Colleges and Universities

Franklin & Marshall College Commencement Address

May 12, 2018  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Dan Porterfield delivered his final commencement address as president of Franklin & Marshall College on May 12, 2018. He began his role as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute on June 1, 2018.

Thank you, Sue, for that gracious welcome — and for your wise guidance as F&M’s Board Chair — a tradition of bold leadership that began in 1969 when you were part of the first class of women to enroll in F&M — the OG F&M talent strategy paying massive dividends today.

Graduates of the Class of 2018, Faculty, staff, family, friends, alums, Trustees, please join me in thanking all of the colleagues and students who created the series of Commencement events and the wonderful use of space here today.

We’re grateful for our four distinguished honorees, each one a visionary and a voice of conscience for research, education, public health and democracy.

Dr. Charles Leiber ’81, who first marveled at the fundamentals of chemistry in the labs and classrooms on this very campus, and now, thirty-seven years later, has transformed the field, shattering boundaries through his pioneering work in nanotechnology at Harvard University and opening new doors into electronics, nanocomputing, neurobiology, and medicine.

Dr. Nicole Hurd, who twelve years ago created the nonprofit organization the College Advising Corps through which, next year, 700 recent college graduates will spend two years providing free college advising to tens of thousands of students in resource-challenged schools — including nine members of the Class of 2018.

Dr. Rachel Levine, the Secretary of Health for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a bold health leader who is watching out for young people on everything from the opioid crisis to the needs of LGBT teenagers.

And our speaker, Senator Cory Booker, who brings drive, joy and hope to the service of society and who opened a door to F&M for Newark students six years ago, including 2018 graduates Charisma Lambert and Reinaldo Cotto.

I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty cool to be a member of the Class of 2018. I was so happy when I heard the news that I made that strange Cardi B noise that sounds like a happy pigeon:  Okuuuuurt.

If I had known last week of this honor of becoming a member of the class of 2018, I never would have risked throwing it all away by going to Myrtle.

But how fortunate we are to have shared these times. I love what I’m looking at, and, with all F&M educators and alumni, I have great faith in you.

Families, when I look at your impressive children, proudly clad in black commencement robes, I see forward, to a future we cannot know but which they’ll create with their minds and ways and words.

Families, you see forward, too — but you also see back in time:

You see in each of today’s graduates that angelic newborn, little as a loaf of bread and full of wonder at the world …

When they were little, they would run up to you, arms open, knowing that when you lifted them up, and held them high against the sky, you would not let them drop. And you did not.

We honor that love and trust at this milestone moment in your family histories.

Families:  From runny noses to nose piercings, from growth spurts to the college search, you gave these graduates love and life, taught them right, guided them through transitions, and empowered them with education. Congratulations.

Graduates, can you please stand, face this crowd, and give the loudest thanks you can to all those who are here today, or here in spirit, whose love has been your launching pad.

Graduations are about gratitude. I’m grateful for the work, vision and friendship of this class and this College. It was my honor to serve here with you. With my wife and life partner Karen Herrling, who’s got a timer on this speech, and our daughters Lizzie, Caroline, and Sarah, our family will leave F&M with lessons and memories we’ll use for the rest of our lives. Thank you.

And like the graduates, happy as I am today, I can’t help wishing just a little more time —

Time for one more ah-ha moment in class,

one more taxing rehearsal to get it just right,

one more deep talk in office hours, or long night with friends laughing and telling stories.

one more open mic night,

one more Bagel Breakfast,

one more Meg Day poem or Stephen Medvic lecture or Michael Penn moment …

But time, as we know it, only moves forward. So we have to let this time end while still drawing upon it endlessly as a jumping off point for the work that calls us and the lives we want to create.

That word, create.

Along with our power to love, it is our creative power, our ability to create learning and act upon our surroundings, for good and for ill, that defines our species.

Each of you is a creator. At F&M, you created your education. Higher learning is a self-enacted act, originating from within. Our families can’t purchase an education for their children. Our teachers can’t implant one within us. Our friends can’t will it for us. Education is not a product but a practice. We choose our openness to new ideas. We choose to learn the foundations of a field. We choose to read. We choose to inquire. We choose to think.

We create the education that we seek.

In this sense, Franklin & Marshall College did not educate you; YOU educated you.

And that’s why F&M is one of the greatest colleges in the country — because this place provided you the faculty mentoring, the rich curricula, the research opportunities, the motivated classmates, the great learning spaces and the fire-kindling aspirational culture to allow you to freely create your education.

The choices were up to you — Today we celebrate those decisions and you for having made them.

We celebrate your papers and theses and independent studies.

We celebrate learning outside of class — in the field or on the field, in Central Market or Central Europe, on stage or at work.

We celebrate the times you crossed borders, crossed disciplines, and crossed boundaries, binaries, and belief systems.

We celebrate the times and ways you lived in truth — stepping up, making up, owning up — those personal moments of integrity — whether getting help or giving back, going first or holding back, reaching out or coming out.

We celebrate extending hands across the scary divides of difference with a gesture that says, “I see you. I hear you. I want to understand.”

We celebrate those here who’ve transformed trauma and pain into new triumphs of the self.

We celebrate those who’ve made art, played a part, and built skills with practice, undaunted by imperfection.

We celebrate your long years scaling mountains toward this degree — and all the times you took the hard path, the lonely route—and we celebrate the loved ones who carried you on their backs at least half way up that slope and whose lives and sacrifices you honor with today’s walk across the stage.

We celebrate your origins. 74 of you are international students. And listen to this — 97 of you are the first in your families to go to college.

There’s more, but you get the point. With labor and love you have mapped into your neural landscape a set of creative powers that will catalyze so much more learning to come.

Which leads to my one message today. Just as you have taken responsibility for creating your education, you must take responsibility for creating your lives.

As with education, no one can buy us a life. No one can give us a life. No one can make us fulfilled. Like with education, we must create the lives that we seek.

Each of you can. I know that for sure. And it doesn’t matter at all if right now you don’t know your life purpose or your passion.

This sounds like a logical quandary. How do we create the life we seek if we don’t know what we’re looking for?

My answer is, which I must admit, I’ve been working on for about 45 years, is to believe that our lives have meaning and then the actions we take from that belief will make it so.

There’s a way to act on this. You all have professional resumes. Great – keep striving, keep building them.

But try making a life resume, too. Just one page that speaks to who you truly are and what you deeply value.  I’d recommend four sections, each headed by a question.

When did I grow?

When did I help someone else?

When did I deal well with fear or pain?

When did I feel joy or love?

All you need to do is create the experiences that fill in those sections.   Just create and note your growth. Just help people. Just acknowledge pain and put it to some good use. Just savor the feelings of joy and love.

Keep creating these experiences, keep making this meaning, and you’ll find another section starts to appear, maybe at the bottom of the life resume rather than the top. That section, emerging out of your actions and explorations, will be called “Purpose” – and years later perhaps that section will start to appear at the top. But it’s not a race, and you have to trust the process.

There will be days of worry and unscripted challenges and you will hear again the voice of an F&M educator saying, “I have faith in you.”

In these ways and in so many more your F&M education will always be a part of you and it will grow within you as you change. Nothing done well ever dies. Everything you made and loved here stays with you where you venture next, and you can freely build upon that. I hope you will protect this place for those who come after.

And when you yourself come back to home base, to Franklin & Marshall College, an iconic American institution, changed in ways we can’t predict, making your mark, creating your life, the arms of this community will be wide open to you.

We will be so happy to see you, eager to see how you’ve changed, and, as we are today, proud of you and full of faith in all that you offer to the world.

Congratulations Class of 2018, and thank you.

Photo: Deb Grove, Franklin & Marshall College