President's Baccalaureate Speech

May 19, 2017
Salem Seal

Good evening, class of 2017. I am very honored by your invitation to speak with you this evening.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 22, verse 27, Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” This verse has always seemed to me to sum up, in the simplest possible language, the goal of anyone who has chosen to work in the field of education. Of course, it applies equally well to anyone who aspires to engage in any form of work that involves helping people to enjoy healthy and productive lives.

The fundamental human right is to enjoy a life in which we can express the particular beauty that is ours alone, since no two people, not even identical twins, are exactly alike, and no two people have exactly the same contribution to make to the good of society. The problem that any society can easily fall into is the notion that it has some ideal type that alone represents the very best in that society.

Orchestras hold our interest precisely because their members play different instruments that produce different effects. We enjoy watching athletic teams because of the beautiful interplay of different kinds of players contributing their unique talents in a cooperative way for the good of the team.

A healthy society has a place for all people, regardless of their identities. The job of all of us is to do no harm to ourselves or other people, and of course there is far more for us to do than simply that. Each of us is ideally meant to find the place in life from which we can provide the best possible service to society as a whole, to be the best kind of teammate that we can be. The most beautiful thing about human nature is that no two people have exactly the same calling. We are each of us called to serve in a way that is entirely our own. This fact brings with it the necessity of recognizing the dignity, the beauty, and the value of the service to which every person we encounter has been called. 
As a group, we are all called to help and to serve each other. There will always be stresses and strains in any community, just as there are in any human relationship, and these stresses and strains must be dealt with frankly and honestly, but always in an atmosphere of hope, love, openness, and mutual respect. We must all be willing to give people with views different from our own a chance to express themselves. In no other way can we learn from each other. The process of education is one of continual growth, and of openness to ideas that we do not already have.

That is why we award things called degrees at a ceremony called graduation. Both of these words, degree and graduation, are derived from the Latin word for “step.” A physical step is a very simple form of change. We necessarily change our location, and in some small, but nevertheless real way, our point of view.
Graduates will have met the requirements for a degree, and so an academic process is coming to an end. The ceremony at which degrees are conferred is also called commencement, and this word indicates the fact that another process is commencing, or beginning. We all know that this beginning is not definitive, and that many other changes in life will follow this one, and that many of these changes are unpredictable. What we hope, therefore, is that your education has prepared you to be flexible and resilient in the face of unexpected developments, some harder to deal with than others. That is why a liberal arts education is not simply a preparation for one and only one job. Rather, it is preparation for dealing with further change and further growth in life. We hope that, whatever your major may be,  the process of your undergraduate education has prepared each of you to have an open mind, to have the courage to face and to enjoy a life full of surprises, to respect yourselves, and to respect, and LEARN FROM, people different from yourself, recognizing that the health and welfare of the entire human community depends on respect for the dignity and worth of every individual member of the community. When there is acceptance and respect for each and every member of a community, that entire community will flourish. 

Learning from our differences is the very heart of our life together.


—  D. E. Lorraine Sterritt, PhD