2014 Commencement Address

Mr. Ranger, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, and most importantly, seniors – welcome. We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to honor and say farewell to the graduating class. This is a time for looking forward and for celebrating all that you – Class of 2014 – have accomplished. 

It has become my tradition at graduation to offer a short reflection, to offer some recommendations to the graduates, and then to offer unsolicited advice to the parents.  

To the graduating seniors: I would like you to consider for a moment how much has changed since the fall of your freshman year.

When you first arrived to the Upper School in the fall of 2010, the very first iPads had just been released.  Pink and neon yellow t-shirts were at the height of fashion and not only women but also men had started to wear skinny jeans.  The Social Network and Inception had just come out, and that September Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” made it to the top ten.  In September 2010, Venus and Serena Williams had reached No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association an impressive eight times collectively; Jason Pierre-Paul had just been drafted by the Giants and Mark Sanchez was going into his second year with the Jets.

We had spent the August before you entered your ninth grade year watching the rescue of the 33 miners in Chile. It was a story that captured the world, demonstrating the human capacity for heroism and to work for the greater good.  Those miners survived because they did what was best for all of them together, not what was best for them individually.

This story about people working for the greater good is an appropriate context in which to address the Class of 2014 because I would argue that this is how you as a class have distinguished yourselves at MBS.  You are not a class that is defined only by individual talents, but by your work collectively as leaders and as part of something larger than yourselves.  Your guidance of the underclassmen and your work as mentors and role models has been highly touted.  This is your legacy, and we thank you.

Working for the greater good does not come easily to everyone.  Our Congress was most efficient and effective when 80% of Congress had some form of military service. Through this experience, they learned to put serving their country before self-interest.  They learned to work for a cause greater than themselves, and they learned how to make compromises for the good of a nation. I am not promoting military service, but I am advocating the idea that sacrifice and service teaches us how to work for something beyond ourselves. 

You students at MBS learn to work for the greater good through your participation in activities where you are required to act not as individuals, but as a cast, a chorus, a team, or as a class, as in the Class of 2014.   Many of you define yourselves through these group experiences in athletics or theater or music or dance.  Your great successes this year, both on the playing fields, ice hockey rinks and the stage came not because of individual achievements but because you worked together to achieve something great. At MBS you have learned to tap into your creative selves, to adapt to challenges and to try new things.

In my Bench Talks this year I have urged you to remember that no man is an island; we are all connected in one way or another.  I have urged you to remember that trying and failing is infinitely better than never trying at all, and I have urged you to embrace the idea that we are a community of people helping people. 

I have a story about a recent MBS graduate and how he was able to use his creativity to overcome disappointment.  It is also a story of how thinking beyond himself resulted in great satisfaction. Some of you may remember him, Zach Gray, Class of 2012.  He was editor of the Crimson Sun, a wonderful student, and an avid baseball player.  

In the fall of his junior year at MBS, he shattered his wrist playing first base. After surgery and several months of rehab and hard work, he was back just in time for the spring season.
In the spring of his senior year at MBS, he separated his shoulder when he collided with an outfielder going for a fly ball.  He missed several games, but he worked hard and was able to return in time for states.

During the fall and winter of his freshman year at Lehigh, Zach worked very hard, but in February he was a passenger in a car that was in a serious accident, and he suffered a major concussion and missed the first month of his freshman baseball season in college.
Two months later, he broke his wrist playing first base against Seton Hall. After a cast and additional surgery, Zach’s rehab process started all over again.  
Although the primary passion of his life was ripped from him, Zach turned to something he had started to work on in one of his classes, a social media app for the iPhone called STRIVR. 

The concept for his app is to provide a platform where people can give and receive everyday help.   Many people need help performing basic tasks such as cleaning up debris from a storm, picking up medications from the drugstore, or carrying 40-pound bags of water softener salt to the basement. Through research, he came to understand that the vast majority of people need help on a daily basis, but don’t ask for it. STRIVR offers a way for friends to help friends – to “pay it forward” so to speak. In the short term, he hopes to solve what he perceives as a generational problem of a reluctance to ask for help. In the long term, he envisions 20 million people helping people – imagine how that could transform the world! 

Zach will be launching this iPhone app sometime this summer – look for it!

I tell you graduating seniors Zach’s story, his transition from high school to college and his ability to adjust to heartbreaking disappointment as a platform for four recommendations I have for you on how you might approach your first year of college. So with Zach’s story ringing in your ears, here are my recommendations.

Recommendation #1: Get involved in activities beyond the classroom. You never know what is going to hook you or what is going to fail you, and the outside-of-the-classroom opportunities in college are beyond your imagination - by engaging, you are contributing.

Harvard statistician Richard Light spent ten years gathering statistics on college students, and he found that students involved in outside-of-classroom activities are far happier with their college experience than those who focus solely on academics.  His findings revealed that a substantial commitment to one or two activities – including volunteer work--has no adverse relationship on grades and has a strong relationship to overall satisfaction with college life. Needless to say, these skills will serve you in the workplace as well.

Recommendation #2: Take the risk of signing up for classes that have frequent assessments.  Although it may be scary, go for classes that are highly structured and have frequent quizzes and short assignments.  Richard Light also found that students in highly structured classes tend to be happier and more engaged than students in less structured classes that have only a midterm and a final.  

Recommendation #3: Treat office hours like gold.  Go see your professors during office hours. This simple act could profoundly change your college experience and your life after college.   When your professors hand out their syllabi, memorize their office hours, and for the first three weeks of class, get in the habit of seizing the opportunity for one-on-one time with your professors.

Recommendation #4:  Don’t forget your family.  Call often—and not just when you need money.

Now – for the parents:

Michael Thompson has a term that he calls “childsickness,” which is the parental version of homesickness for children.  As parents, we have all experienced “childsickness,” and we will probably continue to have various versions of it throughout our lives even as our children move away and become increasingly independent.  With that in mind, I have some advice for parents. 

First - remember that when they unload their troubles to you on the phone, they often feel better, and you usually feel worse.  It’s funny how sometimes those long distance calls can focus on the hard things and leave out all the fun they are having.  

Second - embrace your child’s mixed signals as part of the college process.  Sometimes within the same time frame our children may signal to us the need for independence and in the very next minute signal they would like some nurturing.  You are not crazy, and neither are they.  This is called growing towards independence.  It can be confusing and hard for both our children and for us, but it’s all part of the college process.

Third - find a way to participate in your child’s college experience without going overboard.  You are making sacrifices to allow your child to go to college, and you deserve to know what is going on in college.  But the fact is, the school doesn’t send you their grades; the infirmary will not give you information about them, and you are completely boxed out of steady communications from the school regarding your child.

You are sacrificing a great deal without much of a say about what’s going on.  Make sure you get to join in the fun now and then!

So to the graduates – go forth and continue the work that you began here - continue to work for the greater good. Congratulations to the Class of 2014.  We are all very proud of you.


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