First, let me thank Richard Harris, Student Forum President. Diane McMullen and the many students who shared their musical gifts with us, the wonderful student speakers, Professor Andrew Burkett – our faculty speaker, Emily Tong, and the members of the Commencement Committee who are listed in the program.
We gather together every year for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, one of the beloved spaces of Union College. A few weeks ago, I accompanied Haley Erskine (’16) to the top of the Memorial Chapel Bell Tower to hear her play bells during common hour. Haley is playing them for our benefit today as well. The bells are played with a series of levers and one has to contort oneself and climb up a series of small ladders to reach them as they sit on a platform above the clock mechanism encased by the cupola atop this building. I wouldn’t recommend it to the faint of heart or those in poor shape (I was marginal on both counts!). Scratched into a piece of wood near the bells are the names and initials of former students who have played the bells, adding to the enchantment of this historic campus. It reminded me of just how long Memorial Chapel has graced our campus and how special it has become to our ceremonial life at Union.
The building was a project of President Richmond who wished to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars leading up to what was then the most recent – World War I. The building was designed by the illustrious architectural firm McKim, Mead and White and was completed in 1925 (for those interested in the history of architecture, this firm designed a number of New York City landmarks, including the New York Public Library and the Arch in Washington Square Park.
Memorial Chapel’s architectural heritage alone would make it special but it’s also special because it has become our primary ceremonial space, notably inaugurations of Presidents, Opening Convocation, Founder’s Day, the ReUnion alumni convocation, the Greek and Senior Athletic award ceremonies, and yes, Baccalaureate. It has also become a place for remembering the passing of all graduates of the College and other members of the Union community. We do so again today. The names of Union alumni and former faculty and staff that have died over the past year are listed toward the end of the program. I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their love of Union, and their many contributions with a brief moment of silence. Thank you.
You will return to Memorial Chapel many times in the year’s ahead; for alumni convocations and perhaps, just perhaps, to sit with your sons and daughters as they are welcomed into some future incoming class. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow morning, we will gather in the plaza in front of the Schaffer Library for the 2014 Commencement Ceremony.
I won’t presume to tell you what the day will mean to you or what you will be thinking about or feeling as speakers make their remarks and your classmates cross the stage. My bet is, however, that it will be memorable.
For one thing, we will all hear from Dr. Deborah Birx, our Commencement speaker. Dr. Birx was confirmed as Ambassador-at-Large and U.S. Global Aids Coordinator in April of this year. Her appointment follows a very distinguished career in the U.S. military and as Director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She also served as Director of the Division of Global HIV/AIDS at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Ambassador Birx will oversee PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) which supports testing, counseling and treatment for millions upon millions of people worldwide. PEPFAR supports 6.7 million people globally with life-saving antiretroviral treatment. Amazingly, of these more than 6 million people served, 780,000 were pregnant women who tested positive for HIV. Thanks to PEPFAR’s intervention, 95% of their babies were born HIV-free.
Ambassador Birx has made a difference and will undoubtedly continue to do so in her new role. Her appointment has received universal praise. I think we’ll all be inspired as she makes what is, in fact, one of her first public addresses since her historic appointment.
Making a difference. We honor Dr. Birx with an honorary degree from Union because we value this so much. Indeed, there is nothing more satisfying to the graduate of Union College. In fact, as I will remind you in my charge to you tomorrow, making a difference has been a hallmark of a Union education since our founding. It’s one of the things that attracted me to Union and keeps me so enthused about what we do here. It was part of President John Blair Smith’s charge to the first graduates of Union. It is in our “DNA” – witness the illustrious accomplishments of our many graduates. And, I’m not just talking about people like William Seward who changed the course of American history during his tenure as Secretary of State, helping shape President Lincoln’s opposition to slavery. I’m talking about the thousands of graduates who’ve crossed the stage before you.
One of my personal heros, Robert Kennedy, once remarked: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.” Because of the opportunities afforded you over the past four years, some of you may indeed “bend history itself” in the years ahead. All of us are, as Kennedy noted, in a position to shape history. Believe that you can.
I’ll say more about this tomorrow when I issue your “charge” at the end of the Commencement ceremony. Today, I’d urge you to reflect upon and savor your experiences as a student at Union. You’ve been one of the lucky few to have been formed at Union. When you chose Union a little more than four years ago, you chose to be a citizen of this academic village – this community of learners and doers. When you accepted our invitation, whether you knew it or not, you chose life-time friendships. Savor those friendships. They won’t end tomorrow; they will endure. So too will your relationships with faculty and staff who have cared for and about you; savor those too and know they too will endure. In other words, when you chose this college, you accepted a life-time membership. Reflect on that; savor that in the hours that remain to you as a student of Union College.
It’s also ok to anticipate the pride and fulfillment that you will experience when I hand you your “dip” from alma mater and you become a graduate of Union College. Tomorrow will be a special day and I’m honored to share the moment with you.
See you in the morning!