Throughout his 12 years as Union’s president, Stephen Ainlay rarely missed an opportunity to share a story about its history. Whether it was Founders Day, Convocation or even a building dedication, Ainlay would work into his remarks an interesting detail gleamed from Union’s rich past.
So it was fitting that in presiding over his final Commencement ceremony, Ainlay delivered a last history lesson for the nearly 500 members of the Class of 2018.
Ainlay announced last August that he would step down as Union’s 18th president at the end of the academic year. In his honor, he was selected to be the featured speaker at the school’s 224th Commencement by the Board of Trustees.
John E. Kelly III ’76, chair of the Board of Trustees, in introducing Ainlay and his wife, Judith, thanked them for their leadership and called them tireless ambassadors for Union whose legacy would endure.
Addressing the class, Ainlay touched on the qualities that make a Union education unique, particularly by creating “T-shaped” learners through a deep and broad education.
“We aimed at cultivating deep proficiency – in physics, classics, art history, music, sociology, psychology, modern languages and a host of other fields – while also exposing you at the same time to many different ways of knowing the world,” he told those gathered on Hull Plaza Sunday.
He shared the story of the first purchase of scientific instruments shortly after the College’s founding in 1795. He focused on a device known as “Hadley’s Quadrant,” an illustration included in the Commencement program.
Invented by an English mathematician named John Hadley, the device was the favored navigation instrument of the late 18th century.
Ainlay reminded the class of the key qualities that are in the DNA of Union that will help them navigate, thrive within and contribute to the world they are about to enter. This includes being T-shaped, building community and persevering in the face of challenges.
“Let your own Union educational experience serve as your Hadley’s Quadrant; let the experience you’ve had here help you navigate the world in much the same manner as Hadley’s quadrant helped sailors navigate the seas,” he told the class.
Ainlay and his wife, Judith, were each presented with an honorary doctorate of letters degrees with citations read by Kelly M. Williams ’86, secretary of the board of trustees.
The College also awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree to Charles M. Lieber, a chemist and pioneer in the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor at Harvard, Lieber has made numerous advances in nanoscale bio-electronics, developing nanoscale wire-like structures with applications in fields as diverse as electronics, nanocomputing, neurobiology and medicine.
Lieber was nominated by Rebecca Cortez, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
In his remarks, the student speaker, Gianluca Avanzato, reminded his classmates that they grew up with changing technology, from flip-phones to iPhones, from Facebook to Snapchat. As a result, they are often closed off from one another.
He challenged them to heed the Hebrew words inscribed on the dome of the Nott Memorial that whispered to them as they passed by during their time at Union: the day is short, the work is great, the reward is much, the Master is urgent.
“Even the little things require great work, especially exploration,” said Avanzato. “Just think about how often everyone pulls out their cellphones nowadays—during conversations, in lulls between activities, while waiting for a friend. It’s become radical to just sit silently without scrolling on your phone. So be radical! Look around. Look in another human being’s eyes. So often, we are terrified of being our true selves because that means being vulnerable. But I encourage you: Go to new places! Take an unplanned walk, attend a different religious service, join a political rally you believe in.”
He encouraged the class not to be daunted by the work, promising the rewards would be worthwhile.
“The education I’ve received at Union has been deep and comprehensive,” said Avanzato, a political science major (with minors in German and Classics) from Oneonta, N.Y. “Personally, I have gained much more than I thought I would, and I owe it to a willingness to explore in a place that values exploration. Hard and honest work pays off; it all pays off—all of it, though in ways you may have never imagined.
“Every thought, every action, provokes a reaction of some kind—a ripple, a wave. But we must remember: what we think, we are. So be good; be sincere, be true. It’s not as easy as we may think to mask our intentions; intentionality always shows through. So I urge all of you, as I continue to urge myself, to be honest and sincere and brave and willing to open your hearts and your minds.”
Three members of the Class of 2018 received public recognition: Valedictorian Hope Relly-Cobb, an English major from Stillwater, N.Y, and salutatorians Saad Akhtar from Foxborough, Mass., and Vamshek Srinivasan from Frisco, Texas. Both are chemistry and psychology interdepartmental majors and members of the Leadership in Medicine program.