Berwick Academy Commencement

Mark W. Huddleston

Commencement Remarks
Berwick Academy
June 4, 2010

Good morning. It is a tremendous honor for me to address the class of 2010 here at Berwick Academy. Fresh off our own commencement at UNH, at which some 2500 undergraduates and graduate students received their diplomas, it is a nice change of pace for me to be in this intimate setting with you and your families, as you find yourself just setting out on the journey our students were completing. Of course, it’s my opinion that all 63 of you should be showing up in Durham in the fall. But failing that, it is my hope that each one of you is excited about the path in front of you. Judging from the impressive list of colleges you will be attending — Cornell, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins, Middlebury and Mt. Holyoke, and yes, UNH, just to name a handful—I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t be.

Finding myself following in the footsteps of the likes of Maine senator Olympia Snowe, fishing boat captain and author Linda Greenlaw, and Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, I naturally gave some thought to what kind of message I could share today that would be dynamic and interesting and different. As a college president, however, I realized that my area of expertise might lie in the commencement address itself, since I have, at this point, delivered a number of them.  If you’ll indulge me for a moment, it strikes me that there really are three “flavors,” if you will, of commencement address:

First, there is the speech-as-policy-pronouncement, typically delivered by a politician gearing up for his or her next election.

Second, there is the speech as windy oration, full of advice to graduates about how to make their way in the world. This is not only the most common kind of speech, it is also the most forgettable. Case in point, there was an article by Boston Globe columnist Sam Allis recently about his realization some 40 years after the fact that the illustrious literary journalist he had always claimed as his Harvard commencement speaker hadn’t spoken at his graduation at all, but at a Harvard graduation almost 10 years later. He was crestfallen to learn that his own commencement speaker had actually been the former Secretary of the Interior for presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who had assuredly not bestowed upon him the immortal advice, “Tell them you won’t go. Go back to your rooms. Unpack!”

And third, there is the humorous speech, delivered by the likes of Conan O’Brien or Will Ferrell or Jon Stewart, all of whom have delivered memorably funny commencement addresses in the last couple of years. 

Now, I don’t host a talk show, nor does my resume boast such cinematic gems as Old School and Talladega Nights. But I am, in fact, prepared to give any of the three types of commencement speech I just mentioned to all of you today, based on your preference. In any event, if, 40 years from now, you look back on your Berwick days and can’t quite put your finger on who spoke during your commencement, I’d like to plant the suggestion now that whoever I was, I was funny, and interesting, and not too long winded.

Out of curiosity: by a show of hands, how many of you here today are planning on going to college, either right away or after a post-graduate year of some sort? [note: Berwick communications office says 100% college-bound, 95% directly and 5% after a gap year]  Every one of you. Fantastic. I’d like to think that the fact that I am a college president does not take away from my credibility if I’d like to spend a little time talking about why going to college is one of the most important experiences you will ever have. At the very least, you can’t doubt my sincerity on the subject, since I went to college 42 years ago and basically haven’t left since.

At UNH, one of my favorite days of the year is first year student move-in day. The typical scene includes mom and/or dad, trying not to get teary, and a stack of neatly packed and labeled plastic boxes full of clothing and personal effects and brand-new, special dorm bed-length sheets, which may or may not get washed even once over the course of the first semester. There is also, of course, the student him or herself, maybe sporting a brand-new UNH t-shirt, but maybe dressed in high school regalia — a Berwick Bulldogs lacrosse sweatshirt, for example.  Everyone tends to be a bit wide-eyed, experiencing a very particular combination of excitement and fear. For the vast majority of students, this is the first time they will live on their own, be responsible for getting themselves up in the morning and to all the places they need to be on time. Their heads are filled with concerns like, What do I want to study? Will I be able to balance a sports travel schedule with a demanding major? What if there aren’t enough outlets in my dorm room for both my roommate and I to plug in our iPods and cell phones and laptops at the same time?

By the time those same students graduate four or five or however many years later, they have completed a remarkable transformation. Their big questions are now, What do I want to do with my life? Am I on the right path? They are asking themselves how they can make a difference in a world as complicated and troubled as the one they are entering into, and they are not sure they know the answer.

In just a few months, all of you will be those first-year students with your new school t-shirts and your plastic boxes, taking those first steps through the gates of adulthood. It’s a big deal. Four of you have been classmates since kindergarten. Another five of you have called Berwick Academy home since first grade. You have been together for two-thirds of your lives, and now you are about to go your separate ways, to New York City and Washington D.C. and Washington state. And Durham, New Hampshire. I expect you all are excited. You have worked hard to get to here. I imagine some of you are also a little nervous, too, and to that end I would like to offer three pieces of advice:

Number one: keep an open mind. You may go into college planning to major in English, but don’t be afraid to change course if you discover environmental education is your passion. There’s a favorite quote of mine that says, “find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” The same principle holds true for your education. Find a field that you love and — well, okay, I guess I can’t extend the metaphor in such a way to suggest that you’ll never have to do homework, but you will find that work easier, and more fulfilling. 

Number two: take advantage of the college environment. Much of what you learn in the coming years will take place in a classroom, but perhaps even more of it will take place in the dining hall and in your dormitory, on the sports fields and in the theatre, and in the clubs and organizations you choose to join. Get involved. We’ve had students whose entire life trajectories have been changed by a spring break service trip with Habitat for Humanity, a semester spent overseas, or a summer research fellowship with a professor. Don’t be afraid to walk into a room full of people you don’t know and try your hand at something completely different, whether it’s broomball or sign language or social justice.

Number three — and even if you disregard numbers one and two, pay attention to this — treat your Facebook page and your Twitter account as if your mother and your professors were your only followers and friends. I don’t know if any of your saw the graphic published by the New York Times recently outlining the different privacy settings, but there are something like 170 different points of entry where your private information can be accessed. I’d say it takes a PhD to understand it except I have one and am still not sure I have all the bases covered.

The poet e.e. cummings said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” I know you all have that courage. I can see it in your faces as you sit here today, and in the determination and discipline it has taken to achieve what all of you have achieved. Today is a great day, and it is your day, and on that note I would like to hand it back over to you.  Thank you for inviting me to be a part of it. Congratulations, Berwick Academy class of 2010.