Baccalaureate Address 2012
Baccalaureate Address 2012
by Associate Professor of Political Science Pamela Camerra-Rowe
Thank you very much for that warm welcome. I am delighted and thankful to be here this afternoon and to see so many familiar faces.
Let me begin by thanking President Nugent, my faculty, staff, and administration colleagues, and the Class of 2012 and their families and friends, for the opportunity to address you today. I am very grateful to the Class of 2012 for this honor and privilege.
Many of my most memorable conversations at Kenyon have occurred during office hours, the time set aside each week to talk one-on-one with students. Sometimes office hours involve intellectual discussions about Alexis de Tocqueville or the impact of the financial crisis on European integration or the role of the state in providing social welfare. Sometimes they revolve around practical matters, for example, teaching a student how to write a coherent paragraph. At still other times, office hours involve deeply personal conversations about students' hopes, fears, and dreams.
During the spring semester, seniors often come to my office hours seeking life advice. Their friends or alumni have told them that Professor Camerra-Rowe – better known as Pam-Cam among students (but not to my face) -- can help them figure out what to do with their lives. I'm not sure that is true, but they come by anyway.
If you came by this semester, you did not find me. I've been on medical leave undergoing treatment for cancer. I have undergone three surgeries in the past four months, which is why I am sitting today instead of running back and forth on stage as I normally do in class. It has been a rough journey and it has reminded me of some of life's most important lessons.
I have been reminded of the importance of patience (of which I have very little), of risk-taking (which I sometimes fear but I've learned to hold my breath and jump), of strength and resilience (which have been crucial in dealing with the numerous setbacks) and of friendship and love (which have been the most important in moving forward).
I have missed talking with you this semester. Since I have not been available in office hours to discuss any life advice with you, I thought I would do it all at once today. (That way you will not have to wait in line as long as you usually do to see me).
I want to share with you some of the things that I think will help you as you begin life's journey. In particular, I want to talk about taking risks to follow your dreams, leaving a positive legacy, dealing with disappointments and setbacks, and building loving and enduring relationships.
Graduating from college can be pretty scary.
For most of you, the past 21 years have been pretty structured and your path laid out pretty clearly. You went to class; you wrote papers; you took tests; you went to sports and music practices. You knew what you had to do to move forward. If you didn't, your parents or teachers reminded you what you needed to do.
Now you have to decide how to proceed with your life. You have to decide the person you will become and life you want to lead.
There is a great deal of uncertainty. It is like standing at the edge of a dark forest. You don't know which path to take. You don't know where the path will lead. You don't have a map. You don't have a GPS.
A few of you have begun to forge a path through the forest. Perhaps you discovered a love of chemistry and biology at Kenyon and are now going to medical school. Maybe you enjoyed tutoring students at Wiggin Street and are going to teach in Memphis or New York as part of the Teach for America program. Perhaps you've won a Fulbright to study in a faraway place like China or Mongolia. Maybe you've found your first job.
But most of you probably do not know exactly what you are going to do with your life or where you are going to go.
And even those of you who think you know, even those of you who have a plan or a job, do not know where life's journey will take you or what opportunities, surprises, and challenges will arise.
It is okay not to know.
When I graduated from Davidson College in 1980, I certainly did not know that I would end up as a professor of politics at Kenyon College. I had not even heard of Kenyon College.
And I never thought that I would live in Ohio. (I am a Jersey girl). The only thing I knew about Ohio was that whenever I went to the North Carolina beach, most of the cars there were from Ohio, suggesting that people were fleeing the state and that no one lived there anymore.
At Davidson, I studied political science and edited the college newspaper. I thought I would become a journalist or a diplomat. I dreamed of being a foreign correspondent or becoming the first female secretary of state (but Madeleine Albright beat me to it.)
When I graduated, I had a job offer from The Charlotte Observer newspaper in North Carolina. I had also received a fellowship to do research and study politics at the University of Bonn in West Germany.
While I was tempted to take the job and begin my journalism career, I decided to go to Germany. I had not studied abroad my junior year and I wanted to do something new and adventuresome. Little did I know that the year in Germany would turn out to be one of the pivotal years of my life.
In Germany, I not only studied European politics, but I experienced first-hand the political events of the time. I was at the U.S. Embassy Club in Bonn the night Ronald Reagan was elected president, listening to journalists and diplomats discuss the future of U.S.-German relations; I witnessed the protests against the stationing of U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe; I was searched by East German armed guards, who wanted to ensure that I was not bringing western goods into the country. Those experiences made me want to learn more about European politics.
The year also included some very unexpected events that had profound consequences for my life.
Two weeks after I arrived in Germany, I was sitting in a bar with some newfound friends in the small medieval town of Marburg. We were celebrating my 22nd birthday. Three young men who were on the Davidson College junior year abroad program came into the bar. Two of them grabbed seats at the far end of the table; the third had no choice but to take the remaining seat at my end of the table. I did not know him from my time at Davidson but he and I struck up a conversation.
That young man turned out to be my future husband. Many of you know him as Professor Rowe.
He and I had many adventures during that year. We traveled by train from Spain to Norway. We hitchhiked and camped. One night, we slept in an abandoned house only to wake up the next morning to the sound of a bulldozer about to knock it down. We ran out of that house – FAST.
Another morning we arrived very early in Paris after spending the night on the train. Nothing was open, so we walked down the Champs Elysee. A distinguished man walked by, followed moments later by a photographer, who almost knocked us down. The distinguished gentleman was the President of France, Giscard D'Estaing. We followed him on his morning walk, all the way to the Elysee Palace, where the guards stopped us. Three months later as we flipped through the German magazine, Der Spiegel, late one night, there was an article about the French presidential elections and a picture of Giscard walking down the Champs Elysee. If you follow his gaze, he is looking at us. We still have that picture.
While not all of the experiences I had in Europe were directly related to what I would eventually do, they taught me many things about myself and what I wanted in life.
They reinforced my love of European history and politics and made me want to spend more time in Europe, even though at the time I did not know how I would accomplish that.
They made me sure that Prof. Rowe was the person with whom I wanted to spend my life and share my journey. He has been my companion for the past 32 years.
Those experiences also helped sustain me during difficult times later in life and they made great stories to tell my children and my students. (I apologize to those of you who have already heard these stories but you'll find as you get older, you tell the same stories again and again).
I have no regrets about spending the year in Europe even though I spent months looking for a job when I returned to the U.S. in 1981.
What is important when you graduate from college is to begin a journey of self-discovery. You have a lot of book knowledge, but you don't have much life experience. You may not know exactly what you want to do because you don't know what is out there. Use the next couple of years to find out by doing things that you may not be able to do later in life when you have more responsibilities and obligations. Explore various paths. Have adventures. Move to a new place. Travel to another country. Try out a variety of jobs. Meet new people.
These experiences will help you begin to discover what is important to you. They will teach you about yourself. They can help you determine what you do well and not so well. They can help you decide what you want to do and, perhaps more importantly, what you do not want to do.
There may be some parents and family members in the audience who are thinking, "Wait a minute. I want my child to have a secure and comfortable life. Shouldn't they be going to law school or graduate school in the fall? Shouldn't they be getting started on their career?"
As a parent, I share those wishes and concerns. I would like my children to have a secure and comfortable life. I would like to protect them from making mistakes and getting hurt.
But one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to let them pursue their own dreams, face their own uncertainties and struggles, make their own mistakes, and forge their own paths. It is only through their own struggles and life experiences that they will learn what they want to do. We cannot live their lives for them nor can we fulfill our unfulfilled dreams through them. We cannot decide who or what is right for them. Only they can know their own hearts.
Difficult as it is, I give my children – one of whom is a rising senior in college, the other a rising junior in high school - the same life advice I give my students. In fact, my children are in the audience right now. So even if I suddenly decided this is not the advice I want to give them, it is now too late.
As you – the students – go out and discover what you want to do, don't be afraid to take risks to follow your dreams. That is my first bit of life advice.
Maybe you want to be a documentary film maker. Maybe you want to be an actor and perform on Broadway. Maybe you want to become a biomedical researcher and find a cure for a rare disease. Maybe you want to tackle climate change.
Pursue those dreams. You may not achieve all of your dreams, but it is the trying, not necessarily the succeeding, that matters most. If you don't try, you'll never achieve your dreams and you may have regrets twenty, thirty or even fifty years from now.
Following your dreams will require making difficult choices. It may require choosing an untrodden or twisting path.
It will be easy at those times to become paralyzed by fear and indecision. But often the worst thing you can do is not make a choice, not take a risk, and let the opportunity slip away. You have to weigh what is important to you and make a decision.
If you follow a path and decide later that you made a mistake or if you fail, then learn the lessons for a future choice. Find another path. Don't spend your life engaging in "What if's."
During my twenties, I took a big risk and made a difficult choice that had life altering consequences and eventually brought me here to you.
The year was 1985 – five years after graduating from Davidson.
At the time, I lived with my husband in an apartment across from the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He was finishing his master's degree at Johns Hopkins. I was a member of the Washington press corps and one of the youngest reporters covering the Supreme Court. I had one of those dog tags that said Press that allowed me to enter all kinds of buildings in Washington. In the Supreme Court press office, I sat near Linda Greenhouse, the long time New York Times Supreme Court reporter.
It was heady stuff living in Washington and knowing what was going on long before anyone else. It would have been very easy to stay there and to build a successful career as a journalist. Maybe I would have eventually become a foreign correspondent.
But as much as I loved being a reporter, I was unsure whether it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life. I thought that I wanted to teach and that I would be well-suited to teaching. Even when I was in second grade, I used to come home from school, get out my magnetic ABC board and teach my little sister how to read.
I also really wanted to think about politics in a more sustained and deeper way. I discovered that I could not do that easily as a journalist in Washington, DC. I had to write new stories on different topics every day. And some of the people I met in Washington had an exaggerated view of their importance. Others seemed to care more about who they knew and the latest gossip than about exploring issues in a more balanced and analytical way.
So in August 1985, we left Washington to enter the Ph.D. program at Duke.
It was not easy.
During the first year of graduate school, we lived on $11,000. We rented a dark and damp apartment. All we could afford to have for dinner every night was a baked potato or a bowl of pasta. (I still sometimes cannot eat a baked potato.)
Some of the work in graduate school seemed abstract and irrelevant. And graduate school had some humiliating moments, like when a professor posted a sign in the graduate student lounge that said, "Need money. Come mow my lawn."
It took many years to finish my dissertation. It took a long time to find a permanent job. I did not have a tenure track position until I was over 40.
Much of the time it was not very fun. But when I was in the classroom teaching, I felt it was the right decision.
If you decide you really want something, you will need determination and perseverance to get around the obstacles and difficulties that will stand in the way.
You will have to work incredibly hard, much harder than you ever worked here at Kenyon in order to achieve your goal.
Knowing yourself and what you want, will give you the drive and the passion to work through the difficulties and get you where you want to go.
Taking risks to achieve your dreams is in many ways like climbing a mountain.
When my family and I travel to Europe, we often hike in the Alps. We have climbed some tall peaks and it has often been treacherous. There are times when the path is very narrow and one misstep will lead to a 1,000 foot fall. The way ahead is rocky and steep. You have to dig really deep to find the courage and strength to go on. Meeting the challenge of getting to the top – as well as the views from the summit – are worth it.
While it has not always been easy getting to this point in my life and road has been very circuitous, I am thankful that I persevered and became a professor.
I do not regret the time I spent as a journalist. It was exciting and important work and provided me with a lifelong interest in American political institutions. It made me a better writer, a more astute observer of politics, and a more confident and outgoing person. (You would never believe that I was a very shy person all through high school and much of college. I don't think I ever said a word in class during college but being a reporter changed that. You can redefine yourself.).
But I also do not regret leaving journalism to pursue an academic career.
I have had so many opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. I lived in Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall and worked in the German Economics Ministry; I worked in the U.S. Senate as a researcher during the first year of the Obama Administration; I've had the time to think deeply and seriously about the issues that face the country and the world; I've been able to provide my children with the opportunity to live abroad.
Most importantly for me, and I think I speak for my colleagues as well, the work I do is fulfilling and meaningful. I have been able to touch and shape the lives of so many students and they have touched and shaped mine.
And this brings me to a second bit of life advice – on your journey, seek to leave a positive legacy.
A positive legacy will not be measured by how much you earn, how famous you are, how much power you hold, how big your house is, or what kind of car you drive. Material success, power and fame are fleeting. They can disappear overnight. If you are not careful, they can corrupt who you are by making you forget what is truly valuable in life.
Sure, it is important to have enough money to live comfortably and to have adventures. You have to be realistic in that regard.
But what matters much more are the ways in which you make the world a better place whether it is through medicine, theater, the arts, counseling, science, law, journalism, education, business or even politics. What is important are the ways in which you contribute to and enhance the lives of others and the integrity with which you live your life. Those define a positive legacy.
When I look at you today and think about how much you've changed in the past four years and how passionate you are about what you've learned, I know that I am leaving a positive legacy.
And when I think of all the students I have worked with at Kenyon over the past 17 years and the amazing things they have gone on to do from working in the White House or Capitol Hill to teaching newly elected legislators in the Balkans about the democratic process, from teaching middle schoolers in Baltimore to educating women about cervical cancer in Guatemala, I know that they, too, are leaving positive legacies. Many of you will do the same and so many good things will happen as a result of the work you do.
However, as you will discover, not all the things that happen to you along life's journey will be good. After all, when you walk through a deep forest, you can get lost, meet a bear, tread on a snake.
Unfortunate events will happen to you that are beyond your control. You will experience setbacks, disappointments, and failures. Some of these will take you off course. Some of them will be difficult to surmount. Some will force you to reassess your life. Complaining about them or saying, Woe is me won't change them.
So how do you deal with those disappointments, setbacks, failures and unfortunate times?
What is crucial is having a positive outlook and a sense of humor. Those will make your life, as well as the lives of those around you, much happier and more enjoyable.
Having a positive outlook does not mean you have to be happy all the time.
But it does mean finding good things even in the midst of bad and celebrating those good things. It means laughing about the crazy things that happen in life. And it means learning to move forward and living the life you have.
I received a note from one of my very dear former students, Rachel Berger, in late February. Rachel graduated from Kenyon last May and moved to Washington, DC in August to look for a job in politics. She had been president of her class and active in student government. She was determined to make a difference in the world. Rachel took an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill in order to gain some work experience and found a part-time position coaching a club swim team in order to earn some money. The internship had ended in December. She had applied for dozens of full-time jobs and had not found one. She told me was so disappointed and frustrated. She felt as if she had made a mistake by moving to Washington.
I wrote Rachel back and told her she had not made a mistake.
Like Rachel, I had faced similar disappointments. When I returned from Europe in the summer of 1981, I thought I'd find a reporting job right away. After all I had graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college, had done well academically, and had had several internships. But I didn't find a job. The U.S. was in the midst of a recession (sound familiar?) and many newspapers had a hiring freeze. For weeks, I slept on the floor of a friend's apartment and looked unsuccessfully for a job in Washington, DC. I finally had to move into my father's two room apartment in New Jersey and take an administrative job in New York. It took time before I got a job as a reporter with The Charlotte Observer and a place of my own.
I told Rachel she needed to have patience and perseverance. I reminded her that she had been a member of the Kenyon ladies swim team. Had she not listened to Coach Steen about the importance of attitude and determination? I suggested she redouble her efforts at finding a job by broadening her job search and talking to as many Kenyon alumni in Washington as possible.
More importantly, I told her to take advantage of the fact that she was living in Washington. She might never have the opportunity again. Go to an art lecture at the National Gallery. Attend a Sunday afternoon concert at the Phillips Collection. Visit the gardens at the National Cathedral. Go to an author talk at the independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. Volunteer in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. By doing these things, she would meet other people who shared her interests, contribute to the broader community, and enrich her own inner life.
Several weeks later, she wrote back: "Your email pushed me in the right direction of changing my attitude about living here. I've been busy discovering new things every week."
She had taken a picnic to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. She was volunteering for a non-profit organization that collected food from hotels and restaurants and distributed it to the homeless. She joined a Kenyon alumni kickball team. She went back to Capitol Hill and was interning in a congressman's office once a week.
Adversity can teach you valuable lessons, much moreso than success. Rachel had discovered that she could find beauty and value in the things that were around her. She learned to appreciate the things she already had including the fact that she is coaching President Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, on her club swim team. She has the opportunity to talk with Michelle Obama's mother, Mrs. Robinson, every day and even sees Michelle Obama occasionally. She has rediscovered her sense of humor. She tries to get the Secret Service agents who stand around on the pool deck during practice to smile. They do not smile and are NOT amused. But just imagine the stories Rachel will be able to tell about her first year out of college.
Moreover, as a result of having a more positive outlook and taking more initiative, good things began to happen. She had an interview for a job with the organization for which she was volunteering. She had a full-time job offer from the club swim team. This week she had more interviews lined up. She has discovered important things about herself including that fact that she does not want to pursue a career doing legislative or policy research but wants to pursue a career in higher education administration. So despite the disappointments, the year has had many positive aspects.
All of you will have setbacks, disappointments, and challenges as you begin life's journey.
You are not alone.
Everyone in this audience – indeed, everyone you meet on your life's journey - faces his or her own challenges. It may be an illness like cancer, an accident, a death in the family, the need to care for a frail parent, spouse or sick child, a failed relationship or marriage, the loss of a job, a long period of unemployment, a period of underemployment. A large part of life's journey is learning how to deal with those events and figuring out how to move forward.
When you face those challenges, do not be afraid to seek help. You will discover that other people are often very generous and willing to help. Perhaps an alumna will offer to pass along your resume to her colleagues when you are looking for a job. Maybe a professor will agree to write you a letter of recommendation when you decide to apply to graduate school. Perhaps your parents will agree to let you live at home for a time when you are looking for work.
Remember to thank them for their help. It is important to learn how to be a grateful and gracious recipient.
I was reminded of that this semester. Every night for weeks on end, someone brought dinner to our house. In fact, I have never eaten as well as I have in the past four months. This community is full of people who would do well on Iron Chef.
People went grocery shopping for us, they took me for walks or drives, they stopped by to visit, they sent cards, flowers, gifts, and emails. I am so grateful to everyone who offered help and encouragement. This is an extraordinarily generous and supportive community in which to live and I am so fortunate to be a part of it.
Such experiences remind you to think about how you treat other people. I am not always a kind and generous person – I am impatient with other drivers, I can scream at my husband or children, I am sometimes short with students or colleagues, particularly at the end of a semester. But I try to remember that how you treat others is a reflection of who you are and what you think is important.
It is not just how you treat friends or those from whom you might have something to gain – like your boss or a potential employer. It is also how you treat people from whom you cannot benefit in any way including the waitress at the restaurant, the woman at the dry cleaners, the bank teller, the receptionist at work, the cashier at the grocery store. Remember that all of these people face their own struggles, challenges, and disappointments. They all appreciate a kind word, a hug, an expression of concern.
This brings me to a final - and the most important - piece of life advice, which has to do with friendship and love.
You will find that it is more satisfying to share your life's journey with people for whom you care deeply and who care deeply about you.
Think about your time at Kenyon. What will you remember most vividly? Will it be the things you learned in Modern Democracies or Liberal Democracy in America?
Unfortunately, probably not.
But you will remember the nights you spent talking with friends about life. You will remember commiserating with them while you were studying for or finishing your senior comps. You will remember celebrating with them when they won a game or won a fellowship. You will remember the talks with professors about important ideas and about life. Deep personal relationships are likely to be your most enduring memory.
I met my closest female friend, Mary Booth, when I was a sophomore in college. We were both political science majors and loved European politics. Mary was the embodiment of the saying that good things come in small packages. Five feet 2 inches tall with twinkling eyes, she was an amazing person, full of life, wickedly funny, and extraordinarily generous.
After college, our lives took very different paths -- she sold wine and gourmet food and I studied and taught politics -- but we talked regularly on the phone, visited as often as we could, and celebrated important milestones together. For her thirtieth birthday, my husband and I threw her a huge surprise party - at her house. For our fortieth birthdays, she sent me a ticket to vacation with her in the Bahamas.
When we reached our fiftieth birthdays, she was undergoing treatment for a very rare and aggressive form of cancer. We postponed our celebration until the following year. We then met in Las Vegas and took a road trip to the Grand Canyon, a place she had always wanted to see.
A year later, she died. During the last months of her life, I visited her several times in order to take care of her, to rub her feet, to keep her company. It was very hard to watch her decline and extremely painful to lose her but my life was so much richer as a result of knowing her and sharing her journey.
Love involves sharing many joys; it also involves risk, pain and loss. But it is worth it. Mary will always be a part of who I am. I hope that you will have as a good and dear a friend as I had to share your journey. Perhaps it will be someone you met here at Kenyon.
When you leave this Hill, take your closest and dearest friends and family members with you in your heart. You don't know how long you will have them. So tend to those relationships. They don't come automatically. They require compassion, forgiveness, honesty, and unselfishness. They require a willingness to listen and to share each other's ups and downs. They require a willingness to accept the other's faults and to recognize your own. They require making sacrifices and compromises.
Those relationships will sustain you during difficult times and will help remind you of what is important in the most successful times. They will be the most meaningful part of your life's journey.
The most important relationships I have are those with my family, especially my husband and two children. We have traveled to many places and had many adventures together. (Ask them sometime to tell you about getting caught in a thunder and hail storm in the Alps). My family has been a source of inspiration and strength. I love them deeply and I am fortunate to have them here today.
I also cherish and nurture the relationships I have with former students. I have been invited to their weddings; I have watched them graduate from Master's degree programs; I have read their blogs from far flung places across the globe; I've argued with them over politics. When I moved to Washington, DC in 2008-09, I went with them to concerts, plays, and dinner.
Several of my former students have become very close and very dear friends (and some of them are here today). They, too, have been great source of inspiration and kindness.
I hope that you will nurture the relationships you have with your mentors here and that you will occasionally come back and visit them.
While it takes time and effort to build loving and enduring relationships, those relationships will provide fulfillment far beyond mere companionship. They will be an important part of your life and who you become.
I feel both joy and melancholy when a class of students graduates from the college.
This is true today. You are a special class for me.
Some of you were in Prof. Jensen's Quest for Justice class with my daughter, Sarah, who was then a senior in high school. We still talk about some of you at the dinner table.
My son, Stephen, my husband, Dave, and I spent many hours watching you play soccer or swim. We cheered when you did well and sought to spur you on when you did not.
Several of you were in my comparative welfare state seminar last fall, where we cried during the documentaries and grappled with many of the important issues of the day.
Others took my Congress class where I asked you to write a law that would provide each child in the U.S. with a free dog. Several of you thought it was a ridiculous assignment. But you took it seriously, negotiated and compromised, and came up with a bill, and you had fun doing it, unlike those who seek to make laws in Congress today.
Still others of you have spent countless hours in my office talking about papers, fellowships, and job applications. I have provided unvarnished – some would say harsh – criticism. Yet, you have always had the courage to come back. I admire you for that. I pushed you hard because I care about you so much.
My colleagues at the College have done the same. We have had high expectations of you because we want to help you live a meaningful life by teaching you to think carefully and thoughtfully about that life.
I feel confident that you will go out into the world and find valuable things to do. It will require taking risks and dealing successfully with setbacks and fears. But if you pursue what you love, maintain a positive outlook, and build strong relationships, you will have a meaningful journey.
I congratulate all of the members of the Class of 2012.
To the parents and families of these students, thank you so much for entrusting them to our care during these four years. I know it was hard to let them go.
Wehave enjoyed working with them (at least most of the time) and it is hard now for us to let them go.
To the students, we at the College are among your most ardent supporters. We know that you have tremendous talent, drive and initiative. We hope that we have provided you with some of the values that will help sustain you over a lifetime – an enthusiasm for learning, an ability to think deeply, write well and listen carefully, a generous and caring nature. Take those with you as you begin your new adventure.
As Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, writes in "Oh the Places You'll Go!"
Today is your day!
You're off to great places!
You're off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.'
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go.
It is time to breathe deeply and begin your journey. Good luck!