Anyone who's been to a lot of college graduations knows that commencement addresses--speeches and letters--often have a certain sameness: same sentiments, same advice, same good wishes, same farewells, same everything.
But now and then graduation addresses depart from the usual script. Often that departure is the result of events that have made the moment different from other occasions when schools say goodbye to their graduates.
That was the case at last month's graduation ceremony at Nassau. As I waited in the Nassau Coliseum for the ceremony to begin, I read Acting President Kenneth Saunders's letter to the Class of 2013. The letter was printed in the Commencement publication along with the names of the graduates, scholarship winners, and others who were present at the ceremony.
Dr. Saunders's letter opened with an acknowledgement of the graduates' hard work and persistence and with the observation that graduations are traditionally days of celebration. But his letter soon took a different turn, noting the difficultites of the past year and the impact of Hurricane Sandy on so many lives. Here, in part, is what he wrote:
"...'Superstorm Sandy.' It is only a two word phrase, but it triggers sentences and paragraphs of memories filled with fear, pain, bewilderment and loss. For many of you, the question was 'how am I going to get to class?'' For others, it was 'how am I going to prepare for a test or do an assignment now that my class notes have, literally, floated away?' And for some, the question was even more basic: 'how can I even concentrate on school, when so much of what had made things normal in my life is now just gone?'
"The answers to these questions came slowly, sometimes agonizingly slowly. And, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we might well have been willing to forego the positive lessons learned out of this experience in exchange for never having heard the phrase 'Superstorm Sandy' in the first place. After all, if the choice is between finding a silver lining in a cloud or not having to deal with that cloud at all, the human reaction is to look for a clear sky.
"But the reality is that the playbook that you will have to deal with tomorrow and the next day...and weeks...and years...will be filled with challenges, which, although maybe not as dramatic as Superstorm Sandy, will be as real. Yet, you should be full of confidence that you are ready for those challenges. In your hands are the tools that your education at NCC has given you to comprehend problems and to craft solutions. In your minds is the steadfastness to hold on tightly to the goals that you have set for yourselves. In your hearts are the good feelings of all of those whom you have met while at the College that will help you to sustain your spirit in the years to come. Finally, in your pockets--securely in your pockets--is your degree from NCC. Carry it with pride as you carry it into your future."
Though written for NCC's graduating class, Dr. Saunders' sentiments could have just as easily been intended for students who'll be entering NCC this fall or in the years ahead. Life is, after all, pretty unpredictable, and almost everyone experiences a Superstorm Sandy--or something equally traumatic--along the way.
Rough as these moments may be, they are also important learning experiences. They teach us how to be resourceful, how to cope with loss and uncertainty, how to look out for each other, and how to pick up and go forward.
Your education at NCC will also help you master these challenges. At its best, it will teach you to think clearly, recognize problems, and find answers. It will also give you the chance to be part of a community of like-minded people, all at times in the same lifeboat.
If you're starting Nassau this fall, keep Dr. Saunders's words in mind. Education does many good things, not the least of which is to stretch us as people and to help us recognize our collective humanity.
No more superstorms? Let's hope. But just the same, use your education to prepare for upheaval, no matter what form it takes.