‘From Gradumageddon to On Point’ – Remarks at Commencement 2013 by Jeff Thigpen ’93
President Chabatar, honored guests and Class of 2013, it’s an honor to be here at Guilford, a school founded by Friends and located on Friendly Avenue, with family and friends.
I know you are filled with excitement, fueled by days of partying leading up to this moment, along with all the Advil. (I’m talking to your parents.)
For you, Class of 2013, it’s the moment of truth: Gradumageddon, your end times at Guilford.
The good news is you are not alone. You can celebrate with your families … until 7 p.m. Then please bring your keys over to Security in the Bauman Building.
Years ago, Woody Allen gave a charge to graduates once and said, “More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to hopelessness and despair, the other to total extinction. Let’s hope your class has the wisdom to choose correctly.”
What a lame set of choices! It’s like the “wa-wa” voice from Peanuts, you know, Charlie Brown. “Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa …”
I have to apologize because my generation has bought into it for a while, but times are changing. We are more optimistic now that we have iPhones with apps for The Walking Dead and Smurfs Village.
For you Guilford graduates, I think about Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA character in Taken, a “hetero-normative” movie where he rescues his daughter from her captors. As he might say, you all have a “very particular set of skills”
Most of you got here at 7:45 this morning, no one was caught on Dana Auditorium, and all the golf carts are accounted for. Great job!
Now all you have to do is stay in order and claim your seven second of fame. But please, no cowbells or craziness. I’d prefer you use “marshmallow claps” and, please, “Kiss your brain!” today. My 5-year-old son Aiden can demonstrate both.
For those of you who don’t know what “hetero-normative” is, text me later. A graduate paid me $20 a few minutes ago to get that word in. … Just kidding.
For 175 years Guilford has been dedicated to the simple ideal that educated and virtuous citizens are best shaped in an open, diverse and innovative culture of learning.
We stand here today celebrating that ideal and you represent a new chapter in that story.
Members of my family are here today as well. There’s my mom, Geraldine; Michelle, my wife; Elle and Aiden, my kids; and my sister, Julie.
I came to Guilford with my own story. It’s like an old Irish one, filled with hardship, fun and a little luck. It began in a small rural town called Burgaw, N.C. Some say it’s a Native American word for mudhole.
When I was 4 my father nearly died after serious internal injuries to his abdomen and losing his leg in a farming accident.
A group of first responders with a team of doctors and nurses worked around the clock to attend to his massive wounds and saved his life. He spent 318 days in the hospital enduring a number of skin grafts, surgeries and the emotional shock of it all.
Shortly after my dad got home, my mom developed a serious eye condition from the stress and strain and went totally blind for nearly a year. We went from being a working class family moving our way into the middle class to a family working our way through crisis one day at a time.
As my brother, Michael, said once, “We saw our mom and dad have bad days. We don’t have bad days.” I guess that’s why when I see people living on the edge, I remember “those kinds of people” because I’ve been “those kinds of people”.
It’s clear that family name was built on my mom’s resilience and dad’s perseverance. And they taught us that when we go through challenges in life our true character comes not when we turn away from challenges but we go through them to get to the other side – together.
We had our share of big Oprah tears but we had fun along the way. Like when my mom got her sight back she became a knock-off of the San Diego Chicken and tumbled around our middle school gym.
My brother, sister and I had a relatively normal childhood. Well, my brother pushed me on trash filled with broken glass once and shot me with a BB gun. Oh, those were two separate occasions. Don’t worry, I got him back. Trust me.
And my sister and her friends stripped me down naked and locked me out of our house once. They would only let me get back in if I ran to a pole in the middle of the yard and back.
They cried laughing when I stopped crying long enough to smile and wave at our elderly neighbor who realized my predicament and nearly ran her car off the road. That was the first time I “went to the polls” so to speak.
Flashy advertising did not draw me here. Like many others, it was a person: Mr. David Warner, my seventh grade football coach and science teacher. I really didn’t like science. I learned I could get him off topic by talking about Guilford. I forgot every story he ever told but I remember how he lit up when he mentioned this place.
Coach Warner and his wife Bonnie are here today. I want to thank you both. They – along with my wife, Michelle, who is an extraordinary elementary principal – have spent their careers in the field of public education. They are passionate, dedicated and have made a difference in the lives of children.
The only academic skills I possessed when I came to Guilford were checking the box, filling in the blank and sucking up.
Well, sucking up is more a political skill than an academic one. But I’ve made good use of that skill too.
When I arrived at Guilford I found out quickly that would not do. I read and wrote more than I ever had. Class sessions centered on probing questions and intense discussion, where professors inspired us.
I began to question my own values and assumptions about myself and world. And that was cool because I was in an ideal learning environment.
Guilford values the dignity, worth, and potential of students no matter where they were from, what their backgrounds or beliefs and a place each person has something distinctive to offer.
Like many Guilford students, I learned to appreciate different cultures. George Manley Class of 2007 told me you can learn a lot when seven guys share two bathrooms. His suitemates in Bryan Dorm were from Maryland, North Carolina, Pakistan and Palestine.
You see, in some cultures they don’t use toilet paper but specially designated pitchers of water. Let’s just say they figured out the pitcher not used to make Kool-Aid.
I discovered the notion that there’s truth within each of us, and Guilford listened me out of talking so much. I learned to admit what I know: I don’t know. Socrates discovered that lesson as the beginning of wisdom.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it this way: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. There are also unknown unknowns. Those are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Gee, you’d almost think he was a Guilford grad!
Learning at Guilford was not just about the right answers but learning the right questions. Questions invite conversation, and lead to more well-rounded solutions or points of view.
Through my experiences I learned the true value in “lifelong learning”
When I look back at Guilford I’m not amazed by the accomplishments of my friends and fellow classmates.
Kathryn Marks, Class of 1993, and I used to talk about politics. She just spent two years helping develop comprehensive reform of federal financial laws and regulatory structure in response to the financial crisis. She is now with the FDIC implementing that reform.
Dr. Najeeba Syeed-Miller, Class of 1995, is a professor in a seminary in California. She helps lead their new inter-religious studies program that teaches Muslim, Christians and Jews – together – in one seminary. It is the first degree program of its kind. Some have called her work heresy. I believe she’s a heroine and a peacemaker.
Mitch Prothero, Class of 1991, was the cool, smart guy you always wanted to be around if you got into a jam. Mitch is a freelance writer and photographer.
Mitch recently organized a paintball fight between western journalists and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group. He took a number of shots to the groin but pulled off what few have, gaining insights into an organization few ever do.
Shaina Machlus, Class of 2009, cuts hair. Shaina started The Hair Do Project, a film and photo exhibit documenting the seemingly ordinary task of getting a haircut.
These graduates are in the world as it is, working toward the world as they want to see. And my friends, that is not easy.
When we leave Guilford real life sets in, along with the bills. But never let that get in the way of changing the world. It all does work out, really. I’m only on my fifth credit card.
But be careful! We tend to drink up the culture like Honey Boo Boo guzzles her “go-go” mixer of Red Bull and Mt. Dew. So don’t be too hard on yourself.
If you had asked 20 years ago what I’d be doing today, I could not have told you. There is no action plan for what you do or the kind of person you become. We all wanted to have an impact.
We knew where we were starting and maybe where we wanted to end. But everything in between has been where “life” happens.
I thought I wanted to run for elected office some day. But it was not until I held my father’s hand when he died that I learned my most important lesson: I’m loved something more than I am. I don’t have to run from or deny it. All I have to do is accept it – even when I question everything. And that love is with me no matter what happens, to be given and received.
I would not have known my failures, the shame in my prejudices and the patience of others who helped me work through them. I wouldn’t know I’d be saying “baby” on The Rachael Maddow Show and taking on 30 banks, all because I have a passion for an office few know about but is foundational to democracy and the rule of law.
I would be surprised at my own stubbornness when I see opportunity, fairness, and justice – through the eyes of those who’ve been denied it. I would not have known that unity does not mean we all give up our differences, it just means we commit to a larger purpose.
I would never be so open and present had I not been here. I would have never been so prepared in the moments I was totally unprepared over the years.
Guilford College challenged, supported and shaped me on a foundational level in the “becoming” of who I am today.
And Class of 2013 – you are ready – these are the first steps of the rest of your lives. You stand at a revolutionary time in almost every facet of our society.
You see the challenge and promise of the digital age. We are simultaneously closer together and further apart.
You see we are living longer, healthier lives with medical breakthroughs and the human genome raising new questions about the ethics of life and death.
You live in a time of “too big to fail” that has left our economy and political system out of balance. People are falling out of the middle class instead of working their way into it. And the political system is broken with special interests.
You’ll be the reformers, demanding justice and a level playing field for all. You see the demands global climate change puts on our daily lives. You will be the ones to deal with the consequences of our inaction.
You see a rapidly changing society and culture. We embrace more freedom and openness yet more contentious and frustrated in cultural wars. You will lead the way through this time with courage and even good humor.
Kadi Hodges (Class of 1995) is bi-racial. She likes to say her parents’ marriage was “decriminalized” in 1967 and “They’ve been raising hell ever since!”
You see the modern American family and it begs the question: Will you extend the basic freedoms and responsibilities given to us in the Constitution to our fellow citizens even if we do not understand or are taught to fear them?
And these kinds of questions add new life to what is at the heart of all of our values – that simple golden rule, that we treat each other the way we’d want to be treated, with respect and dignity. Or as Wendell Berry says, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those do unto you upstream.”
The reality is we are facing a constellation of challenges the likes this world has never seen. I’m reminded of the words of Albert Einstein: “The problems of today cannot and will not be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.”
We can’t get to where we want to go from here alone. We need your help!
Class of 2013, we need you now – on point. On point – ready to take the lead, going to the forefront as pathfinders, leading us into this new era.
You are no longer tomorrow’s leaders. You are leaders today – right here and right now. You have fresh, new voices – stepping into a time that has passed and a time that is becoming. You are the ones with the least ties to the past and the most ties to the future.
You are the ones who can take the best of the old ways and blend them with the new. You are the way makers and the game changers. You are the ones who can help us make a way when we are told there is no way.
You will find that you are not alone. There are thousands of young people taking their place on point, providing leadership all across the country. They share your ideals, values and desire for a better world. And they are not waiting.
Like Sara Humm. Sara was the youngest elected official in the country when she was elected to the Ottawa City Council in 2007. She was 18 and met the filing deadline by 4 days and won.
Like South Dakota State Representative Kevin Killer. Kevin represents the Pine Ridge Reservation. It’s the third most impoverished area in the United States with 80 percent unemployment. Teen suicides are four times the national average. Against overwhelming odds he fights for the basic needs of his people and rural empowerment.
Like Dominic Frongello in the town of Caroline, N.Y. He organized 100 volunteers who went door to door, by foot, bicycle delivering 1,400 energy-efficient light bulbs in three hours.
Like Kyrsten Sinema, who lived in an abandoned gas station. She was elected to Congress in November.
Like Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee City Commission. When he was elected at 23, he was told by fellow commission members they had socks older than him. But Andrew did not let that stop him. He’s the visionary of Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network with over 600 members under 35, elected to state and local offices, and working for change.
They are on point. Now it’s your time!
Here is my challenge to you:
Show up. Don’t ask for permission and wait to lead. Lead.
Be authentic with yourself and others. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Turn your weakness into strength and you’ll become stronger.
Find a real passion. Connect your heart and head with that passion. If you do this great things will happen.
And class, while you are doing these things:
Don’t be a snob for the truth, especially when the truth is not served up on a silver platter.
Don’t confuse moral clarity with moral arrogance. Take some modest account of others.
Don’t let ideology seize you like rigor mortis. Or let fear control your heart. Sometimes we have to lean into our discomfort, and that’s where the magic happens.
And by all means, be principled, pragmatic and relevant. As my former political science professor Bill Schmickle once said, “There is no firmer ground than that of the conscientious activist who has found a practical way to win and make a difference.”
As I close, there is a Native American story that illustrates the point. An old Cherokee chief told his grandchildren about a battle that goes on inside every human being. He said “My children, there is a battle between two wolves. One wolf is called evil. It runs with anger, envy, greed and arrogance. The other wolf is called good. It runs with hope, kindness, generosity and compassion.”
A young girl thought for a moment and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins the battle?” The chief paused then replied, “The one you feed.”
My hope is you are fed each day with:
Moments that touch you so deeply your eyes water and ignite a passion
Moments that settle you and make you sure footed in those times of stress
Moments you feel the pull of absolute conviction and that you take that conviction where it leads
Moments you feel the freedom to step out not knowing the outcomes but knowing you carry the transforming power of your best self
And I hope your failures are written in sand and your success is written in stone.
And I hope your generation will be on point to create a society:
- Of shared values and shared responsibilities
- Where we leave no one behind – knowing that we are all unique and special, that we are from many one
- And where your life is filled with discovery, adventure, and with an awakened hearts, seeking to create a newer world unlike we’ve ever known.
I hope your generation will make America what it was intended to become – a loving, charitable nation with liberty and justice for everyone.
Class of 2013, we believe in you. The staff and faculty believe in you. Your friends and family believe in you.
Believe in yourselves. Take the lead. Go out into the world and make it happen!
And remember this day, remember this moment, and remember Guilford.
Let’s roll, Class of 2013!
As prepared for delivery at Commencement on May 18, 2013