Commencement Address

Dr. Steve Wiegenstein, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Studies

Graduates of Columbia College, I bring you warmest greetings and congratulations from the campus in Columbia and from the more than 30 sister locations around the country that are also celebrating their commencements.

I don't know about you, but to me it's genuinely thrilling to know that across this country from New York to Florida to California to Washington state and our main campus in Missouri, ceremonies every year honor Columbia College graduates who have achieved an important milestone that they've been working toward: an Associate's degree, a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree.

You are joined by an unseen company of companions who've shared similar experiences, undergone the same struggles, and made the same tough decisions. Finish this assignment, or go out with friends. Work on this paper some more, or turn on the TV. They never seem like big decisions at the moment, but that's how big decisions often work: one small decision at a time. They add up, and before you know it, you've accomplished something quite remarkable.

This is a joyous occasion and a significant one. It is a time to truly celebrate both the ancient and the modern senses of the word. We all know what celebrate means now, but it derives from a Latin word that referred to a place that was popular or well-frequented. From that sense, the word's meaning gradually changed to a sense that ""to celebrate"" meant to gather in a crowd to honor something or someone. Thus in the Catholic Church, a mass is ""celebrated"" in that medieval sense of the word. To celebrate is to gather in honor, and that is the spirit in which I use the word today. Although we are physically scattered, we are gathered in the virtual world. And nowadays, that is as much of a gathering as any other.

Graduates, this is a day to look back on your accomplishments, and I hope you are able to look back with a lot of pleasure and pride. Many of you have come the long way around to this goal. It testifies to your persistence, your willpower, your intelligence, and your ability to set and meet personal goals that you have made it to this day.

In the Missouri Ozark, where I grew up, we have an expression: ""Pull up your socks."" When you pull up your socks, it means you persist in the face of disappointment or opposition. You don't let setbacks get you down. You pull up your socks and step forward. And Columbia College graduates are good at pulling up their socks.

But honestly, I don't want to spend all the time I have here congratulating you on your accomplishments. This day is also a day about the future. While it's appropriate and right to pause and celebrate today with a well-deserved look backward, we all know that this day, if it is really to be a day worth celebrating, is not an end. It is a stopping point, a landmark on a road that heads out the door. By completing your degree, you have added to your toolbox. You've gained knowledge and skills that will be useful to you in your careers, and I hope in your lives. And you've gained a diploma that is an important credential in many fields. But the measure of a carpenter is not how many tools are in the toolbox. It is how those tools are put to use.

By reaching this day, you have demonstrated that you are capable of time travel. That's right, time travel. Think for a moment if you will about the day you decided to start classes at Columbia College. Perhaps you already had some college under your belt from one institution or several. Or perhaps you had none. You may have approached the idea of pursuing this degree with eagerness, or you may have been filled with uncertainty and self-doubt. But wherever you were when you started, all of you had one thing in common: you had a picture in your mind of this day, the day when you would complete a degree. You projected yourself into the future, not like Marty McFly, but in a much more real and meaningful way. You saw yourself doing bigger and better things, and you acted on that vision.

My academic background is in English, which means I have a ready storehouse of quotations from great writers to fling out at every occasion. But I only want to fling one at you today. It's from my favorite book, Walden, by my favorite writer, Henry David Thoreau. Toward the end of the book, he's summing up what he learned from his experience, of learning... of living in the woods off and on for two years. And he writes:

'I learned this at least by my experiment: That if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success, unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.'

When I think of the stack of diplomas that will be sent out from Columbia to our graduates around the United States and around the world, I see the foundation stones for a lot of castles. In that sense, my friends, you are just like the college from which you are graduating. Because I'm sure you've been told many times Columbia College has a proud history that dates back to 1851. But if Columbia College just focused on its history, it would still be a tiny, 2-year women's college on the north side of Columbia, Missouri, if it existed at all. But in critical moments in its history, it has looked into the future, and it has seen itself doing bigger and better things. It happened when the college expanded to become a 4-year institution, and later to a Master's-granting institution. It happened when the college became co-educational, and when it established its close ties with our armed services, and when it was one of the first institutions in the country to offer online courses and degrees. Columbia College is an institution that is proud of its history, but not bound by it.

Our goal is to retain our pride in where we have been, in our insistence that a degree from Columbia College mean something significant. We are a real institution with serious standards and we always will be. Not just for the institution's benefit, but for yours as well, and for all those future alumni who will come after you. In 5 and 25 and 55 years , we want it to be the case that when you tell someone you graduated from Columbia College, they look impressed and say, ""That's a good school."" But it is not likely to be the same school. We are always going to be looking around the corner thinking of ways to innovate to meet the needs of the next generation of students and the one after that.

And thus it should be with you. Celebrate this moment, and know that everyone at Columbia College is as proud of you as you are of yourself. But remember that this is not the end. Take another look into the future, just as you did when you began this journey and see what is there. Then advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, endeavor to live the life you have imagined, and you will meet with success, unexpected in common hours.

Thank you, and good luck.