May 16, 2015

Aaron Fetrow: ‘One Last Challenge’

Aaron Fetrow, the invited speaker at Commencement on May 16, 2015, served Guilford for a decade as an administrator in student affairs and campus life. He left the College at the end of July 2014 to become vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Roanoke College.

What follows is his speech as prepared:

President Fernandes, trustees, faculty and staff friends, and most importantly, Class of 2015: Thank you for the honor of speaking today. I am truly humbled.

Last year I was excited when I finally convinced Dean Israel that I needed to be down there instead of up here for the commencement ceremony. But as I return to this campus where I lived and worked for 10 years, I have to admit that the view from up here is breathtaking. It feels like home.

I attended my first commencement on the quad at Roanoke College a couple weeks ago. Relatively speaking I was sitting about where former President Bill Rogers is today. No way could I fall asleep in that seat at my new college’s commencement. It probably wouldn’t have sent the right message.

So, Bill, I’m watching you closely.

If you remember any part of the main speech at the last commencement you attended, it is likely that you heard words of congratulations for the graduates and their families, a wise reflection by the speaker on the value of a college education, quotes by famous politicians or academicians and so on.

That’s the classic commencement speech, and on several occasions during my career I was truly moved by speeches that followed the typical outline. However, I don’t plan to follow that outline today, because following outlines has never really been my thing.

Here are two things you need to know about my talk today: I will be brief, and I am going to challenge you one last time.

Many students came to me over the years with observations, complaints, concerns or just to chat. I tried to listen first and then, in good Socratic fashion, I tried to answer your concerns and help you find answers through further questions. There’s no reason to change those habits today.

I want to challenge you with two words that have grown apart, but to me are inextricably connected: accountability and love.

Let’s start with accountability. The typical commencement talk might offer a definition from Merriam Webster or a description from the depths of Shakespeare or the influential writings of Rousseau. Not today. Today you get my definition and you have to live with it, for now.

Here it is: Accountability is owning up to your own crap. And I don’t mean in some superficial way that gets Sandy Bowles off your back or convinces Vance to accept your late assignment or Maria to accept your lame excuse about your Monday morning absence. What I am talking about is brutal honesty with yourself about why you are with Sandy in the first place or why you didn’t hand in Vance’s assignment on time or why you skipped Maria’s class.

Some of you are saying, “Got it Fetrow, I am accountable for my stuff. I’m graduating if you hadn’t noticed.” No, I mean real, deep and hard accountability. Are you in front of Sandy not because the system stinks and you got caught up in a bureaucratic net or are you in front of Sandy because you have something deeper within yourself that you have avoided taking accountability for? Was your homework not done or did you skip class because your lawyer Dad made you take those classes because being a lawyer will make the family proud and you can’t let the family down? Deep down you want to cut hair and make art, you don’t give a rat’s ass about law, or any grad school for that matter.

(If I just described you, I know a phenomenal young woman who lives in New York City. You should call her and have a chat. Find me after and I’ll give you her name. She sat where you are sitting a few years back.)

I know my faculty and staff colleagues here well enough to know this is not the first time you’ve heard a variation of this message about accountability. And what I also know is Maria, Sandy and Vance didn’t buy those superficial excuses, those attempts to dodge accountability. Not because they’re mean spirited and nasty people who want to make your life difficult but because of something else.


Maia Dery could offer a dazzling speech, off the top of her head, about why love should dominate every decision, but you will have to be content with my musings today.

What does it mean to love? I said I would avoid Webster and precise definitions; however, The Urban Dictionary defines love as “nature’s way of tricking people into reproducing.” Now that’s another talk altogether – one I had with a few of you in your first weeks on campus!

Seriously, we’re friends and I cannot escape my tendency for the Socratic thing. Graduates, I want some of you to shout out what it means to love. If not, I know plenty of you, and I will start calling on people.

Now, here’s my definition: Love is unconditional, it is forgiveness, it wants to do for others before wanting something done for you. It is unyielding concern for other human beings. Love centers on selflessness.

Name me a few conflicts in our world that would survive unyielding love for the opposition. However, this idea about love may be hokey and unrealistic if it is not accompanied by accountability.

Rob Bell, an author and pastor, wrote a popular book called Love Wins. I heard about Rob from pastor and friend Deborah Suess at First Friends Meeting. In the book Rob ruffles some evangelical feathers by rejecting the notion of eternal damnation in favor of a loving, forgiving and peaceful Christ.

He says that the hell and torment of the Bible turns people off from the real message of Christ. (Some of you are saying, “Fetrow, I didn’t come to hear you preach.” But, now I have your attention.)

You graduates know where to find the Biblical scholars, and feel free to do so after the ceremony if you need to find out more about the Book of Revelation. Rob describes it as a complex, enigmatic letter from a pastor named John filled with scenes of scrolls and robes and angels and plagues and trumpets and horses and dragons and beasts. (Heather, maybe not as exciting as zombies, but still pretty solid stuff.)

However, the Book of Revelation does not end with blood and violence, but with the healing of nations and peace on earth. Deceit, murder and war are condemned. God’s love defeats these evils. Love wins!

Rob Bell believes we make our own hell through our daily personal choices. He says, “We do it every time we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us, every time we hide knives in our words, every time we harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be the loving, good, and right thing to do.” Guilty.

Accountability and love, together, can end these self-imposed hells.

If we hold ourselves accountable to unyielding concern for other human beings, how can the world not be a better place? We might not end every war, every religious disagreement, every spat based in jealousy or pride, but we would be far ahead of where we find our world today.

So why am I offering you this one last challenge? Simple. To my core, I believe that you, Guilford graduates, are uniquely positioned to take a message of accountability and love to your next adventure. You may not have been thinking about love and accountability when you arrived four or five years ago. But in retrospect, have those two things not made your experience here unique?

  • You learned or rekindled a love of theatre, but David and Jack held you accountable when it came to rehearsal times, scene preps and precision.
  • You learned to love the sacrifices on the court and on the field. You knew that Palombo and Lamphier and Tank loved you, but they also made sure you were accountable when your choices on and off the field of play didn’t match their expectations.
  • You learned to love clay and wood firing, but Charlie made you aware of and accountable for even the slightest blemish. I know because I sat through a few juried reviews.
  • You learned to love the outdoors, but you were held accountable when you threw that banana peel down during a hike, dumped your oatmeal for the wildlife or chose to eat the pork produced in factory farms that polluted our precious rivers and streams.
  • You learned to love esoteric facts about birds and learning that arrows indicate electron flow. I saw some of the grades coming out of the Frank … you were certainly held accountable.

You get my point.

And you learned through the lens of Quakerism and the idea that there is that of a loving God in everyone. You learned to take a moment in silence to listen for that still, small voice – to think about accountability to one another in a unique way that graduates around the country would not, and I would argue, cannot understand. You learned to love more deeply by being held accountable for all aspects of your life.

Here it is, your one last challenge: Bring love and accountability to your relationships after Guilford, be they with a life partner, colleagues at work, or other, more brief and fleeting encounters. Teach your children, your friends’ children, your nieces and nephews, your parents – anyone – about love and accountability. In the end, love does win, but not on its own.

Graduates, I am very proud to have been a brief part of your incredible lives.

Congratulations, best wishes, Godspeed.