Summer Commencement Address
Dr. Lesley Quast
August 15, 2105
President Davis, Vice-President and Dean Beckford, other members of the platform party, faculty colleagues, staff colleagues, and most especially graduates and your families and friends:
Good evening. You heard a bit about who I am from Dr. Beckford’s introduction. Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Is this individual Dr. Elizabeth Davis, President of Furman University?…yes, at least someone who looks exactly like her occupies the President’s office and presents herself as such. Her title alone gives some indication that she is responsible for all of Furman University. She has her doctorate in Accounting, so she would seem to be a numbers-oriented individual. But, is that who Elizabeth Davis is? Not really. Stripped of any title, Elizabeth Davis is a human being who exemplifies the character and values of Furman University, amongst a myriad of other qualities… and quirks… that make her the person she is. I also happen to know she likes to laugh out loud at clever texts and emails!
Dr. Hunter Rawlings, President of the American Association of Universities and former President of Cornell University, made a simple but, to me, profound statement in a recent article pertaining to higher education. He said, “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being. “ So, while we celebrate the completion of your most recent education at Furman University and the intellectual curiosity it hopefully ignited in you or, at a minimum, kept you from dozing off in class and falling out of your seat, perhaps as significant is the recognition and celebration of further awakening of who you are as a human being. How has Furman impacted growth in your character and your values? How has your experience here influenced you emotionally, ethically, socially, and/or spiritually? Are you the exact same person you were when you enrolled in your first class? If you can honestly say you are, then we have failed you in your educational experience while part of this campus community.
I mentioned Furman’s Character and Values. Here is one excerpt from our statement, very slightly amended in words but not spirit, so I apologize to those Trustees and our Chaplain for messing a just a tad with their crafting :
Furman is a person-centered community, emphasizing the prime worth of persons and encouraging concern for others. Development of the proper regard for the rights and feelings of others is one of our primary values. This is expressed in the Furman community through:
- an appreciation for its diversity,
- a concern for the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of each person,
- a continuing effort to strengthen community ties through open communication and mutual respect,
- the appropriate involvement of all members of the community in decision-making, and
- the commitment to excellence at every level of our life together
For purposes of this evening, let’s consider the stem paragraph and first expression as a whole: To reiterate: “Furman is a person-centered community, emphasizing the prime worth of persons and encouraging concern for others. Development of the proper regard for the rights and feelings of others is one of our primary values.” And, the first expression is “an appreciation for diversity.” When I reflect on the many years I have been at Furman, there have been remarkable changes – in the physical campus; the core curriculum; the increased emphasis on engaging students in collaborative research; internships locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally; innumerable opportunities for study away; cultural life programs that feature national and international leaders from various fields; creation of interdisciplinary majors and minors; creation of focused centers; increased diversity of students, faculty, and staff; dramatic increase in support services; a thriving lifelong learning program; and I could go on and on. But when I think about “so what is the same about Furman now and Furman 40 years ago? My own conclusion is “people who care”. Every employee on this campus who chooses to remain here does so because they care about our students first and foremost….from the facilities and grounds staff to the dining hall employees, to the professional staff and the faculty. However, I would be less than honest if I did not also acknowledge that while those of us who have been around quite awhile believe in the “Furman family”, as we have diversified our community members, there are those who do not feel part of that family. And we have to continue to educate ourselves and do serious work to assure all persons are not only welcomed but are respected and nurtured so that we can still say we are one family.
One Furman – a key component in President Davis’ vision of Furman University today moving forward. It is a vision that she has already made more possible by having staff and faculty events held together rather than separately; by making us aware of all Furman offers and how we can begin to feel as One Furman. We serve the community by providing programs for early childhood development, undergraduate day, evening studies, graduate studies, Olli programs for the retired, Bridges to a Brighter Future for local underserved high school students to encourage them to graduate and to prepare them for post-secondary education. We offer degrees that span baccalaureate, masters, educational specialists and all of you graduates represent completion of one of those programs and specialties within, via day classes or evening classes or both. Additionally, we offer certificates of completion for our leadership development programs through the Corporate Leadership Program in Continuing Education, the Shucker Leadership Program, and the Riley Institute Diversity Leaders Initiative. In terms of student diversification to be appreciated we can mention some characteristics of you graduates here tonight. Some of you come from privilege; some of you are first generation graduates from working class circumstances; some of you work daytime jobs and went to class at night and/or during the summer; some of you intended to graduate this past May but life events or choices delayed that from happening; some of you were born and raised in South Carolina or the southeast, others come from roots in different geographical regions in the US or other countries; others may not have lived long enough in one place to have established roots; some of you identify with an underrepresented group or groups. But among the many things we all share in common is this university and the experiences we have had that have contributed to us being who we are, no matter what our stage in life may be at this very moment in life’s journey.
Reflect for a minute or two on what experiences you have had during your time at Furman that have most impacted who you are today—the people you have learned the most from—those who influenced or inspired you on a personal level – those who mentored you. Did you take advantage of developing relationships with those whose experiences and/or identities differ from yours? Who is represented in the diverse garden of your development as a human being? You see, if you ignore the human factors that enriched the soil that has nurtured you during the past years, then education would be a commodity rather than the awakening of you as a human being, and Furman University would not be who it is or even what it is. Furman is one community with many tentacles that open opportunities for individuals of diverse ages and other group identities to attain their educational and personal aspirations.
Shift your reflection now to those whose lives you have influenced throughout your time at Furman, no matter what age or stage those lives represent or what relationship they are to you. Because you have made a difference in their lives.
One of my favorite stories from my time as Assistant Academic Dean was an appointment I had several years ago with a female sophomore student who was top-notch academically but needed direction regarding in declaring her major. She was on the pre-health track but was unsure of whether to major in biology or in a social science. Her career intent was set. She would be an ER surgeon. So would her husband. They would work different shifts so that their three children had a parent present at all times while they were young. And, the hospital would be well-staffed in the ER. So, you get it, they both would have employment with the same hospital. When I asked her who the young man was she intended to marry, she said “oh, I have no one in mind yet but I know what we will be doing and what our life will look like.” When I responded to her and said, “you know, it is good to set goals and have aspirations for your further education, career and lifestyle but …. perhaps think about leaving some space for LIFE to happen and to grasp that it may well divert your path from where you intended to go….it can happen.” She looked at me with wide, disbelieving eyes and said “oh, I know that won’t happen to me. I am very goal-oriented and everything has always turned out just the way I intend it to.” So, I am sure you are thinking, “tell us what she is doing now!” And I would if only I could remember her name.
Neil Gaiman, described as “an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films,” put it this way when he made the commencement address in 2012 at University of the Arts.
“The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people lived?to figure it out. At some points in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans often don’t hold up. Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning?and more living?– to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.”
One last excerpt from Furman’s statement of Character and Values:
Furman University affirms the worth of both the life of learning and the life of principled passion and integrity. The occasion of receiving a university degree should become a genuine commencement for graduates to continue their education, to engage in moral reflection, and to deepen their civic involvement.
So, “Who are you?” “Who do you want to become?” “Who will you become?” We sincerely congratulate you and your educational accomplishments, your sacrifices, and your personal investment in Furman University. As you seek to have a title in your next phase, be it a job or further degree and/or experience, live a life of learning and a life of principled passion, compassion and integrity, and genuinely treat others like they are valued. Do these things to reflect the character and values of Furman University….your university…Evening Studies, Undergraduate Day Studies, Graduate Studies. Live, live, live. Commence that next path, let life lead you, embrace the journey to hone the who in you, and be reflective, aware and present in each moment, as well as charitable towards others along the way. Godspeed.