I don’t usually post the speech I give at the Medals Ceremony, but this time the message was a bit different.
Good afternoon scholars, Parents, and friends, trustees, President Erickson and Provost Pangborn. Congratulations to you all! Each one of you has played a significant role in getting to this moment.
Mrs. Schreyer and DrueAnne it is a particular honor to have you with us. Thank you for being here and thank you for all you have done for Penn State and our students.
It is now my great pleasure and honor, as dean of the Schreyer Honors College and as our tradition dictates, to address you one final time.
“Graduation is both an ending and a beginning.”
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
“A journey begins with but a single step.”
“Your future lies ahead of you.”
“The best is yet to come.”
“Remember, do what you love and love what you do.”
“Keep your eyes on the prize.”
“Spread your wings and fly.”
“Be true to yourself.”
“Always aim for the moon and if you miss you’ll still be among in the stars.”
And finally, “Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed. (98 3/4% guaranteed.)”
There! I have just provided you with the substance of just about every graduation address I have ever heard. (You can go home now. No, not really.) With the exception of the words from Mr. Theodore Geisel, these are all clichés, phrases that, no matter how true, have been worn down with use so that they become banal in the extreme. The reason we resort to them at a time like graduation (or weddings, get ready to start attending a lot of those as well) is because there is truth in them. This is a time of great change for you.
In the last two weeks some of you have even told me that you find yourselves getting weepy, happy to be done with the work but realizing you are going to miss Penn State, miss Happy Valley. (Let me let you in on a secret: you can come back any time!)
It is a bittersweet time. You are eager to move on, yet you have, I trust, fond and wonderful memories of your time at Penn State. Of course great change has come to this university in your time, but the greatest changes of all are personal. You have grown, made new friends, learned how to do laundry (I hope), and of course demonstrated not just to your faculty, but to yourself all that you can accomplish academically.
It is also a time of mixed emotions not least of all because there are some who started this journey with us who are not with us today.
Just two days into his second year at Penn State Schreyer Scholar Tom Richards suffered a seizure and died. He was a remarkable young man who made such a great impact on his friends and Penn State that YOU created a program call The 367 Project. This is an amazing testimony of Tom’s legacy and your love.
This is how The 367 Project website describes your motivation.
We were founded by a group of Penn Staters and Tom’s parents in September 2010. Our challenge since then has been to “go ahead” and make an impact in the lives of others. Following in Tom’s footsteps, we believe that we can make the greatest impact by helping students discover their true potential as leaders, developing their fundamental skill-sets, and empowering them to go ahead and make an impact.
For so many of us Tom’s death was an horrific shock, yet you chose to celebrate Tom’s life and make a positive difference in the lives of others, even as he had impacted so powerfully your own.
This New Year’s Eve our son Mack died unexpectedly of a blood infection, just two weeks shy of his 9th birthday. What everyone thought was simply strep throat took the life of our incredibly funny, clever, and active boy in a matter of hours. Mack’s passion was soccer and he was, by all accounts, a great goalkeeper. He dreamed of starting for Penn State and the US Men’s National Team. Thanks to the generosity of so many of you, all Penn State Goalkeepers will now carry Mack’s name onto the field on which he dreamed of playing. On behalf of our family, thank you.
You all and the entire Penn State community rallied around us and continue to be here for us, in these darkest times, even as you were there for Tom and his family.
I could add to these tragedies simply by citing the names of cities and towns, just from the past 12 months: Sandy Hook, Boston, and Aurora. What we have all, each in our own way, had to come to terms with is the brokenness of this world. Such tragedies and a million smaller travesties that we confront every day, have no satisfactory explanation other than that. This is a place of great beauty and terrible cruelty, incredible joy and unbearable heartbreak. This is a reality that we must grapple with, but never accept it. “There will be wars and rumors of wars.”
Frederick Beuchner put it succinctly: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
It is time to step out, but don’t be afraid. Be strong and take on the challenges of this world. Our job, your job, is to face the reality of brokenness and respond with healing and comfort. Wherever you go from here, grad school or career, Teach for America or teach for local school district, you have to opportunity and the responsibility to do what you can to help others.
In rabbinic Judaism there is a phrase tikkun olam, “repairing or healing the world.” It was an expression used in legal texts like the Mishnah to indicate that something should be done, not because law required it, but because it was the right thing to do for the benefit of everyone, to bring healing the world. Over the centuries its meaning and use has expanded, but the fundamental concept remains the same. Do not simply do the minimum required, don’t ask yourself “is this legal,” rather “is this the right thing to do.” And do it. In this way we may bring about some healing of this broken world.
Finally, I have one more cliché I would like to challenge. You have heard it said, perhaps at more than a few graduations, that you should “live each day as if it were your last.” Or, the more contemporary take, “YOLO.”
Don’t. “Don’t live each day as if it were your last.”
If I knew today would be my last, as much as I love you all and am so proud of you, I would merely poke my head in, say “Well done!” and go and spend the time with my family. We cannot live each day as if it were our last. And my wife and I are so grateful that we didn’t know what day would be Mack’s last. Instead, live each day, each moment to its fullest. Take advantage of the opportunities you have, whether they be to excel in your career, take a trip, or help a person in need.
Live life fully.
In our own time of grief we have often read the comforting words from Ralph Waldo Emerson “It is not the length of life, but the depth.”
Tom Richards exemplified that and you have carried on his legacy. Continue even as you leave Penn State. So now we send you out!
Live life fully. Live life deeply. And live life with love.
Congratulations to you, the 2013 class of Schreyer Scholars, women and men who are already transforming and bringing healing to this world.
 Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, (New York: Random House, 1990).