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Commencement

Mark D. Gearan

Mark D. Gearan
President
Convocation Remarks
August 27, 2013

In her reflections, Professor Laura Free noted the anniversaries of two historic events that have shaped our nation and informed who we are today as a country and as individuals – the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

It recalled to me our Convocation speaker six years ago – John Lewis.  At that march in DC, John Lewis was a young man, just 23 years old, not much older than the majority of students here today.  He was a colleague and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. One of the organizers of the March on Washington and the event’s youngest speaker, he risked his life for his cause and was twice nearly beaten to death, once in 1961 at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, and again in 1965 during a peaceful protest march in Selma, Alabama. 

Today, John Lewis is a nine-term Congressman from Georgia. 

So we were honored six years ago to welcome John Lewis to campus. He stood where I’m standing today and gave a stirring Convocation speech, one that called on the history Professor Free referenced so eloquently. And, like Christopher McDonald who has asked you to make daring choices, John Lewis called on the attendees to “Find a Way to Get In the Way.”

He said: “The actions of Rosa Parks, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way. I got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble. So I appeal to you as students, freshmen, with your sense of vigor, energy and vitality to find a way to get in the way. Speak up, speak out, and do not be quiet.”

You may be asking yourself – how do you find a way to get in the way?

Professor Free brilliantly outlined ways as she said to “let your past inform but not control your future.”

Chris McDonald just gave you a pathway by suggesting to take advantage of all that the Colleges have to offer, that you choose to go outside your comfort zone.

I’d like to give you another tool to help. If you want to find a way to get in the way, simply ask what you can do.

That is my call to action – Ask what you can do. 

Do not sit idly by and wait for direction. Instead, ask what you can do.

Do not wait for others to point the way to action. Instead, ask what you can do.

Do not just read the great theorists and admire the works of famous artists. Instead, ask what you can do.

When you see injustice or joy, when you encounter prejudice or acceptance, whether you are encouraged or pushed to your limits, ask what you can do.

How can you make your classroom, your residence hall, your campus and your community a better place? Ask what you can do.

I believe that you can ask what you can do, in acts large and small, locally and through service.

Last fall, the band FUN had a huge hit with the song, “Some Nights”. Let me read some of the lyrics which I found very intriguing:

Some nights, I stay up cashing in my bad luck; some nights, I call it a draw
Some nights, I wish that my lips could build a castle
Some nights, I wish they'd just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh Lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?

The commentator Matthew Dowd recently wrote an interesting piece reflecting on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Dowd’s guidance may begin to answer Fun’s question of “what do I stand for?”

He wrote:  “Maybe now is a good time for each of us to focus on our dream and tell others what that is.  We don’t need to tell it to hundreds of thousands on the Washington Mall, but we can start with just one person.  It is when we share our vision or dream with another or others that we begin to make it a reality, as Dr. King did 50 years ago.  Setting out intention should always be the North Star that guides us on our way.”

So we begin this academic year with excitement for the promise of the year ahead.

We begin with confidence that the Classes of 2017 have the preparation, skills and talent to succeed here – and to make this a better place.

My hope and dream – like our faculty and guests who preceded me today – is that we maximize the moment and capture the energy and optimism for the year ahead.  That we honor the trust given to us by generations past and we make today’s HWS worthy of that heritage, guiding all of us to lives of consequence.