Remarks for the 2008 Senior Luncheon – President Patricia McGuire

Congratulations to the Red Class of 2008!  I look at you and think of how I will cherish so many fond memories of you:  Yanna Sideris relentlessly putting your head directly into the path of a soccer ball; Chrissy Palmer campaigning to make this a greener campus; Ashleigh Wesche so full of spirit and purpose on the volleyball court and student government meetings and wearing the uniform of the Air Force with so much pride — and her new lieutenant’s bars gleaming for all to see!; Tiffani Winston wearing Delta red and Trinity purple with equal flair; Rihem Badwe bursting with pride on her admission to the doctoral program at Albany; Zulema Ramirez hitting a wicked backhand across the tennis net; Vidi Harmon so passionately engaged with issues of immigration reform; Jessica Dickerson achieving so many honors — I could name so many more!  Each of you has contributed a great deal to all of us, to the life of Trinity, and we will miss you; but the members of the Alumnae Association Board are here today to remind you that you will have many opportunities to return to Trinity in the future, and we hope to see you often.

You will surely have fond memories, too — memories of each other and the moments you shared in fun and friendship and sisterhood.  You will surely remember your cherished faculty mentors and teachers, they who worked so hard to be sure that you reached this threshold of your new lives as well educated women of Trinity.  I hope you will remember the staff who worked often behind the scenes to make your time here successful — in Enrollment Services and the Bookstore, the Deli and Dining Hall, the Library and Security and Facilities and all across the campus.

But, memories are not enough.  If all you take from your college days are fond memories, then we will have failed to educate you well.

While graduation day signifies your fulfillment of Trinity’s formal requirements for the degrees you will receive on Sunday, the real proof of the enduring value of your Trinity education will emerge in your performance on the tests you will experience in the years to come.

The real test of your Trinity learning will come in the creative use of the knowledge you gained here to improve opportunities and living conditions for the rising generations, particularly for those who remain outside of the mainstream economy.

The real test of Trinity’s educational effectiveness will come in your willingness to stand up, to raise your voices, to be at the table, to shout out, “count me in!” when people who may not look like you are assembling the teams who will become the leaders of the next era in human history.  The first test of leadership is your willingness to raise your hand; a good leader must be a great volunteer, not someone who goes looking for compensation for the work that must be done, but someone whose work becomes invaluable for all.

Make something of your Trinity education; make your work invaluable for all.

Your Trinity education prepares you for this challenge; but it is not the challenge itself.  The challenge awaits.  You will leave Trinity on Sunday with a new agenda in hand.  That’s why we call it “commencement,” — it’s the beginning, not the end.  The agenda that awaits you will test and stretch everything you have learned here.  Consider just a few of the agenda items that you will take up on Monday morning:

1.  Accepting the Responsibility of Political Engagement

Trinity does not educate wimps, wafflers, washouts, people who wait by the wayside while the parade passes by.  Trinity educates the women and men who lead the parade, the grand marshals, the standard-bearers, the captains and presiders.

We have not educated you to be a bystander.  You are not just a face in the crowd already forgotten by the powerful people passing by.  YOU are one of those powerful people, and YOU will be watched, critiqued, criticized and complimented, and through all of those tests you will be held up as a role model and exemplar  — we pray, for all that is good, for honesty and integrity, for selflessness and compassion, for excellence and courage — and engagement with the important issues of each day.

This nation is in the midst of the most important presidential election in our modern history, an election that has the potential to create substantial change for this nation and the world.  This election also has the potential to be the largest waste of opportunity yet.

What will you do to be sure that the potential is realized, the opportunity not wasted?

Who you support, who you vote for, what you think of the issues is your business — do you have an opinion?  Have you pounded the pavement for your candidate?  Have you learned all that you can about the most critical issues we face — whether and how we will achieve peace in the Middle East?  Whether and how we can put the economic genie back in the bottle, get control of oil prices, restore the basic affordability of food and fundamental goods around the world?  Whether and how we can have serious national policies about global climate change and energy consumption?  Whether and how we can provide decent health care for children and our elders?  Whether and how we can make the promise of free public education a reality that includes the basic notion of educational excellence in every school?

Vote.  Whatever you believe, whatever you do, you must vote.  This year, every year.  This election, every election.  Your vote counts; your example counts for even more.  Responsible and active citizenship is one of the most important obligations you will carry with you as a Trinity graduate.

2.  Make Education a Priority

Nelson Mandela once said that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  But, shamefully, here in the capital of the free world, one-third of adults are functionally illiterate, and astonishing numbers of students fail to complete high school, and not enough complete college.

We all understand the consequences of failed public school systems; we live and work with those consequences every day in the violence around us, the poverty next door, the hopelessness and despair that course underneath the angry or sullen facades we pass by on the street.

We know from every study ever done that the educational level of parents has a critical effect on the educational attainment of children, and the level of education is one of the most significant factors in ensuring economic success for families in this society, indeed, for ensuring the stability of society, itself.

You are among the privileged and relative few in our world — particularly among women on this planet, particularly among women of color — to have this great education, to have earned baccalaureate and advanced degrees.  Regardless of the specific occupation you will have in the future, regardless of whether you have children of your own, as citizens and leaders who have reaped the benefits of a great higher education, you must be engaged with the issues of educational reform and attainment in our city and in all of the communities you inhabit.

This is the foundation of your next agenda item:

3.  Building the Good Society

Ghandi is credited with the saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Just do it.

Now, you may be sitting out there and saying to yourself, come on, I’m just one person, I barely made it out of Professor San Juan’s critical reasoning class, or maybe you’re still smarting from that grade you got on a Rampolla paper, or you’re still waking up at 3 am trying to get over what happened with that powerpoint assignment for Dr. Watts.

Here’s some good news:  you, too, can be part of building the Good Society even if you only pulled a C in Calculus.  (Believe me, I know this!)  In life after graduation, you will quickly realize the ephemeral value of singular honors and tributes for past performance, compared to the  enduring value of the honorable, well-integrated personality that we have tried to help you to develop during your college days.  What counts in real life is what you do in the day ahead, not what you did yesterday.

Perhaps some will find it perverse of me to say, but I think it’s true particularly as I grow older, that the real purpose of our education here at Trinity is NOT to make you perfect, not at all, but rather, to teach you how to cope with imperfection; this is what should emerge from the “habit of philosophizing” that Cardinal Newman (The Idea of the University) said was the real purpose of a liberal arts education:  a recognition of your own weaknesses academically and personally, combined with a will to improve every day; a sense of how to be more tolerant and understanding of the struggles of others; how to look out and view the potential Good Society we long for NOT as the proverbial shining city on the hill, but a real city with imperfect human beings who are trying to live better lives together.  Good philosopher queens know that the people she is called to lead have spent too much time chained to the wall, staring at shadows that they think are reality because they have never seen the light.  (and I certainly hope you all immediately recognize and can discuss this allusion to Plato, Allegory of the Cave…)

We could make some real progress toward building the Good Society if we stopped pretending that it must be the Perfect Society.  In the Perfect Society, there is no discrimination, poverty, or violence.  In the Good Society, the effective leaders understand that human beings carry with them the seeds of prejudice, greed and anger all the time.  Seekers of the Perfect Society can be mighty intolerant of those messy humans who snicker and shout and slap and spend with abandon; Not In My Backyard, NIMBY, is the slogan of the Perfectionists.  Creators of the Good Society recognize that we all have to get along here in spite of how much we can annoy, shame, infuriate or alienate each other at times; they’re the ones with the flags on their porches that say, “Welcome, neighbor!” for all who pass by.

The greatest test of your Trinity education may well come when you have the choice to fly the welcome flag or post the NIMBY sign, a test that will show up in many ways:

At a very simple level, your opportunity to create the Good Society will occur every day when you go to work.  You can take into your workplace a crabby attitude about your employer and co-workers, sit at lunch gossiping about everything that’s wrong, spend your days watching the clock counting down the minutes of your lives.  Or, you can choose to make a difference, take a healthy disposition to work, show a level of caring for co-workers and clients and even the dreaded boss that manifests your deep ethical sense of commitment to make every day better than the last, not only for yourself but for those you touch.

You will have the opportunity to create the Good Society in the volunteer work you will do, at Church, for your children’s school, for the Girl Scouts or so many other organizations.  Volunteer service does wonderful things for the people you serve, but the reward for you will be even greater; it’s one of the best ways I know of to liberate yourself from any pigeonhole you may feel trapped in professionally.  Volunteering can also lead to a great career — just ask me.

Your choices as a consumer will manifest your sense of ethics in relation to the common good.  The current economic crisis is a perfect storm of greed and selfishness — unscrupulous lenders, borrowers who wanted to live beyond their means and then walked away from their debts, a culture of acquisition in which self-worth has been measured by the name on your car, your clothes, your neighborhood.  And I haven’t even mentioned global climate change and our very large carbon footprints.

You will certainly contribute to the Good Society in your well-placed advocacy and activism on behalf of the causes that demand your voice and talent, and in doing so, you will be following in the footsteps of the great Trinity graduates of past generations.  Nancy Pelosi didn’t become Speaker of the House by being a wallflower; and she didn’t get there by having a professional career that was mapped out to take her there from graduation day onward.  She didn’t even start work as a professional political volunteer until well into her 40’s, after her five children were in school.   I think if Nancy were here this minute she would also quickly tell you that the first place to start building the Good Society is with your family, the children you raise or the children you influence, and in the communities you inhabit.

This idea of service, of volunteering, of the disposition for making the workplace and community better for your presence in it, of building the Good Society that is a more peaceful, more just, more charitable human community — this idea and ideal is rooted deeply in the mission and purpose of the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity.   You will honor our founders in the witness you give to the values of Trinity.  You will extend their reach through new generations in the example you manifest of Trinity’s deepest values:  honor and integrity, charity and faith, peace and justice.  You will take this ambitious agenda forward from this day, filled with the power, the wisdom, and the love of Trinity, our great alma mater who will be with you through all of your days.

Go, and take your memories with you, and take the power and challenge of Trinity with you as well.  Go with our blessings, our love and our constant care for you.  Know that wherever you go, whatever you do, Trinity is here with you, for you, and living our mission through you.

Congratulations, Reds of 2008!