Tufts University

Baccalaureate Address:
President Lawrence S. Bacow

May 19, 2007

Commencement 2007

Faculty, staff, parents, friends, but most importantly, to the Class of 2007, welcome!

This ceremony is as old as Tufts. It dates back to the days when we had classes on Saturday, when students had to attend mandatory chapel on Sunday, and when the president of the university, then known as Tufts College, was always a Universalist minister. Baccalaureate was the president's last sermon. Well I am neither a Universalist nor a minister, so no sermons today. You can relax.

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A little less than four years ago, I welcomed you all to Tufts. We assembled on the quad for Matriculation, precisely where you will gather tomorrow for Commencement. I know what you all are thinking the 1,361 days you have spent as students on this Hill have gone by all too quickly. Many of you have told me you would like to do it all over again. I understand precisely what you mean. I liked school so much I never left. 35 years after graduating from college, and I am still living in university housing.

Parents, I suspect I also know what you are thinking. Your overwhelming emotion is one of pride in the considerable accomplishments of your sons and daughters; pride tempered by disbelief that you are old enough to have a child graduating from college, all buoyed by the relief that comes from having paid your last tuition bill (at least for this offspring).

At times like this I like to recall a story told by Mark Twain. "What did you learn while you were away at school?" a recent college graduate was asked. "Not much," he replied. "But my parents seemed to have learned a lot while I was gone."

I know from the conversations that Adele and I have had with many of you that the past four years have been a wonderful experience. You have challenged yourselves both inside and outside the classroom. You have discovered new friends, new ways of thinking, and new passions. You literally have traveled the world exploring countries, geography, and culture. You have grown intellectually, socially, and emotionally. You leave here more sophisticated, more worldly and more mature.

At times like this it is easy to think of all the wonderful memories you have acquired and flip through them like pictures in an album. Adele and I have our own memory book of the four years we have shared with you.

  • We will always remember the kindness you extended to our guest students from Tulane following Hurricane Katrina. You welcomed them with open arms during their time of great need.
  • We have special memories of Kids' Day, Read by the River, and all the good work you did for others in our neighboring communities.
  • Who can forget the excitement when 126 lucky members of your class moved into Sophia Gordon Hall for the very first time last September?
  • We recall fondly the performances of the Gospel Choir and the Bhangra Dancers at the Wang Center, the Big Band at Lincoln Center, and the Amalgamates in London.
  • We loved watching the tennis teams practice and play in front of our house, and will always remember the drenching we got watching the football team's mud bowl against Trinity at Homecoming a few years ago.
  • And what about the thousands of you who gathered outside our house when the Red Sox beat the Yankees to win the pennant? I can still hear the chant, "We want Bacow" for reasons I still don't quite understand. And of course the Red Sox won the World Series and the Patriots won two Super Bowls during your time on the Hill.
  • Finally, I will always remember the three marathons that I ran with various members of your class. For those of you who came out to cheer for us on Marathon Monday, thank you. And while I enjoyed running with many of you, you will forgive me if I never ran with you on the Quad.

So much for the memories. What of the future? At the Senior Reception last Friday, I asked a number of you how it felt to be done. You responded with words like "great," "scary," "relieved," "bittersweet," "awesome," "surreal."

Lots of you expressed anxiety about the future. In fact, one of you even asked me to reassure your mother that you would really find a job. So, here goes. To Laura Tortora's mother, please don't worry about Laura. Like all of her classmates, she has the benefit of a terrific education and is blessed with wonderful abilities and a strong work ethic (go ahead, take some credit!). She even has a secret weapon the 92,000 Tufts alumni who stand ready to help her. She will find her way just as we did when we ventured off on our own. I have great confidence in her.

One of the great myths handed down from generation to generation is that you are supposed to know what you are going to do with your life on the day you graduate from college. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If I could give you one piece of advice it would be to recognize opportunity when it walks up and hits you in the face. Trust me, it will. It may not happen immediately, but be ready to seize it when it does. You may have to try a few different things before you find something that truly engages you, but if you are willing to take a few risks, if you are willing to fail, if you are willing to pursue your passion, you will find your way in the world. As I like to say, a career is only knowable on the day you retire. Until then you are just making plans.

You have learned more than you realize during these past four years. In addition to mastering the subject of your major, you have learned how to organize your time wisely, how to live and work with people who are very different from you, how to parse difficult problems, how to research and analyze large volumes of information, and how to communicate your ideas clearly in writing. These are important life skills that will serve you well in any job. And if you have struggled in a class and had the experience of being overwhelmed, you also have been well prepared for life. Not everything will come easily to you. In every job you will ever have, you will be called upon to do things you have never done before. If you have learned how to puzzle through difficult problems on your own during your time at Tufts, if you have learned how to admit what you do not know, if you have learned how to ask for help, you will do just fine.

All of you who have had the opportunity to study and learn at a place like Tufts have truly led a privileged life these past four years. I hope you will take this wonderful education and put it to good use. Try to be rich in the things that matter: the love of your family, and the respect of your friends and colleagues. Please commit yourselves to invest your time and effort in your community. The world we live in is far from perfect. This is not a political statement, but rather, a statement of fact. It is your obligation to try to repair the world. Don't sit on the sidelines. Get involved.

Our Hillel Director, Jeff Summit, recently told me a wonderful story. One of the great Jewish scholars of all time, Rabbi Akiba, was sitting with his students. He decided to give them a math test. "You have a thousand dinars," he said, "and you give away 300. How many do you possess?" "Seven hundred," they quickly responded. "Wrong. You really only have the 300 you gave away. Many things could happen to the 700 you 'have.' You could be robbed or lose them in a business deal. But no one can ever take away from you all the good you have done with that which you have given away."

My point in telling this story is that you will be known less for what you do for yourself in your lifetime than for what you do for others. Try to be generous with all the gifts you have been given. Please give others opportunity, just as opportunity has been given to you. Make time for children, for the elderly, for those who are less fortunate than you. If through hard work and good luck good fortune should come your way, please remember the lesson of Rabbi Akiba.

Commencement is a bittersweet time. You may think you are saying goodbye to the dear friends you have shared so much with these past four years. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you are like the alumni who have preceded you, your friendships will endure and only deepen with the passage of time. You will attend each other's weddings, and celebrate the birth of each other's children. You will vacation together, go into business together, and share all of life's major passages together. If you don't believe me, just look around at the reunion classes that are gathering. They are your window on the future good friends coming together to share once again the magic that was their college years. I hope some day you will come back as well.

To the parents who are assembled, thank you for sharing these remarkable young people with us. Four years ago, at Matriculation, I told you to let go, that you had prepared your kids well for all that awaits them. Now that we have really come to know your sons and daughters, I can say with absolute certainty that you did your job as parents well. They are fine young men and women who, after tomorrow, we will proudly call Tufts alumni.

To the Class of 2007, I hope you will stay in touch with us. Faculty and staff love to hear from their former students. In fact, the relationship between teacher and student is not unlike that between parent and child. No matter what you do in life, you will always be our students. We will follow your careers with great interest. When you have a chance, please check in and let us know how you are doing. There will always be a place for you on this Hill.

On behalf of the entire Tufts community, I want you to know that it has been our privilege to share these past four years with you. We have challenged you, and you, in turn have challenged us. We are all the better for this experience.

Although I told you this was not a sermon, I would like to close with one of my favorite passages from the Talmud. It is the reflections of a teacher. It goes like this: "I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students."

Class of 2007, thank you for having taught us so well. Good luck and God speed.

Photo by Alonso Nichols for Tufts University

This story originally ran on May 19, 2007.