President Stephen C. Ainlay's charge to graduates

Publication Date

I want to thank our honorary degree recipients – John Sexton and Tyler Jacks – for being with us today. Each of you are visionaries who, in your respective areas, have provided us with glimpses of a better world. We are proud to count you as members of our Union community.

Please thank again our student speaker, Matt Wu, for his passion for storytelling and for sharing it with us.

I would call your attention to the list of students who received departmental honors, honor awards, and prizes -- they are printed in the back pages of the Commencement Program. I would ask you to join me in recognizing them today with your applause.

We also need to thank Professor William Finlay, our Marshall, the members of the Commencement Committee as well as the entire staff for making this day so special and run so smoothly. As they say, “it takes many hands,” and many hands have readied our campus and prepared for this day. Please join me in thanking all of these people with your applause.

I’d also ask you to join me in thanking members of the faculty who have played a special role in educating and mentoring our graduating seniors. A number of these faculty are retiring this year – Janet Grigsby, Peter Heinegg, James Kenney, Gary Reich, Charles Steckler, Frank Wicks, Paul Willing, and Brenda Wineapple – I’d ask the retirees who are in attendance today to stand and ask you to please join me in recognizing all the retiring faculty for their many years of service to Union and their commitment to education.

Members of the Class of 2017, you have many to thank for helping you reach this day. In particular, you owe a debt of gratitude to family and friends. They’ve been there to encourage you and they’ve supported you with their love and in so many other ways. I would invite you all to stand, turn to face your family and friends who are in attendance today, and join me in thanking them with your applause.

Would you please be seated for just a few more minutes.

I invite all of you – graduates, friends, family members, faculty, staff, and administrators – to join the department and program receptions immediately following this ceremony.

But before we take our leave and join those receptions, allow me to say a few words to the members of the Class of 2017. First, congratulations! We rehearsed at the Senior Dinner earlier this week but let’s hear it for the GREAT Class of 2017.

Your path to this day has taken hard work and commitment. You sit here today more intellectually adaptable and agile – qualities that I spoke about at yesterday’s Baccalaureate ceremony. I hope you feel that these qualities have indeed been cultivated here at Union and that you feel satisfied, proud, and ready for your next life chapter.

In preparing for today, I went back and read the release from our Communications Office about the “great” class of 2017. You were selected from what was a record number of applicants and you came to us with impressive SAT/ACT scores and ranked high in your high school classes. You came with a record of accomplishment as student leaders, musicians, artists, and athletics. You came from 38 states and the District of Columbia and from 44 countries. As I told you in our first meeting together in Memorial Chapel, we hand-picked you because we believed you would thrive at Union and because we believed you’d leave Union a better place for having been here.

Well, we can now look back on your years at Union and I can tell you that we were right about you and you didn’t disappoint. The highly selective process that identified you would have predicted you’d accomplish great things academically and you did. Through your research, you’ve reached out across disciplinary divides and demonstrated the value of Union’s distinctive approach to the liberal arts – one that combines areas of study often treated as disparate at other schools. Your presentations at the Steinmetz Symposium impressed us with their sophistication and you inspired us with your talent. Prize Day focused our attention on your accomplishments in academic departments and interdisciplinary programs. With pride in your work and commitments, we selected members of your class to represent us as Minerva Fellows at placements around the globe. And, the world beyond our gates recognized your talents and accomplishments with Fulbrights, U.S. Teaching Assistantships, Watsons, Davis Projects for Peace, and other prestigious awards. You’ve been offered career opportunities, graduate school placements, and positions in highly competitive and well-known volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America.

You also demonstrated your capacity to care for others. Members of your class, continued and expanded efforts to raise funds to support victims of cancer, such as the Dutchman Dip, the Home Run Derby, Run, Ribs and Reggae, and other initiatives. Members of your class further signaled your care for our City through UCare Day, John Calvin Toll Day, and other initiatives. You prepared public service announcements for Schenectady’s non-profits as part of the Community Media Action Lab. You flocked to the Kenney Community Center and provided countless hours of volunteer service to the community. You tutored and encouraged children in Schenectady. You inspired them to continue their education through the Women in STEM panel and the STEP Program. You imagined and instituted new initiatives that will have lasting impact, such as a new program to support local wounded veterans and another new program, titled “Writing our Communities” that empowers local school children, helping them imagine better lives. You fed families facing food insecurity through the Empty Bowls Project. You supported the City Mission and clothed those in need. And, you helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity and sheltered people who craved a place of their own. You brought joy to people in nursing homes by volunteering. You restored dignity to the final resting places of those long gone through your work in the Vale Cemetery. And, the list goes on.

When the politics and sometimes injustices of the world beyond our gates demanded the attention of our shared learning community, you modeled the ideals of this College; reaching out to one another, engaging one another in constructive and civil dialogue, and affirming our shared humanity. Instead of dividing our community, you sought to bring it together. Through sometimes difficult discussion at programs like Dinner and Discussion around Difference (DDD), the Interfaith Youth Corps, and Identity Dialogues, you proved yourselves to be anything but fragile members of what some critics call the “orchid generation.” You demonstrated a willingness to consider difficult matters and modeled intellectual tenacity and resiliency. Don’t lose that; you’ll need that.

You helped us make history at Union during your four years. Your patience with the renovation and expansion of our arts building paid off and you embraced the new Feigenbaum Center for the Visual Arts and both old and new ways of making art. And, you helped us imagine, celebrate, and break ground for what will be our most ambitious project yet: the rebirth of the science and engineering complex. This project was born, in part, from our appreciation of what you’ve imagined, accomplished, and produced. Your intellectual capacity, your ability to conduct significant research, and your commitment to shared learning helped us design the complex and make the case to the generous donors who’ve chosen to support this project. Thank you for inspiring them and us.

Let me close today’s Commencement ceremony and send you on your way, by issuing a charge that was given to Union’s first graduates: “as you leave this place, do so ready for a useful life.” No matter what you choose to do in the years ahead, remember that your academic lineage is a great one and your lineage beckons you to make a difference.

All of us at Union look forward to watching what you do and to welcoming you home to this special place many times in the years ahead. I wish you the best, members of the Class of 2017, you sisters and brothers under the laws of Minerva, you daughters and sons of Union College.