MAY 26, 2005


Welcome to all of you this evening, and welcome and congratulations to our graduates.  I am honored to be with you.


The burning question on the minds of the faculty this evening is not WHAT I will say, but how long will I speak.  In fact, my hunch is that one of my colleagues may even have a stop watch.  Speaking of the faculty, it has been said that the faculty are the heart of any institution.  If that is the case, then the students represent the soul of the school.  Indeed, the students are the soul of Mercer County Community College. 


I tried to think of a visual image that would work as an analogy to the college.  What I have come up with is an imperfect image and at first it may even seem a bit strange – I am going to compare Mercer County Community College to a cruise ship.  Now, some of you may be asking yourselves, “What is she talking about? A cruise ship?  Obviously, she has never even been on a cruise!”  Please let me explain.


I have chosen this metaphor because our college has people at the helm guiding the journey as cruise ships do. There is the captain of the ship, Dr. Bob Rose, whose navigational skills are top-notch and who has the respect and confidence of everyone on the ship.  The first officer, Dr. Tom Wilfrid, provides the thoughtful guidance and expertise through the academic waters.


Then there are the crew members of a ship - people there to serve. Faculty members at other colleges may balk at the idea that I put faculty in that role of service workers, but I know that most of my colleagues here at Mercer would have no objections.  In addition to full and part-time faculty members, those of us who serve students also include our professional and administrative staff, our secretarial staff, our security forces, and our maintenance workers.  Everyone at Mercer is here to ensure a smooth, intellectually stimulating, and safe ride.


That leaves another group on the ship – the passengers.  I see the students as our passengers but here is where the analogy breaks down somewhat since our students are not on a vacation.  Sure, we have some fun and laughs along the way and many of those laughs are even in our classrooms, but the students are definitely not on vacation.  Our students work very hard to get to their destinations.  The cruise ship image falls short in another significant way:  people on a vacation cruise may become friendly with one another, but they probably do not form long-term meaningful relationships. 


Like so many of my colleagues, I have formed connections with students that are lasting.  I am happy that I am a pack rat when it comes to saving former students’ notes, cards, and now e-mails in which they keep me posted about their whereabouts, their well-being, and their accomplishments.  And I hope to stay connected to many of this evening’s graduates.  We have touched each other’s lives in very powerful ways.


The word in Mercer County Community College that is most representative of our institution is the word, “Community.”  We often talk about our Mercer family.  The people at the helm of our college pay lots of attention to what is in the best interest of the institution and they welcome suggestions from the crew and from the passengers.  My hunch is that our Mercer community is far more inclusive than a cruise ship population.  Looking at our student body, we have students representing over 93 countries in the world!  We have some wealthy students and we have many students who struggle economically. We have students of many ethnicities, of many skin tones, of many religious traditions, of many different cultures.  We have students who speak 47 different languages!  We have students who have diverse opinions, and we are a community of differing lifestyles as well.  And as a community, we not only accept this diversity.  We appreciate it, we embrace it, and we celebrate it!  We recognize that our journey in the teaching and learning process is enriched precisely because of this diversity on our campus. 


We have students of many different ages.  Some students are returning to college after a time away.  In our classes, there are always some returning students who bring to the classroom their ideas and life experiences that enrich the learning experience for all of us.  In fact, one of my most senior students was an 87 year-old woman from another country who contributed some of her life-long learned insights in class.  She was a student who took attendance to class very seriously.  One very snowy morning, when I had barely made it to the college myself, I received a voice mail message from this remarkable woman.  In her beautifully accented English, she said, “I waited for the bus for an hour.  It never came. I am sorry to have missed class.”   I remember holding the phone a few moments before placing it back in its cradle and thinking, “87 years old!  What a passion for life and for learning!” 


One of my returning students this spring missed her first class in the eighth week of the semester.  She was back in class for the next session.  She too apologized for her absence.  What was her excuse?  She shared with me that she had had a heart attack.


In my nearly three and a half decades of teaching here, most of my students tried to do their best.  And many of them pursued their degrees while juggling a whole host of struggles and obstacles.  Most of our Mercer students work either full or part time as they go through school.  Many of them have outside family responsibilities.  As I look out at our graduates this evening, I see those students who persisted despite all the odds, despite the difficult and demanding courses, the juggling of multiple roles, the occasional or chronic illnesses, and the personal and family struggles that are part of everyone’s life.


Over the years, sometimes someone outside of academia would ask me, “How can you teach the same subjects year after year after year?”  “Don’t you get bored?”  These are questions only non-teachers could ask.  First, nothing stays the same.  The only constant in many of our subjects is change.  As is true for my colleagues in other fields, my discipline of psychology changes all the time.  There are always new discoveries, new research, new debates, and new ideas.  “Staying current” is one of the biggest challenges any of us face.  In addition to the new learning in our fields, there is an ever expanding knowledge base about teaching methodology.


My colleagues and I spend quite a bit of time learning about, talking about, and experimenting with teaching strategies.  And then there is the big reason nothing stays the same – Every class is different because there are always different students. None of us teach a “subject” per se.  We teach students.   Since what happens in the classroom is to a large extent interactive, no two classes, not even classes on identical subjects, are ever the same.  Add to this, the advances in technology that challenge us.  In the early days, there was a black board and chalk and our voices.  Then came the use of the overhead projector so we could show notes on transparencies.  Come to our state-of-the-art classrooms now, the ones we call “smart” rooms, and the use of technology in the classroom is downright magical.


Those people who impugn teaching as “same-old/same-same-old” miss the most essential criterion making the classroom a dynamic place.  We learn from our students.   To our graduates, I say, “We have learned from your examples, from your life experiences, from your insights into the material, and from all that you have been so willing to give to us.”


Here is what I hope you take with you from your Mercer experience.  I hope you know that we care about you as people, not only as students.  I hope you leave here having learned a lot about your areas of study.  Even more importantly, I hope we have been successful in teaching you how to think analytically, how to speak and write clearly, how to search for information and then be able to evaluate its validity, and how to live your lives with integrity.


On whatever paths you take in life, I hope that you live your lives serving others.  Even if you become powerful and rich, use your power to set things right in this world and use your wealth to help the less fortunate.  Some of you have heard my favorite Chinese proverb, “If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap.  If you want to be happy for a day, go shopping.  If you want to be happy for a week, take a vacation.  If you want to be happy for a month, get married.  But, if you want to be happy for a lifetime, live your life serving others.”  Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”


I also hope that you strive for peace and love in your hearts so that you can affect all the lives that you touch; maybe if we all strove for greater empathy for others, the earth’s children would live in a more peaceful world.


As you go off to your four-year institutions and some of you to start your careers, I wish for you a life long learning journey.  As Anna Quindlen says in her book, A Short Guide to a Happy Life, “School never ends.  The classroom is everywhere.  The exam comes at the very end.”  That exam she refers to has to do with how you live your lives.  Quindlen ends her book with a story about a homeless man whom she refers to as one of the best teachers she ever had.  She was doing an expose on how difficult it is for the homeless during the winter months.  She sat on a bench with this man facing the ocean on the boardwalk.  She asked him why he didn’t go to one of the available shelters.  He responded, “Look at the view, young lady.  Look at the view.”


We get to choose the view in life and how we experience it.  We may not get to select all that happens to us in life – much of it is outside our control.  The good news, however, is that no matter what happens to us, we can choose our attitude, and that makes all the difference.   And, sometimes it takes hard work to look for the gifts and the opportunities that come from difficult life events. 


My final message comes from Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, who said something like this in one of her monastic newsletters,


The joys of life don’t come to us as a whole; they come in tiny diamond chips.  The trouble is that it takes a lot of soul to see the diamonds in the dark.” 


Coming full circle to my imperfect metaphor of the cruise ship, you, the class of 2005, are the soul of the Mercer ship.  Always look for the diamonds. 


Thank you.