Faculty Speaker - Gregg Whitworth '00, Assistant Professor of Biology
Good morning, my fellow Grinnellians. And what a good morning it is. It’s a little early for me anyway on a Sunday to be up. This may be true for some of the students in the audience as well. I hope you guys are holding up okay. We certainly give you a busy few days to cap your Grinnell experience, but shortly sleep will be yours to have again.
I was so deeply honored when two former students first, Michelle and then Ben, told me I had been asked to come speak at Baccalaureate this year. In my flustered response I didn’t even think to ask what time I’d be having to set my alarm for. Sneaky, guys. But standing here now, with a hurried cup of weak Midwestern coffee coursing through my veins, there is truly nowhere else I would rather be at this hour on this morning, than here to give my best wishes to you, our wonderful and very inspiring soon to be graduates. May I share with your parents and friends what I hope you all already know. Your energy, your enthusiasm, and your genuine curiosity about the world in which we live is what has gotten all of us - your faculty, your coaches, the staff with whom you work to build this community - it is what has gotten all of us out of our beds in the morning over the last four years even on the coldest darkest and snowiest of Midwestern days. I don’t think it is too audacious for me to say to all of you on behalf of all of us, thank you. Thank you for all of the work you have done and the energy you have given each in your own way to this college. Thank you for making this such a fabulous place and a fabulous place to work and live.
I’m not sure if this has come across yet or not, but I am a rather proud Grinnellian. My first four year stint at Grinnell was as a student, graduating with the class of 2000. We liked to call ourselves the class of oooooooh. And now I feel as though I am graduating again, a second time after being back for three years as a visiting member of the faculty. Seven years in total. I suppose I’m on the Hogwarts plan.
Now I know that not all of you sitting out there right now will be feeling quite this way, but for those of you who are in a place emotionally which is similar to where I was eleven years ago, and indeed not far from where I am now, you may be feeling like leaving Grinnell is going to be a very hard thing to do. This whole graduation thing, a celebration indeed, might have for you the sting of a double-edged sword; it may be both sweet but also a little melancholy. In my senior year at Grinnell I lived off campus with a great group of friends. (Footnote: we all still keep in touch and are still great friends. It does work out.) We decided that a great way to keep our families out of our hair during graduation weekend…oh wait. Sorry… a great way to honor all of the love and support we had been given by our families would be to ask them to help us throw a cookout on this graduation Sunday. It was a lovely convergence of worlds and people, and I still have many fond memories of that afternoon. But one of those memories I don’t think I will quite ever shake is how angry we made our mothers. Every ten to fifteen minutes, one of us would get a little verklempt, a little teary- eyed, a little overcome with a moment of weepiness, sending all five into a huddled mess of hugs and reminiscences, and “oh my god I’m going to miss you guys so much!” The moms just didn’t get it: What was wrong with their normally sensible children? Why were we spending so much time teary-eyed. This was our graduation weekend. We had made it, some of us against considerable odds. We should be happy. We should be grinning ear to ear. Well, to those of you who are finding it a little hard to wrap your heads around the idea that you are leaving Grinnell, I say it’s your graduation, and, gosh darn it! you can cry if you want to.
To those of you who are ready to leave, like yesterday, well that’s probably healthier. Although, give it some time. Some of my friends who were the biggest curmudgeons on graduation day are now the most sentimental about the whole thing a decade later. But here is the point I’m trying to amble my way towards: To all of you, those of you who are ready to go, or those of you who are about to embark on an afternoon of puffy eyes, and in some ways to myself as I ready to move on for a second time and finally give my cherished mentor and friend Leslie Gregg-Jolly her office back. To all of us, I’d like to suggest that one of the most important things that we can do in our lives as Grinnellians is to leave Grinnell. Let me explain. Hopefully everyone here knows something about the history of this college having been born from the heady ideals of an abolitionist ministry guided by the radical politics and progressive religious view that all people are actually people. Our charge as a faculty is to educate our students, and I’m quoting here, “for the honorable discharge of the duties of life.” Still quoting from the mission statement, “As a teaching and learning community, the college holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and society at large.” So we are charged with achieving excellence in the realm of the intellect. Those amazing feats of intellectual acrobatics you have all performed in the classroom, in the lab, in the studio, and on the page. But we also charged with pursuing the well-being of society at large. This interesting flavor of social activism is as core to our college as our educational mission and it is one which has been wonderful to see this community recently reaffirm in a number of provocative ways.
Which to affect society at large we must leave, we must leave the agrarium, we must venture forth into the wider world. We have to leave Grinnell and take this Grinnell mojo with us. We must venture forth with that special blend of geekiness, social consciousness, and enlightened attitude that makes this place so wonderful. Or, as one of my friends put it at our tenth year reunion, “that weird something in the Grinnell water that makes everyone just a little bit gay.” I’m sure he meant happy.
As at home as I hope we all are thinking and talking about social justice and our ability to make a positive impact on the world outside of this two block campus, here’s something that I think makes us all a little bit uncomfortable, or worse, something we don’t spend nearly enough time as Grinnellians talking frankly about, and that is privilege. We are all incredibly privileged to be here now, and we are incredibly privileged to have had access to this educational experience. Your lives over the last four years have been outrageously expensive. Parents I think you know what I am talking about. I graduated from Grinnell long before the debt cap program so you don’t even want to get a Class of Ooooooh alum started. But even at full tuition, the most expensive buy-in into this institution doesn’t come close to covering the real cost of the education you have just received. So I’d like to put a fine point on the charge that has been placed on us as Grinnellians to use the knowledge we have gained here to pursue the well-being of individuals and society at large. Someone, many someones, who you have never met have given time, energy, and a whole heap of money to this college so that you could have access to this education, and that you could receive this charge. Most of us leave college with many kinds of debt, but I think this is arguably for us Grinnellians one of the most important. There have been some really exciting changes recently in the administration of the College, so I hope you all never have to have the experience of receiving mailers from Grinnell asking for money featuring such thought-provoking and relevant iconography as pigs in hula skirts or half eaten cookies. But even if you do, once you finish rolling your eyes, do remember this debt we share. Find ways to give to the students who follow you as those who came before us have given to us. Give with your time, give with your ideas, and someday in the distant future when you have it, maybe give with your financial resources a little bit as well. (Footnote: for those of you who have sold out and are going to be making bank next year, you can assuage your guilt by starting now.)
So tomorrow, you become Grinnellians for real this time. The last four years have been a prologue to this experience to come. Go forth and do amazing things. Or not. Go forth and do lovely but understated things if that’s more your style. Stay connected to this community and look for ways in your lives to stay true to the charge placed on all of us to pursue this well-being of our society at large. Wear your Grinnell t-shirts when you are out and about exploring your new homes. I promise, when you accidently stumble into restaurants run by fellow Grinnellians, they will give you lots of free food. Importantly be safe, be well, and drop us an email from time to time letting us know what you’re up to. Those really make our day. I bet your parents would appreciate one as well. So with that I’m going to bid you all a good morning, a heartfelt welcome to the club, our newest fellow Grinnellians.