Bowdoin College held its 2014 Baccalaureate ceremony Friday, May 23, marking the official close of the academic year and celebrating the College’s 209th Commencement (to be held today, May 25).
President Barry Mills presided over the ceremony. In his remarks, he addressed important issues affecting the College and higher education in America, particularly how colleges are preparing students for employment and success.
On a practical level, Mills described a new program he led this semester for seniors called, “Get Ready for Life After Bowdoin.” The four-part program addressed “real world” issues seniors will face when they leave school and enter the workforce. “We talked about budgets and stress and apartments and debt and job expectations and stocks and all sorts of other important topics,” Mills said.
Increasingly, Mills said, he hears from families expressing concern about their child’s education and future. “It comes from families at the upper end of the income brackets who are concerned that their kids will not have the same opportunities they have had in life. It comes from lower- and middle-income families who struggle with our costs and worry about the burden of student debt. It comes from the right with complaints about our values, and from the left with charges that these places sustain income inequality in America and do nothing to improve the social or economic mobility of our citizenry. Mostly, it comes from those unconvinced that a liberal arts education can prepare young people for jobs and success in a world economy dominated by technology and innovation.”
But a liberal arts education at Bowdoin does prepare young people for this world, Mills assured. He pointed to the success of Bowdoin graduates, particularly in the past 15 years. “Our graduates are doing important work in all walks of life, in the professions, the arts, technology companies, nonprofits, the military, start-ups, finance, medicine, and on and on.”
Although American college campuses tend to be “places of progressive and liberal perspective,” Mills acknowledged, he said that Bowdoin classrooms provide a balance of viewpoints, and students who represent different backgrounds, religions, cultures and ideas are free to express their views and debate their positions. Bowdoin students are exposed to a wide range of perspectives.
To continue Bowdoin’s mission — to educate young people of great promise so they go on to contribute to society and to the common good — the College must continue to provide access, Mills said. “Over these past 13 years we have worked together in intentional and strategic ways to make sure that Bowdoin is a place where every student who ought to be at Bowdoin has the opportunity to be here, regardless of financial means.” Due to the College’s financial aid policies, students are not required to borrow to finance their education. While some do take out loans, “very few students…graduate from Bowdoin with a level of debt that will affect their future life decisions,” Mills said.
Nearly 45 percent of Bowdoin students receive some measure of financial aid from the College. Approximately, 14 percent of students are recipients of Pell Grants, available to the neediest students in our country. And 14 percent of students are first-generation college students.
“We are a place that creates opportunity for students from all socioeconomic brackets and we are committed to providing our students with the opportunity for the American dream—to do better than their parents and to make a better life for themselves, for their families, and for their communities,” Mills said.
In closing, Mills said that while a Bowdoin education has prepared its graduating seniors for a job, it has done much more than this. “It is preparation for life and it is the education of an engaged citizenry. Your education does not end when I hand you your diplomas tomorrow morning. Bowdoin has opened your minds and prepared you, and you will continue to learn. You will continue to learn to be better writers and better speakers. You will hone your artistic skills and improve your research abilities. You will expand your capacity for critical thinking and sound judgment, all the while mindful of your Bowdoin experience and your commitment to the common good. And, you will, in a life done right and in the Bowdoin tradition, find the joy that comes from being fearless and intentional and thoughtful learners and leaders well into the future.”
Readings from Bowdoin’s Past
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster delivered “Readings from Bowdoin’s Past,” a Baccalaureate tradition, in which he spoke of Bowdoin turning 220 years old one month from now. Since its first class of eight students, Bowdoin graduates have gone on to lead remarkable lives.
“You will change the world with your ideas, your creativity, and your passion,” Foster addressed the graduating class. “And when you create something or build something or organize something that changes the world, you will be following a long tradition of firsts by people associated with this College.”
Foster highlighted some of the “firsts” achieved by people associated with Bowdoin over the past two centuries. He cited Netflix founder Reed Hastings ’83, who “changed the way we watch movies.” A century earlier, two Bowdoin professors helped make x-ray technology safe and practical, transforming medicine and science. Cyrus Hamlin, class of 1834, invented Maine’s first steam engine. Frank Albee, class of 1899, developed bone grafting.
Fast-forwarding to the present, Foster mentioned a recent graduate, Marine Corps Second Lieutenant Sage Santangelo ’12, who “went way out on a limb—just this spring—arguing publicly that women ought to go through the same physical training as men and ought also to be allowed as many chances as men to pass the prestigious Marine Corps Infantry Officers Course.” Just days after she made her argument, Marine Corps commandant decided she was right and changed the rules.
Some alumni have created whole movements: Hanley Denning ’92 started the nonprofit Safe Passage to empower the children of Guatemala, while Geoff Canada ’74 founded Harlem Children’s Zone to empower the children of Harlem.
Foster concluded his talk by urging the graduating seniors — as long-ago President McKeen once did for his students — to use their mental powers for the benefit of society and to exert their talents for the public good. “That’s exactly what Bowdoin men and women have done for the past two centuries,” Foster said. “Class of 2014, you leave here well prepared and limited only by what you can imagine.”
Samuel Burnim ’14, DeAlva Stanwood Alexander First Prize Winner
Sam Burnim, a biochemistry major and Italian minor from Haverhill, Mass., delivered his address, “An Oak Among Pines,” in which he praised the small daily acts we do that can have lasting effects.
Burnim began his address by recounting the origins of the legendary Thorndike Oak on Bowdoin’s campus. The rather unremarkable student George Thorndike, class of 1802, planted the oak by tossing an acorn onto the lawn of President Joseph McKeen’s home. After completing this act, Thorndike supposedly uttered the lines, “I have not the genius or ambition to attain distinction in law, medicine, or the ministry as some of you may do, but I purpose to do what will perpetuate my memory when you and your fame are forgotten.”
It turns out Thorndike prophesied correctly. “Decades after George and his classmates had passed on, Thorndike’s young oak continued to grow, slowly but surely, thriving on for over a century,” Burnim said. Since that first oak, other have been planted to replace it, all adopting the moniker Thorndike Oak. Thorndike’s legacy lives on, 200 years after his emphatic statement. “Indeed, this third oak is something I have sat under, studied near, and appreciated throughout my time on campus without knowing even a fraction of its legacy,” Burnim said.
Burnim used this tale as an analogy for the “tiny, thoughtful choices” that can be powerful. He suspected that what he and his peers might best remember from their college days were the small, meaningful actions of others that “will weave our stories into the fabric of the school.”
“What will students remember in 30, 40 years?” he asked. “…Maybe it was the proctor who walked a lonely, confused first year to the counseling center. Maybe it was the writing assistant who helped a student recognize that she had a gift for writing. For me, it was my roommate, Joe, who routinely inspired me to go further, work harder, and carry on conversations outside the classroom. For others, it was the team, the lab-group, or the music ensemble, whose members form something larger than any of us could make on our own.”
For Burnim, the Thorndike Oak stands “as a comfort that our stories will continue to affect change and bring others together long after we leave the campus; it is a testament to never underestimate the power the small acts in our lives really hold,” he said. “The class of 2014 will go on to do many great things, but I am here to remind us all of the thousands of beautiful things we have all already done. This is a day to celebrate those little triumphs. To recognize those small things.”
Keynote Address: Christopher Hill ’74, former U.S. ambassador and dean of the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies
Honorary degree recipient Christopher Hill delivered the keynote address in which he acknowledged the uniqueness of today’s times and the uniqueness of the world that today’s graduates are entering. As the world changes, and changes quickly, it requires a new type of leader, one that Bowdoin College has prepared its students to be.
Currently dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Hill is former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. He also was U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia and Poland, a U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009.
“Every generation has its challenges and yours is no exception,” he said. “Imagine the challenge of those who graduated 100 years ago in 1914 as war clouds gathered on the eve of WWI. Or 200 years ago in 1814 when the United States still seemed more like a proposition.” But, he added, he believes the current graduating class faces even greater challenges, as the pace of change speeds up.
“Your challenge is to embrace change but also to figure out what to hold onto and what to discard, sort of like what you’re going through now as you clean out your dorm rooms…You will have to embrace change, even thrive on it, because you will have no choice.” Every institution we have is feeling that pace of change, even higher education, he said.
“I think your Bowdoin education, our Bowdoin education, has equipped you well for this new world,” he added. “What you learned here at your liberal arts education is a lot of what you will rely on for your lives.”
At this point, Hill transitioned his talk from speaking about Bowdoin to speaking about global politics. Hill recalled his experience as a peace corps volunteer in Cameroon, when he made the error of assuming he had the power to change the people he encountered in his new community. “And that is one our country continues to make too often, in too many parts of the world — and it is worth some reflection.”
The fact is, the United States is a world leader, and will continue to be, Hill said, despite the rise of Asian countries. “The question is not whether the United States will continue to be a leader. The question is whether our information age in this country, whether the knowledge we gain through it can turn into wisdom that will help us lead and to lead with effect… I would like to suggest that as a leader our country needs to do some things better than we have been,” he said, such as to set our priorities more effectively and not to take on every issue in the world. We also need to better understand the history of countries, their ethnic groups and sources of social unrest.
Finally, Hill stated, the United States, as a good leader, must set a good example. Our government — the Congress and the president — must end its partisan and bitter discourse. “We need to come together as a nation,” he said.
“We need a new breed of leaders — those who will lead by example, lead by strength of character and abide by that a bedrock of values that I believe coming to Bowdoin College gives you,” Hill said. “We also need leaders who are humble, dedicated, who give due consideration to the beliefs of others. Leaders who really understand that part of being a leader is to set that example, to make people want to follow you, and [who] create that sense of optimism that people believe that if they follow you, they will succeed.”
Hill concluded, “Not coincidentally, this is precisely the type of leadership that the offer of the College has valued.”
Pianist Allen Wong Yu ’14, along with singers William Morgan Tucker ’14 and Anna Elizabeth Westervelt ’14, provided music for the ceremony. During the interlude, Yu performed Widmung (Liebeslied), S. 566 by Franz Liszt. Together the three students led the audience in a rendition of “America the Beautiful” and “Raise Songs to Bowdoin.”
Photos by Michele Stapleton