What Do You Tell a Graduate?

Guest Correspondence


This Friday, graduating seniors at New College will come together to receive their degrees. They have worked hard and deserve recognition. But no student graduates college without help: family members, friends, or teachers who offer encouragement, and the good fortune to be born in a time and place that allowed them to attend a university in a safe and peaceful place, a privilege many individuals around the world have not enjoyed.

What can one tell these graduates? Remember that most can reasonably expect to live another seventy or eighty years. Eighty years ago it was 1938. Who could have imagined then the trauma the next decade would bring, let alone the change from then to now? What would you have said to those graduates? Eighty years hence it will be 2098. What would you say to today’s graduates?

Happily, that job goes to our commencement speaker, the distinguished international political economist Dr. Margee Ensign. She won’t have any trouble. A graduate of New College, she brings change wherever she goes. And change is the one certainty between now and 2098.

Dr. Ensign was New College student government president in 1975, when then-president Arland Christ-Janer asked her to announce to distraught and vehemently opposed students that the private New College would become a part of the State University System as a college within USF. She clearly saw the College’s financial position and was willing to defend the administration’s actions. Later, she started new academic programs at Columbia and Tulane Universities, and at the University of the Pacific. As president of American University of Nigeria for seven years, she transformed the institution into the leading instrument of development and change in that area of Africa. She personally rescued girls who had escaped from Boko Haram and arranged for them to enter the university. She is now president of Dickinson College, one of America’s oldest and most distinguished liberal arts colleges, and has begun to change it, building on its traditions of social engagement and international education.

Dr. Ensign will know that, like her, each graduate has proposed, shaped, researched and finished a substantial project or thesis. Each has presented and defended it before at least three faculty members, colleagues and friends. The graduates have learned to write and to talk about their interests, to ask questions, to evaluate evidence, and to decide on next steps. They have learned to learn. And they have acquired confidence in themselves.

That confidence will be on display as the sun sets and graduates walk across the stage in front of cheering families and friends. Few will wear a formal suit or gown, and fewer still traditional academic robes. Unicorns and witches, Jedi knights and wizards, and faeries and princesses will outnumber the suits. Last year, one graduate wore her thesis. For one last night, in the soft Sarasota breeze, magic and whimsy will reign, and the graduates will rush towards the future. We are in very good hands.

Dr. Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida

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