered Ursinus with plans…to go to medical school; law school; graduate school; to be a teacher; a physical therapist …and you are heading off to do just that.  Some of you have surprised yourselves and discovered vocations or opportunities you had no clue about when you came.

But many of the rest of you are not so sure. Maybe you did not get into the graduate program you were hoping for.  Maybe a job has not yet come through. Maybe you have been so busy that you are going to regroup and begin looking after you graduate. Even those of you who do have plans you have worry: can you do the work? Have you chosen the RIGHT path Are you prepared for the rigors ahead?  Was it worth it? 

You have honored Bobby and me by making us part of your class. So, like you, I am graduating today.  But most of you have taken only four…..ish years to get here.  It has taken me forty-five.  I have spent my entire adult life on or near a college campus. You might say that that makes me the class’s slowest learner, but it does give me a longer perspective.  Looking backwards, I can say, unequivocally, both to you and to the scared, uncertain graduates who were Bobby Fong and me 45 years ago—yes, it is going to be worth it. But the most useful things these four years have taught you have become apparent only as I reflect backwards. I would like to share some of these with you.

Suzanne Fong with interim president Terry Winegar.Suzanne Fong with interim president Terry Winegar.Like many of you, Bobby was the first person in his family to attend college. He was smart, but he felt very much like an outsider, and, as a Californian, he hated the icy winter in Boston. It would have been easy to quit, to go back to California, but he didn’t.  You only graduate, as you are doing, if you gut it out. And that’s the first valuable thing you have learned: tenacity. You have learned, though you may not yet value it, the courage to say to yourselves quietly when things get rough: “I will try again tomorrow.” You have rewritten the paper, again, rerun the experiment, again, taken the next shot after missing the game winner: the challenges vary for each of you. But in earning your Ursinus degree, you have proved to yourself and the world that you have the determination to stick with something hard and see it through. This is going to stand you in good stead.

When Bobby sat where you are now, he was 23, MAYBE 125 pounds. He looked a bit like an upside down dust mop, with glasses (you should have seen the Afro, it was amazing). He was certainly and justifiably proud of his accomplishments…he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in English from Harvard University. But he felt a little like a failure. He had ONLY made magna cum laude, and not SUMMA—which was the very best. He, and you have to learn that DOING your best does not guarantee that you will BE the best.  Far from it.

You have gotten a dose in these four year of humility—the realization that you are only one of many bright, very capable people. This is a good thing. Humility checks arrogance.  It keeps you respectful of those around you. It reminds you that there are always going to be people smarter, that you can always learn more by listening to them, than by talking. But don’t belittle yourselves, either.  There is no shame in not standing out in an outstanding field, and make no mistake, this is an outstanding field in front of me. The graduation prize or athletic award you did not get; the grad school you did not make; the job that said no—-these are speed bumps now. Sooner or later every one of you is going to hit at least one.  They will mean nothing in a year, and you will barely remember them in five.  You have learned to set your expectations high and do your best.  But once you have done that, do not let disappointment in what might have been rob you of satisfaction and pleasure in this job you have done very well.

Another useful thing many of you have had to learn – and all of you will: is flexibility.  At graduation, Bobby had no clue that he would become a college president.  He had flown east to Harvard, an orphan with one suitcase, intending to be a medical missionary. Then he got a D in organic chemistry. He was devastated. In the Chinese community, being a doctor was the apex of achievement, and he felt he was letting himself, his family, and even God down—that he was a failure. Then a friend said to him: “Bobby, what do you LIKE studying?” He didn’t like studying chemistry. He realized that his favorite classes had always been literature, so he tried an experiment.  He dropped organic chemistry six weeks into his second semester, enrolled very late in two English courses, and had the happiest, and best semester of his life.

Like Bobby, you came to college with dreams of what you might be. But college is the place for testing those dreams against your own abilities and your own values.  Sometimes, learning what you love, and what you are good at, involves the very painful lesson of letting go of what you THOUGHT you were good at. Letting go of a dream can be heartbreaking. It can also be paralyzing. It can be too easy to sit there, berating yourself, feeling like a failure who will never amount to anything. When a dream dies, sometimes all you can do is take the next step in front of you without knowing where it may lead. So, when disappointment comes, mourn a bit, but keep going forward. Ask yourself “What CAN I do?” What can I do now? There is always a plan B…or a plan C … Many of you have already learned that plan C can work as well or better than the dream it replaced. But for the rest of you? You don’t have a job lined up? Go home, learn to cook! Your parents… and any future partners…will thank you.  You will have learned a life skill. And, who knows? Maybe you will open the first five-star restaurant in Collegeville. (It could use one, right))  Be flexible. A closed door can redirect you to a far, far better path, one you can’t imagine right now.

Sometimes, though, you have the opposite problem, there are too many paths. It is possible to have 100 dreams in an hour; it can take a lifetime to realize one dream.  In your dreams, you get what you want without having to compete for a job or perform in it. And you never fail. But to live in your dreams is to be paralyzed.  You have to choose one to make it real.  And when you choose, you give up, at least for the time being, many other options that might be equally good for you. That’s the hard reality of being an adult. In these past 4 years, as you have decided what major to pursue, whether or not to continue a sport or audition for a play, you have learned the self-discipline of choosing. You have also learned that you make a dream come true only when it becomes a plan.  Plans are memories we make for the future. They are the things that move us from “someday” to “right now.” As, for instance, you may have moved from dreaming about studying abroad to filing an application and talking to faculty, to doing a wonderful semester in say, Spain. You have had to learn self-discipline: to make your dreams come true, you have to continue to plan your work, and work your plan.  I think this class’s achievements are proof of how well so many of you have learned that.

Bobby majored in English. . He had no idea what he would DO with it, but he genuinely enjoyed it: the history, the literary analysis, most of all the chance to enter the minds of those who had addressed universal human problems centuries ago.   He learned to use words well in speaking and writing.  He learned to construct, and deconstruct, arguments. In his major, Bobby was learning a craft that would serve him well for the rest of his life. 

That’s another learning for all of you. You have learned a craft:  knowledge and skills particular to your majors. As you ran labs, planned dances, managed teams, volunteered, you applied these skills and you learned others.  You may not yet see how these will serve you, in a job or in your life, but, trust me, looking backwards, they will.  My older son, the sociology and  film double major who HATED writing papers, especially the data-rich papers required for his Soc. major, found himself last year pulling an all-nighter to create a document with ten years of statistical data a proposal for a forensic video unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. He was a little bit shocked to realize that all those all-nighters in Soc. with data he hated, had actually had a practical use. It allowed him to create a proposal that was accepted. So, even the things that didn’t feel like they were going well – they did. Your craft will serve you well.

You have acquired more than particular knowledge of one subject, however.  You have learned to be curious, to see beyond the obvious answer, to ask questions like “Why?”  “What is the evidence for that?” “What would happen if we tried it this way?” You have learned to make connections between very different things and, in doing so, to enrich your understanding of both. I’ll never forget encountering a football recruit staring at the abstract sculpture of Gilgamish, over by the Lenfest. Take a look at it if you haven’t for a while. He told me it looked like a quarterback about to make a pass. I told him about Gilgamish. We agreed that the sculpture captured the movement, and some of the sense of determined desperation, present in both battle and football.  He had a deeper appreciation for the power of art (and I think actually took an art course). I saw the sculpture in a new way.  You have moved from simply accepting that what others tell you is right to considering the source, questioning evidence and presuppositions, and deciding for yourself what to believe and how to act on those beliefs.  You have developed the skills and confidence to ask your own questions, to find your own answers, and to share your thinking with others. The current buzzword for this in academic circles is “critical thinking skills.” But what you have really learned are the habits of mind necessary to be a free citizen in a democracy. This has been the goal of studying liberal arts since the time of the Romans. (The word liberal, incidentally, is from the Latin free, because they those were the arts needed to be a free citizen in Rome.) So, you’ve learned to be good citizens.

What you do is your craft: it earns you a living and provides you with skills to assist others.  Who you are is your character: it determines the way you will live and the way you will be remembered. Character has both internal and external components.  It comprises the values you choose to live by: honesty, diligence, kindness.  But it also comprises others’ sense of how well you do live by those values: the Victorians, especially, would talk about giving someone a “character” rather than a job reference.

These undergraduate years have offered you time and space to seek your “True North”: your moral compass, your sense of how you want to live in the world, your character.  For Bobby, this meant affirming fundamental truths of his childhood Christian faith while rejecting much of the rule-bound superstructure that surrounded it. Bobby understood that he was deeply loved by God, and that the way to return and honor that love was to love and serve others, whom God had also created and loved as they loved him. Bobby believed that race, religion and social status were irrelevant to God’s love, after all, he did marry me. He understood that people brought different abilities and perspectives to community.   But he believed his job was to treat everyone fairly, to be of service when he could, and to help each person he met find their own way. All of these beliefs guided his behavior each day, and they became crucial components of his character.

Developing your character is a lifetime process with daily choices.  You have just begun it here, but you have begun it.  You have spent time, in and out of class, asking yourselves what you believe, what evidence there is to support those beliefs, how you would act in particular situations. You have tested your values in ways big and small.  If you believe in telling the truth, what did you do when you were asked to evaluate a partner who sloughed off in a group project?  If you believe in keeping your promises, did you show up for your volunteer gig when someone offered you a Phillies ticket? If you believe in treating all people with respect, did you speak up when a friend said something disparaging about another person? Whether or not you realize it, with these small, daily choices, you have begun to form, these years, as you worked out what you believe and how you would live that out, a set of values that will guide your actions for the rest of your life.

You cannot avoid this. Though you may not have consciously named the values so important to you.  You need to take the time to do that.  If you say to yourself, ‘I don’t really have any set values,’ that essentially says that you have chosen to be lazy, to drift through the world—this, too, is a value, of sorts, and leaves you open to coercion by others.  Knowing your values, living in accordance with them will keep you honest.  You will be known, even by those who disagree with you, as a person of integrity, a person of good character.  You will be trusted, and that trust will open doors for you.

Suzanne Fong accepts her honorary degree.Suzanne Fong accepts her honorary degree.One last thing you are just beginning to appreciate: you have made yourselves part of a community that will be there for you as long as you live.  The people sitting all around you—friends, acquaintances, vaguely familiar faces—have all shared this journey with you.  They freaked out over the same tests. They brought you coffee at two in the morning.  You have gone to their dance recital; they have come to your wrestling match. You have worked side by side in the community garden.  You have disagreed about hard things: matters of race, of belief…and you have discovered someone you thought very different from yourself may have shared a fanatic commitment to, say, the Yankees??? These people sitting on either side of you will always have your back, as you will have theirs.  Take advantage of this community—not just our class, but of all of the alumni who care for you and want to help you. Seek them out, even if you don’t know them, as you move around the country.  You have four years in a unique place in common: just living through a year of CIE should be enough to bond all of you for life. One of the saddest things I hear from alums is that they have signed up to talk to students and younger alums about careers, or to help them if they move…and no one ever calls. Treasure these connections, seek help if you need it and be willing to give it if someone asks you.

So yes, these four years have been worth it.  You have learned to stick with it through difficulties.  You have learned some humility. You have learned flexibility: when one dream dies, you start work on the next. You have learned self-discipline: the work needed to turn a dream into reality.  You have learned a craft.  You have learned the skills of an informed citizen. You have begun to develop a character.  And you have joined a community. 

Your senior year, though, had one more lesson in store for you, one none of us wanted you to learn. I am standing here because Bobby’s life, so dear to us, ended far sooner than he, or any of the rest of us, were ready. His death brought too close to us that universal truth: none of us can know with any certainty the length of our days. Life, this life you have been given, is fragile. Life is precious. We have only this moment, fragile as a butterfly’s wing, fleeting as a snowflake.   

This is not news to any of us, really.  But we, your parents, your teachers, your friends, and above all, Bobby, would rather you not have learned it so concretely so soon.  We believed, and we wanted you to believe, that if you followed the rules, worked hard and persisted, you could achieve your dreams and live happily ever after.  We wanted the sun always to shine for you, and we wanted you to think that was the way life should be.  But the reality for all of us is that life is sunshine AND shadow.

But it is one thing, especially at your age, to say you understand this, and another to wake up, on September 8, to a campus in shock.  Death, especially the sudden, unexpected death of a leader, shakes us like an earthquake. The future we thought we had, the plans we all made, they all seem gone in an instant. 

After a death, or any loss, really, you grieve, but all you can really do is to keep on living until you feel alive again. You mourn what is lost, but you cannot live in what might have been. You are forced to live into a reality different from the one you had hoped. But different is not necessarily worse. Just different.

It was easy to wonder, with Bobby gone, how Ursinus could possibly continue to move forward. Death tears a huge hole in the fabric of community, whether a family or a college. It breaks our hearts. The measure of a leader though is how well that community rallies to mend that hole and to continue its mission.  The greatest honor a community can pay a fallen leader is to move forward on the plans they made together. 

So you got back to work, and you learned a final lesson - you learned about resilience. Life only has a forward gear.  Those of you who play sports probably have heard the concept of “next one up.” When a player leaves the game with an injury, someone on the bench has to step in, pull up the slack, move the game forward. In the midst of their own deep grief—for Bobby loved and respected them, and they missed him deeply—President Terry Winegar, the deans and the board took charge. You owe them a great debt for their leadership

Colin Fong (left) accepted the posthumous honorary degree for Bobby Fong.Colin Fong (left) accepted the posthumous honorary degree for Bobby Fong.Bobby was gone, but the plans you had made together needed to be turned into reality. Tests were given, plays performed, games played.  The board launched a capital campaign and a presidential search, and you will soon welcome President Blomberg.  Ursinus has two Watson Fellows and a Fulbright fellow; Centennial conference champions in women’s’ swimming and wrestling, some wrestling academic all-Americans, a $500,000 grant to bring in and support more students in the sciences … and these are just the things I have learned from a distance from checking out the wonderful new website that got launched this fall. It has been a good year. Your work has made it a good year. Bobby’s dreams for you, and Ursinus, are becoming real because of that work.  There is no better way to honor Bobby.  He would be so very proud of all of you, as am I.  When things go wrong for you, never forget this year.

Remember the sadness but also remember that the love, the determination, community, tenacity, flexibility that carried all of us through to this place.

And so, classmates, we are leaving.  The leaving is bittersweet, but that is life. This graduation, much as you have longed for it, worked for it, dreamed of it, is loss as well as celebration.  We are all saying good-bye to life at this beautiful place, for many of you the first home that you have made away from your home. We are moving into a new life we cannot fully see or even imagine, full of danger, full of possibility and full of joy.  Yet we carry with us, in memory, in lessons learned, in skills acquired, all those we leave behind.  The love that they have poured into us is now ours to share with the world.  It is scary, but you ARE ready.

You are leaving this enchanted place, as graduates have left their studies for a millennium before you.  But always remember, as Christopher Robin (that great scholar), leaving HIS enchanted forest, told Winnie the Pooh:

“ You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart”… Ursinus” will always be with you.” 
― A.A. Milne

We can’t wait to hear how you are going to make the world better.”