Commencement Address

Dr. Terry Smith, Executive Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs

Thank you, President Dalrymple.

Each year Columbia College graduates more than 3,000 students, and I think that’s an amazing statistic. But each individual story is remarkable, and some evoke with purity who we are as an institution.

I met, for example, Catherina Bybee, at her graduation in California in 2005. At that time she was our oldest student to graduate—she was 85 when she graduated—I asked her what she planned to do with her degree in psychology and she said she was going to be a counsellor in a retirement home. She said, “I love working with old people.”

I met Bobby Verba at his graduation in Texas in 2007. He probably holds the record for the longest interval for when he first started college and graduated. He began college in 1962 (Bobby was on the 45 year plan).

And just last Saturday I met David Thompson at the graduation in Denver. Deputy Sheriff Thompson showed up to the ceremony in his uniform, carrying his gun, and wearing his earbud. He was the last in the line and he most definitely got my attention. He quickly borrowed a cap & gown, came across the state to get his criminal justice degree and his photograph, waved to his family, shed his cap & gown, and left the building. He was one of the officers that was providing security for the Aurora movie theater murder trial, and he had to use his lunch hour. Deputy Thompson was determined to graduate with his classmates.

I collect comments from student evaluations. I’ll read some of my favorites to you. Maybe you wrote one of these.

I wish this instructor would hand out more busywork to help me boost my grade.

A lot of time he calls on students even when they aren’t prepared to give an answer, which is kind of rude in my opinion.

I was surprisingly interested in this course.

In no way, shape or form is chemistry fun. But he got as close as possible to making it cool.

I’ll miss you. But not your tests. I hate your tests.

And this is my all-time favorite actually: I learned more than I intended to in this class.

This month I started my 20th year at Columbia College. Hard to believe. I can relate to the story about the turtle who robbed a bank. The only witness is a snail and when the police questioned the snail all he could say was “It happened so fast.”

Time is awfully relative, isn’t it? Many of you can probably say about your college experience: It happened so fast. And things are changing fast in our world, faster every day, so it’s useful to keep things in perspective. I am inspired by the late Premier of China’s Chou En-Lai’s comment when he was asked in the 1960’s about the impact of the French Revolution. He said: “It’s too soon to tell.”

Nothing is in a greater state of flux than higher education. The impact of technology, of politics, of bureaucracy, of new student populations--everything is in a whirl. At the same time, higher education is extremely stable.

I continue to find a statement made in the 1960s by the late Clark Kerr, the former Chancellor of University of California-Berkeley, to be profound. He said this: “Taking as a starting point the year 1530, when the Lutheran Church was founded, some 66 institutions that existed then still exist today in the Western world in recognizable forms. [These are] the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the parliaments of Iceland and of the Isle of Man, and 62 universities…”

So what makes higher education so special for those of us who love it, other than that it changes constantly and doesn’t change at all?

Well I asked some Columbia College Students what was so special about their choice for higher education, your soon-to-be alma mater, which, translated from Latin, means “nurturing mother.” One said “You’re good when you arrive; you’re better when you leave.” Actually, there’s a Latin phrase for that: Bonus intra, melior exi. You’re good when you arrive, you’re better when you leave.

One said to challenge Columbia College grads to quote, take, “their experiences, qualities and love to the world.” Take your experience, qualities, love to the world.

Those of us who teach here and work with you in other ways see the magnificent range of human experiences. Last year (many of you will recognize the name I’m about to read) Avery Bourne graduated with a degree in American Studies with a perfect 4.0. She went to Washington University Law School on a full scholarship. But her law school education was interrupted in January when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Illinois House of Representatives. She is the youngest representative in the 200-year history of the Illinois State Legislature. I had the privilege of teaching this amazing young woman, although there was not much about politics she could learn from me.

A couple of years ago a woman whom I did not know introduced herself to me at a meeting. She said you don’t know me but I want you to know what you did. I thought “Uh-oh” and readied myself for anything. She said many years ago she was having a lot of academic problems at CC and was about to drop out permanently and she got a note from me, and the note tole her she had gotten off probation and to keep up the good work and to take advantage of the support systems available and to persevere. She said her life pivoted on that note. She returned to school with renewed energy and commitment, earned her bachelor’s degree and was now successful in her profession. I had always wondered if sending those notes was worth it. I had my answer.

I’ll conclude with a true story. When my boys were young I coached their little league baseball team. I only coached one year. I learned the hard way why Cardinals’ Manager Mike Matheny said he would prefer to coach a team of orphans so he wouldn’t have to deal with parents. But something quite remarkable happened that one season.

Johnny was on the team. Johnny had lots of developmental disabilities. He was a good kid and we all liked and supported him but he just didn’t have a lot of basic baseball skills. He played right field a lot. He was so quiet and shy and passive and awkward.

At one point in the season I felt so bad for Johnny that I asked his parents if he really should be playing. And they said that the baseball team was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He was so excited to come to practices and to games. He slept with his glove under his pillow. I had my answer.

So the last game of the season I let the kids choose the position they wanted to play. I had a brief brain cramp and asked Johnny first. Immediately he said “I want to play catcher!” “What could possibly go wrong with that?” I asked myself, but I had promised, so Johnny put on the gear and got behind the plate. And Johnny became Spiderman.

He chattered constantly. He encouraged the other players. He was always in motion. He caught the ball. He threw the ball. All the boys were looking at each other. I was looking at his parents in the stands. They were crying. I was amazed and humbled. I don’t recall how the game ended. It didn’t matter. After the game I went to his parents. Through their tears they said this was the most important day in Johnny’s life and they were so grateful he’d had a chance to do something special.

What lessons can we draw from this? Is it just a sweet story about a magic moment for a little boy and his family? Or are there deeper meanings? Well, as of today it is no longer my job to interpret this story. It’s your job. In a few minutes you will have a shiny new degree, a shiny new liberal arts degree complete with critical thinking skills and analytical skills and, unique to Columbia College, if you are earning a bachelor’s degree, a background in ethics and a foundation for pondering the deeper meaning of Johnny becoming, if for just a moment, “Super Johnny”. Yes, you will have to put your degree to work. To whom much is given, much is expected. Just sayin’.

But the good news is that a liberal arts degree is like a dream bank account: you can take as much as you need, and there will always plenty left.

Graduates, congratulations.