Commencement Address 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Academic Vice President Killen, Elder Dr. Aripa, Father Provincial, Trustee Chair Fritz Wolff; Trustees and Regents, Vice Presidents and Deans, Members of the Faculty; Administrators, Members of the Jesuit Community, Distinguished Family Members and Honored Guests and - most especially - graduating members of the class of 2013 - what an honor it is to be with you on this glorious morning, as we together celebrate your momentous achievements!

On this special day, let us first take a moment to thank someone who has been very important in each of our lives.  On this day we remember and we celebrate those who are, or have been, "Mom" to us - I would like to ask all of the Mothers here today to please rise and let us recognize you on this Mothers' Day.

Now, Seniors: You will be happy to know I do not intend to speak long.  I understand the virtue of this from my own experience: of all of the graduation speeches I have ever heard, I would have difficulty recalling much, of anything, that was said at any of them.  But this is our last opportunity to be together; so today, I want to talk about journeys, corners, and finally, connections.

Let's start with you, "Gonzaga's Class of 2013."  You have many outstanding attributes and multiple firsts: the largest class ever to come to GU; the first to occupy Coughlin Hall; and today, the largest class ever to graduate from GU.  Barely twenty-four hours after arriving, your class was the first to set a world record, for the largest dodgeball game.  During your Senior Year, Gonzaga ranked #1 for the first time in University history -- #1 team in the nation and #1 seed in NCAA Division I Men's Basketball; #1 ranked university for number of alumni serving in the Peace Corps.  Hey, this was the year that KidPresident picked Gonzaga to win it all, and Conan O'Brien called Gonzaga out at the White House Correspondents Dinner-even if he did mispronounce it!  These and others are all achievements that will forever be part of the story that is your class and your time at GU. 

Do you remember the summer before your freshmen year?  What was it, at that point, you were looking forward to about being in college, or getting out of college?  Was it the new people you would meet? Leaving home? The freedom of being out all night if you wanted to?  Was it the opportunity to work and learn and maybe study abroad? Was it the awesome college food?  Do you remember your dreams?

Everyone has a dream at the beginning of college.  I can only guess at your dreams, but I do remember my own.  It's well-known that I am myself a proud graduate of Gonzaga University; and I have never wavered in my conviction that Gonzaga prepared me well.  Following my undergraduate work, I did my graduate work at Oxford University, which explains the admittedly snappy, yet distinctively European outfit that I wear today.

But I assure you, those who knew me in my younger years would not have predicted that I would ever graduate from college, much less become a college president.   Given what I do today, a lot of people would never guess at my troubled teenage past, or the fact that I was living on my own at 16.

What is even less well-known about my own journey is that, before coming to Gonzaga, I enlisted and served three years in the US Army.  Now, you have to understand something here.  First of all, all through my teenage years I was committed to the idea of peace, and I took part in various peace-and-justice related activities in Seattle, a lot of which were connected to the Catholic community.  Second, and you will have to use your imagination here, I did not sport then the buff athletic physique you see before you today.  I was a tall but pretty thin and scrawny kid, weighing in at about 148 pounds with my boots on.  Since we have an ROTC Battalion right on our campus, some of you may have noticed that they engage in, like, lots of running and physical training.  So the announcement that I was joining the Army hit my friends like, "What?!?  You're doing what?!?"  But with a less-than-stellar high school career behind me, and making no money at the odd jobs I was able to scrounge up, I saw the Army as perhaps the only way of earning real money for college.

When I showed up for Basic Training, at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the middle of a hot, hot summer, my stellar physical under-preparedness nearly did me in.  I could jog-not for too long; I could do some sit-ups -- but the most push-ups I could manage at my initial physical training test was four.  Four push-ups!  A little later that afternoon, I was called into the staff office, and it was explained to me that I was being washed out.  "Son," the battalion commander said, "I'm sorry. We're sending you home.  There's no way you're going to be able to pass the PT tests with only six weeks in front of us."

There are moments in every person's life where we are confronted with choices that, regardless of which choice is made, will define one's future from that point forward.  This, was one of those moments for me.  I saw my dream of going to college dissolving in front of me . . . and, recognizing it could not get any worse, I found courage in that moment.  Looking directly in the eye of that battalion commander, I said, "No.  No sir.  I can do it, I know I can."

The short version of this story is that I persuaded them to let me stay; I persevered, and made it through Basic.  But that's not actually the point of my sharing this with you.  The point is what "making it" next made possible. 

After weeks of training, I was eventually assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Fort Polk -- which is in the middle of the state, actually pretty much in the middle of nowhere -- was favored by the Army because the environment most closely emulated the terrain and climate of Southeast Asia.  We all used to make jokes about the mosquitoes -- you know, how "the mosquitoes are so big, you have to use chain-link fencing for your window screens" -- but worse than the mosquitoes was the miserable heat and the humidity and, hardly to be ignored, the cockroaches.

And yet, despite my expectations, -- and without any certainty that I would survive all this -- something very unexpected, but informative, happened for me, as I came to witness and learn about an America I had not previously known.  I developed deep friendships with fellow soldiers who taught me, sometimes harshly, how vast the divides that separate different segments of our culture truly are.  I learned about truck maintenance from really talented mechanics, whose technical manuals were created by the government specifically for soldiers who could not read.  I discovered just how many of my fellow Americans came from poverty so pervasive and deeply embedded that it was simply the only reality they had ever known, or would ever expect to know.  No dreams of college for them.

When I think about those years, I realize that I had been given three gifts which were essential to my survival through this period:

  • my faith in a God who was always with me
  • people of genuine character with whom I had been blessed enough to discover the possibilities of life, and
  • the experience of actually attempting, and sometimes succeeding at, the unimaginable.

These three elements empowered me to stop focusing on my limitations and to start imagining the kind of a life I really wanted to live.

My experiences in the military helped me to understand the power and importance of self-determination; it also underscored for me the relationship between educational attainment, and access to a better life.  My experiences of the military helped me realize how profoundly stratified our society is, and what a difference formal education -- starting early in our lives -- can make in the paths that are open to us, the possibilities that are attainable. 

It was that experience -- my time in the military -- that inspired me not only to pursue my own education; it ultimately motivated me to work at a University where education operates as justice in action, and where the belief that such action can transform lives, is understood by its members, is valued, and pursued.

Whether you were aware of it or not, over these past four years, I have been keeping my eye on you.  What we celebrated together, that first weekend you arrived at Gonzaga, was a defining moment that was the result of many choices you had made.  I'm reasonably sure that you have long since forgotten how nervous you were during those first few days on campus.  But think back to those first few nights in the residence hall and those weird interactions with others in Crosby and the COG -- and it will come back to you.  During your time at GU, I've spoken with your faculty, read the Reports from Campus Security, learned about Gonzaga Confessions (hello!), and spent individual time with some of you:  I have seen that, along the path of your own journeys, there have been times of struggle, of frustration, and even of failure.  And the importance of failure should not be ignored.  It may sound paradoxical at a time when our culture affirms the importance of constant success, but it is my hope that your time at Gonzaga has afforded you not only opportunities to succeed but opportunities to fail; for an important part of the Jesuit educational experience includes building tenacity, a resilience of character that is only born out of being humbled, and a capacity to pull oneself back together and try again, when one does not succeed.

But look at all that you have accomplished!  You're incredible!  All the work you have undertaken, all the projects you've created.  The clubs and organizations you've formed and the ways you've come together to support each other in good and bad times.  This class has proven, since the beginning and then throughout, what happens when people unite around common cause.  Remember Westboro Baptist Church? 

You've declared majors, made retreats, switched majors, Studied Abroad, switched majors.  Mission Possible and Alternative Spring Breaks, Travel Abroad and NCAA Tournaments -- the places you've gone, and the service you've performed, and the hope you have inspired in so many you will never know.

I hope that among the important things you have learned out of your journey through Gonzaga is that you are far more unique, significant, and powerful, than you might once have realized.  I hope that, through the courses you've taken, you see more clearly now that the context within which we hear, and see, and interpret things does matter.  Through Retreats and Liturgies I hope you've seen that reflecting on who one is, what God means to me, and what one has learned in the process, does make a difference in a person's life.  That being in a healthy relationship is not so much about "what's in it for me" but rather, "who am I, for you," and mutual accountability.  That being kind and generous are easy when things are going well, but difficult and particularly important, when things are tough.  That there is always, always, always someone whose situation is more difficult, more challenging, than our own -- and that this calls us to be very mindful of the way we treat our fellow sisters and brothers. 

My hope is that you now know that the search for truth is really not the same as Googling Wikipedia, and that you are loved -- and have discovered that the joy of truly loving someone really does carry with it the risk of hurting or getting hurt . . . but that that risk doesn't make love any less worthwhile.   I hope this journey has taught you that true understanding, true depth, true knowledge is a reward reserved for the courageous -- and that courage is an essential ingredient of a life worth living.


The Roman philosopher Seneca observed, "We do not learn for school, but for life," and it is in this sense that you will continue to demonstrate the value of what you have learned not only throughout your life, but with your life.

You, distinct from all the people who will graduate from universities this Spring, are the graduates of Gonzaga University's class of 2013. Your intellectual gifts, your meaningful accomplishments, the knowledge, skills and habits of heart and mind you have absorbed -- these have earned you the credentials you will today be granted.  But these credentials come with strings attached.

As products of this Jesuit university, I challenge you now to continue:

  • to bring together all of your wisdom, all of your experiences, and to lead lives of integrity;
  • to use your imagination and your influence to create new solutions, new pathways for good, and to help others who have no power; and
  • to rely on your remarkable voices to speak on behalf of those who have no voice.

In a few minutes, each one of you will come up onto this stage.  One by one, your name will be called, and each one of you will be celebrated, as an individual.  But you'll notice that we don't use the term "graduation" at Gonzaga; we use the term "Commencement."  Today we celebrate what someone I have known for many years calls, "a corner" -- a particular point along the road where we have to make a turn; but also a point that allows us at the same time to look both backwards and forward.  Today is a day that we look back and say: "Look at all that you and we, together, have done to prepare you for this moment!"  And it is a day on which we also look forward and exclaim, "You are ready!"

Today, in this space, we have come together in a defining moment.   And after today, when each of you disperses into the particular, unique future that awaits, I hope you remember that one gift that Gonzaga has given to you, should you choose to accept it: the knowledge that you, specifically, are a unique and amazing individual -- but you are never alone.  All these days and weeks and months living and working and playing side by side have given you the opportunity to learn from one another about so many things that will be really important from this point forward.  Keep connected to one another, and keep connected with us -- so that as you go forth and set the world on fire with your gifts, you can teach us what you discover.

At periodic intervals throughout your life, you will find yourself at other corners, points at which you again must make a turn, and where you have the opportunity to look both backwards and forward.  On those occasions, the horizon will look different than it does today, and so too will your answer to the question, "What path next do I choose?"  Then, the answer will have been informed by decisions you will make beginning today.  And -- Class of 2013 -- if those decisions are anything as impressive, or auspicious, as your achievements over the past four years have been, they will change the world

It has been my honor to serve as your president during these past four years.  Thank you for the gift of your presence, your companionship, and your love for one another, and for your University.  Congratulations, and may God Bless You.  Thank you.

Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.

Chief of Staff to the President
John Sklut

Exec. Assistant to the President
Julia Bjordahl

Admin. Assistant/Event Coordinator
Allison Peterson