Remarks of Graduating Senior Nathan Thompson
Furman University Commencement
May 7, 2016
“Ma’am, can you pass a drug test?”
I listened nervously as the judge leaned forward in her chair and repeated the question to the mother standing in front of her: “Can you pass a drug test?”
The woman quietly answered, “Your Honor, I’m going to be honest with you. I can’t.”
And so I watched as the judge ordered the woman’s child be taken from her custody. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was only five miles down the road from my home here at Furman, and it was a side of Greenville I hadn’t even known existed until a summer spent shadowing in family court.
I share this story because it is part of a lesson I have learned more fully in my time at Furman. A lesson of waking up to the world around me. A lesson of seeing past the tests and papers that I find frustrating to the harsh realities faced by others. A lesson deeply connected to the vision President Davis offered us in her inaugural address when she told us that, “the work of Furman University is inextricably tied to community.”
Class of 2016: we’re graduating from college…and that, despite the best efforts of our beloved professors, too many extracurriculars, and, of course, The Barn. I wish not to speak too broadly, but I’d hazard a guess that most of us are not completely astonished by the fact of our graduation. Our families, of course, may think otherwise.
In all seriousness, though, our education at Furman has been nothing short of a gift; we have been given an education of mind, body, and spirit not afforded to everyone in our country. So if Furman’s work is intimately connected to community, what do we do with that gift? Not use it simply for our own ends but rather couple the experience of a Furman education with a commitment to transforming lives.
In our time at Furman, we’ve seen real problems in the world—poverty through Heller Service Corps, lackluster city planning through summer research, acts of terror while studying in Europe. And it would be easy to think all we have do is solve problems for others; perform acts of service for others; come down from the ivory tower for others. But there’s more to it than that.
President Davis also suggested in her inaugural address that, “maybe it’s time to progress from the idea of service and service learning to equal partnerships and mutual stewardship of place.” Put simply, we must become women and men who are not just for others, but with them. Our work and service aren’t acts of resume building and self-congratulation; they are the foundation of relationships between equals.
So, class of 2016, what does it mean for us not just to be for others but with them? Well tonight, the best example is sitting right behind you. At this point, I welcome you to turn around. Because tonight in those stands are those who have not just been for us but with us–who stuck around even when we yelled at them on the phone or didn’t call enough; who loved us in our failures or our successes; and who treated us with kindness on good days or bad. We are deeply indebted to all those who have gathered here tonight simply to be with us. It’s an example worth emulating, especially as we must now decide how we will live with and treat those who don’t share our same networks of support, our familiarity with success, or our security of place in the world.
As we exit through Furman’s gates one final time tonight, we’ll find people of all different stripes and circumstances on the other side—investment bankers, middle school teachers, even a mother failing a drug test in family court—and the choices we make about which of those people we take time to be with will surely determine who we become.
And so it is with hope that I encourage us, members of the class of 2016, to be forever grateful for the gift of our education and to let that gift shape us into women and men who are not only for others but with them.