Deborah Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation, delivered the 193rd Centre College Commencement address on May 22, 2016, in Newlin Hall at Norton Center for the Arts. This fall will mark the 10th year of Centre’s relationship with the Posse program.
Bial received an honorary doctor of humane letters during the ceremony, as did Harold H. Smith, president of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program Foundation and president emeritus of Pikeville College. Smith, a Centre graduate in the Class of 1964, has had a long and successful career in higher education, beginning with 19 years as Centre’s dean of admission and later, vice president and dean of student life. In celebration of this occasion, a small group of friends have made initial gifts in excess of $50,000 to establish the Hal and Karen Smith Scholarship Fund.
2016 Commencement Address
Thank you President Roush, the Centre Board of Trustees, the wonderful Centre faculty and staff. It is a great honor to be here today.
I’ve been very impressed with this institution. Such a warm and welcoming community. President Roush has been a tremendous partner to Posse and so has the entire Centre community. This year we celebrate a decade long relationship. You have admitted close to 100 Posse Scholars and we are proud to work with you. Thank you.
Congratulations class of 2016. I’m looking out at you and you look fantastic. And a special congratulations to the Centre Posse Scholars graduating today. I’m so proud of you.
I’m curious, how many of you have studied abroad? I hear that 87 percent of you have studied abroad since you’ve been here. And there are three people here today, among you graduates, who have studied abroad 4 times. To them, I’d like to say—welcome. Welcome to Danville.
Evan Baylor. Ionee Patel. Will Shindell. If you need directions anywhere, John, you got them right? Evan, Ionee, Will…you guys may have missed it but Centre is a great place. Did you know that your football team had a perfect, 10 and 0 season last year? You might have read about it…. Just saying.
What I love about Centre is that–maybe most importantly–you’ve been mentioned in a Saturday Night Live skit. I guess you get attention when you host events like the vice presidential debate. Actually that is quite impressive.
Centre College. This place has a tremendous culture of service, civic engagement and learning. When we think about the kind of citizens this country needs most, it’s people like you.
There are close to 300 of you sitting out there. You are on the cusp of the next part of your life. It is one of life’s special moments, graduation.
But for the next few minutes, I’d like you to remember a time when you were much younger. Let me take you back. It’s 2004. Only a few years after 9/11. George W. Bush was president and had declared a war on terror. American forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA acknowledged that year, that there had been no imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This was the year Ronald Regan died and also the year that New York City began building the Freedom Tower to replace the fallen towers of the World Trade Center. In Massachusetts the first legal same sex marriage was performed. In 2004, Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby. And the Red Sox won the world series that year, the first time they had done so since 1918. Google launched its IPO. And Ron Chernow published his biography of Hamilton. I don’t know if those of you graduating today remember that. Maybe you remember that the movies Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Shrek 2 came out that year. Of course you might remember that because you were 8 or 9 or 10 years old. You were just a kid.
2004 news headlines may not be what you remember most. As a kid, other things were on your mind. Think about it.
Can you remember yourself then? What you looked like? The clothes you wore? Did you like to wear your hair a certain way? Were you tall or short? Shy or outgoing? Was there something you really loved to do? Do you remember your dreams? What you wanted to be when you grew up? Who you looked up to?
My guess is that people who were 20 or 21 or 22 were definitely people you thought of as responsible adults. This made me want to talk to some people who understand the profound responsibility you have now that you are graduating.
So earlier this month, I talked to 53, 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds. I told them that I was going to be talking to all of you and that I would tell you anything they wanted you to know. Maybe they’d have a message for you that could inform the way you see your responsibility as a Centre graduate and as an adult. What they had to say was very interesting.
First of all, they were excited. They truly loved the idea that you would hear what they had to say. That filled my heart. They each completed a worksheet with 10 questions (One little girl shyly asked my colleague, “will you make sure she sees mine?”) and then we had a conversation. They were wide eyed and all speaking at the same time. They strained to get an important word in.
So, here is a snapshot of what these 53 kids, 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds had to say.
You might not be surprised that they like video games, animals and meatballs. They also like books, bubble gum, bunnies, drawing, ice cream, jump rope and making things explode.
One says, “I really love my mommy and daddy.” Another, “I like to be bossy.”
When they grow up they want to be a police officer, the best soccer player in the world, a doctor because doctors help people, a rapper, a DJ, a veterinarian because I love animals, and a wrestler because it’s cool. When they grow up they want to be the president because I want to tell the world to be happy and non-violent. They want to be an inventor, a track superstar, a chemist, a teacher. Sound familiar? One wants to do makeup and hair. One wants to work for the INS.
The little girl who likes to be bossy wants to be a lawyer because she is bossy and doesn’t take no for an answer.
This is what they said.
I asked them what worries them most about the future. They worry about things you might expect–big things that seem beyond their control. They worry about kids getting lost, that I won’t be with my mom every day, school getting harder, kidnapping, bullying and hate. One little girl wanted the world to be rid of all spiders. They worry about pollution, tigers and pandas going extinct, dying and the world ending. They worry that robots will take over the earth. (Something I hadn’t really considered.)
But they also are worried about things that you might not typically expect of an 8- or 9- or 10-year-old. They knew a lot about Donald Trump. Of the 53 students who completed the worksheet, more than a third of them wrote that they were afraid of him.
To my surprise, their conversation focused heavily on racism and hate. They worried that the next president will keep Muslims out, or will “deport my parents”. One said, “For me, I am worried that the next president will bring back racism, because he’s going to send all black people to Africa, then he’s going to kick Mexicans out, so only white people can have the whole New York to themselves.” I found this heartbreaking.
While they are picking up a lot from their parents they are also dwelling in a place of fear that we formerly reserved for adults.
It is possible that there is a shift in what kids think about today. It may have to do with social media and TV, the 24 hour breaking news that flashes by them in their living rooms or on their computers. The pop-up blogging tweeting texting culture surrounds us with news flashes. They see it too. The television is constantly telling us to be afraid of what could potentially happen. From terror attacks to the next most horrible storm. We are quick to respond by agreeing to give up our civil liberties or run to the store to stock up on emergency items that we don’t really need. Kids pick up on this.
The truth is, there are many problems that we have let fester. My generation hasn’t left the country in terribly great shape.
The things that scare kids today scare us all. We are still fighting for peace, for equal rights, for equal treatment and for equal opportunity. Women in America still make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. The United States Senate is 93 percent white and 80 percent male – and these are our representatives. The kids are right. Over the past 40 years we have lost 50 percent of the world’s wildlife. The kids are right, there is too much killing. In 2015 alone, those with guns killed more than 13,000 people in the U.S. This country is far from the flying cars and the teleportation they dream of. Our infrastructure is crumbling–our bridges, our tunnels, our roads and our schools need major repair.
And the kids are right. There is too much hate. A recent national poll conducted by CNN found that 49 percent of the American population believe that “racism is a big problem”. These things are scary for kids as they are for us. We have a special responsibility to make them feel safe. Not just feel safe be safe.
I asked them about their dreams for the future. Of course, the future seemed abstract to them. But they had ideas about it anyway. They want cool technology. They want the future to be peaceful, caring and happy. They want the whole world to have hope and faith.
One told me, “I think the president should make sure that there’s peace around the world.” They thought there should be talking instead of violence including in the oval office. They thought the president should just talk to people and reason with them. Pretty sensible don’t you think?
For you specifically, they wanted you to know that when they get to college they want the world to be beautiful. One said, “I think it is helpful for college people to know that everyone has the responsibility to listen, be a good student, and clean up after themselves. Everyone has to use teamwork and work together.”
The children explained clearly that adults shouldn’t smoke. They should be mature, pleasant and truthful. Respectful and smart. They should be nice. They should listen and please no screaming.
Their words were so honest, so full of trust and so direct. I can’t imagine a better reference point, a better compass for finding your way as you leave this special campus today. In what they said and what they represent, in what they remind us of and what they need, these little kids send an important message about what is expected of us all.
So, there are four ideas inspired by these kids, that I’d like to leave you with.
First, we have to act like adults. If you have been paying attention to our current political situation, it is painfully clear that in this respect, we have lost our way.
Second, we can’t be afraid. If you’re afraid you’re not going to act and these little ones need you to act. You need to take what you’ve learned about being an engaged citizen, at Centre and abroad, and act. Fear stops us from living and from addressing challenges head on.
Third, you need to live an integrated life—which is not easy in this country. It’s not enough not to be racist or homophobic. You have to actively engage people, form friendships and speak out.
I want to spend a minute on this. Your generation is often praised for being less prejudiced than those of us who have come before you. You are not thinking about race or gender in the ways your parents and grandparents might have thought about race or gender. You are more educated about identity and more tolerant. But this is not enough.
When I hear hateful words from many of our presidential candidates or our political leaders or our sports team owners or our celebrity VIPs, it’s clear that they still have enormous influence. So you don’t actually have the luxury of assuming your own advancement as a generation means we are done. We can’t act like racism or any other bias is a thing of the past to be packed away with the older generations. We have to find ways to live an integrated life. We can’t afford to stop talking. We certainly can’t afford to stop acting.
Finally, protect your idealism. You’re really in the same position as all the little 9-year-olds out there. When we hit adulthood we somehow see our current selves as separate from our childhood selves. But the dreams of nine-year-olds don’t really change when we turn 21. Maybe you’re a little more practical now, but your idealism is still there. Thank goodness.
Today, you are graduating and this rite of passage is one more declaration of your adulthood. You are now the adults to whom the responsibility of protecting the world is given. You are now the adults that these 53 little nine-year-olds believe in. There are approximately 4,100,000, 9-year-olds in this country today.
We entrust their future to you. In only a little more than a decade, they will be sitting here, in your chairs. They will walk in the footsteps you place on this platform. It will be their turn. Today it’s yours.
It’s a tricky thing to balance—acting like and adult and remaining idealistic. But you can do it. It’s the only way to create a world where the dreams of little kids can come true.
Delivered by Posse Founder Deborah Bial
May 22, 2016