Charge to the Class of 2010

onDemand Watch Commencement

May 30, 2010

Seniors, I had the honor this morning of participating in the Baccalaureate service by reading one of the lessons from scripture appointed for the day. I’m not sure whether it was because of our college pastor’s puckish sense of humor or the demands of the lectionary, but in any case the first sentence of my text, from the Gospel of John, seemed particularly relevant to someone speaking to the class at Commencement later that day. It read: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” As a matter of fact, I do have some things to say to you by way of a Charge to the Class, and I trust that in fact you can bear to hear them now. Here they come.

Earlier this month, on May 17th to be exact, we celebrated Syttende Mai, Norwegian Constitution Day, at the College. In his sermon at chapel that day, Pastor Benson made an important observation about St. Olaf. His comment came in the context of why in the world we would be devoting so much time and energy to celebrating another country’s national holiday at St. Olaf. He said:

When the 17th of May falls on a chapel day at a college of the church founded by Norwegians, you have to make a decision that ordinary colleges don’t have to make. Ordinary colleges don’t have daily chapel, and they don’t care that May 17th is a big deal … in Norway. But we aren’t an ordinary college, so we have to make a decision. Not that we should complain. Ordinary colleges, for the most part, don’t have much to celebrate except themselves, and that gets tiresome after a while. We have both the love of God and this crazy Norwegian holiday to celebrate.

Pastor Benson was right: we are not an ordinary college precisely because we do have more to celebrate than just ourselves. There’s a reason why Commencements are ceremonial, why the faculty wear their academic regalia, why we begin with prayer and end with song. This is a solemn occasion. Commencement isn’t just about applauding, throwing your caps in the air, and singing Um! Yah! Yah!, though those are all good things. Commencement is also an occasion to dedicate yourself to what comes next, for your education at St. Olaf is not an end in itself but rather a gift you were given to prepare you to use your knowledge and talents in a wider sphere for the good of the world.

Now, it would be easy to be discouraged as you leave the College to embark on that path. Our nation is at war on two fronts abroad, and it is apparent that we are not immune from the threat of domestic terrorism. Our Gulf Coast is being fouled with oil. Our national indebtedness has reached record levels, and we lack a national consensus about how to address that burden that will fall on your shoulders. Indeed, there is widespread dissatisfaction among citizens in America about the role and efficacy of government. It appears that we are beginning to emerge from the deep recession that erased vast amounts of wealth and hundreds of thousands of jobs in the last 18 months, but I know that despite yours and our best efforts not every student graduating today has found a job, and that is discouraging for a talented, ardent young person who wants to begin the next phase of life and contribute his or her gifts to the workplace and to the community.

So how to respond to this situation? We could succumb to fear. That’s the human impulse, to go back to bed and pull the covers over our heads. Fear drives us away from danger. That can, of course, be a healthy thing. If you came across a bear in your back yard, it would probably make sense to back slowly away. But fear can also paralyze you. I’m so discouraged about politics that I’m not going to vote. I’m so discouraged about the economy that I’ve given up on my dream of a certain career. I’m so concerned about people in the world who wish our country ill that I’m not going to reach out to them and seek dialogue and understanding. Fear is a dead end.

The alternative is hope. Where fear pulls us back, hope drives us forward. Fear repels; hope attracts. Fear creates stasis; hope leaps into action. Fear splinters communities; hope creates and nourishes them.

I’m an advocate for hope. There are 719 reasons to be hopeful about the future, and they are sitting in front of me. This isn’t just a hypothesis of mine. As a class, during your four years at St. Olaf you have consistently chosen the path of hope: you’ve looked to the future, you’ve taken action, you’ve built and nourished community.

Your classmate Subash Ghimire was awarded a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant in summer 2009 to establish a summer camp for children in his home village in Nepal that uses traditional song, dance, theater, and other teaching aids to help children overcome the scars of war and the country’s caste system. Now he has created a scholarship fund, established a library, and launched a foundation to support youth movements.

Your classmate Jenny Kramm, with the support of a $15,000 award from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation, worked with the Northfield Middle School’s Summer PLUS program, an initiative geared toward youth at risk for not graduating from high school, to design supervised academic learning activities and enrichment activities that encouraged students to pursue their interests and learn about their community as a way to encourage them to persist in school.

Chris Lomen, another classmate and the founder of the nonprofit Rolling to Rebuild, will begin rollerblading across the United States after graduation to raise money to rebuild schools in Haiti. He hopes to raise $100,000 to rebuild, restock, and revitalize approximately 10 schools in and around Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, that were destroyed in the January earthquake.

After graduation four of you are joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, five of you have been invited to or nominated for the Peace Corps, and others will be serving in Teach for America and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps next year.

It’s important to note that working for a nonprofit isn’t the only way to embrace hope over fear. Those of you going on to graduate or other professional schools are also all expressing your faith in your own ability to research, teach, preach, heal, and cure, and in the ability of your chosen professions to make the world a better place. Those of you going to work for corporations and small businesses are proactively stepping forward to advance the economy, create jobs, and create and manage wealth, and in so doing lift the standard of living for people everywhere.

During this past year St. Olaf students have spoken out for hope not just as individuals but also as a community. Students at the College raised $48,000 for Relay for Life to help fund the fight against cancer. Our Habitat for Humanity group raised $6,500 for help fund a home for a family in need.

After the Haiti earthquake St. Olaf students raised more than $2,000 to help fund relief efforts there. The Music Entertainment Committee raised $1,000 for the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

Every one of the initiatives, both individual and communitarian, has evidenced the reason why we are not an ordinary college, and why today we have more to celebrate than just our selves. Certainly Oles are ambitious, seek to excel, and take just pride in their accomplishments. But we also work for a larger purpose, we acknowledge our responsibility to use our gifts and talents for the good of the world, and we give thanks for our ability to make a difference.

So here is my charge to you: take a moment before you cross the stage this afternoon and receive my warm congratulations upon your graduation to inwardly dedicate yourself to the higher purpose to which you are called and for which you are prepared. Choose hope over fear, opt for action rather than inaction, embrace our common future. I wish you blessings in your journey and I bid you Godspeed.

David R. Anderson ’74