For quite some time now, I have thought very hard about what to say for this speech right now. And I’ll simply lead off by saying that in light of the beautifully bright, 90 degree sun and our nice, shiny, and as we learned yesterday very oven-like cap and gowns, I’ll try to keep it relatively short.
Let me first start out by telling you a little about the process. I got an e-mail back in January, I believe, from President Ruscio, that said something along the lines of, “Congratulations, Jordan, you have been asked to be the commencement speaker at graduation. Let me know if you would be willing to accept this position…” I was at first very excited about the opportunity.
Shortly thereafter, however, I began to get just a little nervous when I thought about speaking up here, in front of thousands of people, approximately 450 of which were my own peers and classmates. And then I thought about what I was going to say up here, and that feeling of nervousness began to grow steadily larger, so I went back to the e-mail congratulating me and looked for what I was supposed to talk about. It was at that point that I started to have a mini panic because I realized it was much like that most difficult and hated paper topic I have had before: “Write an essay about anything.” That’s about all I knew at that point. Just give a commencement speech.
So I tried first to follow the particular school of thought that goes something like this: “why try say something yourself if someone else has already said it?” In other words, I tried to look for some motivational quotes from past graduation or commencement speeches nationwide in hopes to, if nothing else, get a nice prompt or have some idea with which to be working. After a quick Google search of “commencement speeches,” I actually managed to become even more disheartened. You see, every speech that came up had the author underneath it: President George Bush at West Point, Barack Obama at Wesleyan University, Bill Gates at Harvard, Steve Jobs at Stanford, even our Law School had John Grisham last year, and the list goes on. And y'all got stuck with me.
It became painfully apparent to me that I am not a famous person. I am not a successful businessman. I am not a presidential candidate. And I am not a famous author. Furthermore, I certainly am not up here because of my academic or intellectual prowess, and, as I am sure that any of you parents and older relatives can resoundingly attest to, I do not have any real life experience from which to draw and tell you all some marvelous piece of advice.
But after a little time to cool and listening to my finest Taylor Swift song collection, I managed to quell those nervous feelings and have since realized that there is one thing that I believe I can offer that none of those above speakers can, and that is simply the perspective of a Washington and Lee student. So reflecting upon the past 4 years, there are three main points that I wish to briefly mention along with a few encouragements and challenges to all of us. And these are points that I know have been brought up in past commencement speeches, but there I think you will all find as I go along that there is good reason for it.
I think the first thing that truly sets our school apart is the faculty here and the relationships that we form with them. There is a reason that Washington and Lee is almost always ranked in the top 10 most accessible faculty. They work tirelessly not simply for their own merits or publications but rather for us, the students. They dedicate copious amounts of their time to helping us out or to simply hanging out with us. Whether it be taking a walk at 10:30 at night with Professor Porter, stopping in the Commons to discuss the latest on the Washington and Lee football team with Professor Jackson, consulting many times for many hours with Professor Session on my thesis, being invited to Easter Lunch at Professor Dean’s house with all of my roommates because we were not going to be able to go home for the holiday, or taking a little extra time outside of class to go over the nuances first through fifth positions of ballet and the difference between a fuete and a tore with my ballet teacher Pedro, I have always felt not merely accepted as a student but openly embraced as a colleague and friend by the faculty here. And these are not irregular examples at all that I have listed, but rather examples indicative of a truly amazing faculty atmosphere at our school. And so for all of your help and hard work I thank all of you.
And at the same time, I would encourage all of us, Class of 2008, not to let those relationships slip by the wayside, not to forget the wonderful people that we have met here nor the lessons they have taught us. And when I say “lessons” I am not simply talking about the classroom, but more importantly about their spirit of helpfulness. So I encourage you wherever you are going as you leave Washington and Lee to not forget that sense of selflessness and caring and the attitude of outreach that you have been shown and to take it with you into your respective fields of work.
The second unique aspect of this University that I find most important is the Honor System here. I am sure most of you parents or family have heard at least whisperings about it. But I doubt that many of you understand just how important and powerful it really is. I would like to borrow a quote from last year’s commencement speaker and good friend of mine Rob Rain in his speech last year. It comes from Senator John Warner of Virginia two years ago, in his closing to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The meeting dealt with some unethical practices by Boeing in its work as a defense contractor. He concluded the speech by thanking everyone that has helped to form his sense of honor. He said, “And if I could just sort of gratuitously give one little bit of advice. I look back on my own career and I was fortunate enough to go to two schools. One was my father’s old school, Washington and Lee University, founded by George Washington, and later General Lee was President in the aftermath of the tragic Civil War, and the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson. And I am deeply affected every day of my life by many of the things that I learned at those two institutions, among them the honor code. And I know, as I’ve tried to put together my humble career, that’s been a guiding light and I’m sure that it has spared me some grief along the way that I’ve witnessed others suffer.” I find this quote incredibly powerful when I think about the fact that it comes from the chairman of the Senate committee that overseas the most powerful military body this world has ever seen, a man who has served 5 consecutive terms on the US Senate, was a Marine officer in Korea and enlisted as a sailor at age 17 during World War II. I find it remarkable that he would attribute the “guiding light” of his career to a small liberal arts school in Lexington, Virginia that he graduated from over 55 years ago. And yet, at the same time that I stand in amazement, I completely understand what he means. We have been blessed to go to an institution that prides itself on character, on building students who make honesty and integrity a priority over grades and getting ahead in our work.
My oldest brother, a bronze star winner and Captain in the Marine corps who has served three tours of duty now in Iraq and Afghanistan and graduate of Princeton University and Harvard business school, and who I am blessed to say is sitting right in front of me as I speak, told me not too long ago that a man has forever to work on his resume, but only a small time to truly build his character. I believe that we have been extremely blessed to go to an institution that truly does seek to instill a sense of character in all of its students. And so I would encourage all of us not to forget the lessons that we have learned and the sense of honor that has been instilled in us here. I encourage all of you, as you go on to become CEOs and CFOs, presidents of organizations or simply loving husbands and father, wives and mothers, never to forget what you have learned here. I encourage you, just as Senator Warner has done, to continue to allow the sense of honor that you have learned here to be your guiding light.
Lastly, I want to speak about the friendships that we have all made here. Look to your left and right, in front of you and behind you, think of the members of your fraternity or sorority pledge classes, of your teammates on your respective athletic teams, or of your roommates. I want you to think about how amazing they all are, how you have gone from what seemed a random meeting on orientation week to a friendship that will last the rest of your lives. I encourage you to reflect on what we have learned from each other, on what it means to be a good friend, to help each other out with work, to stay up until the wee hours of the morning hanging out, perhaps with a fraternity soda or two to assist, to remember what it was like when you were going through a rough time and to have a friend put his arm around you and tell you they are there for you, and to think about what it means to be able to truly trust one another. I saved this topic for last because I believe that it is our friendships and relationships with one another that have taught us more than any classroom lecture, seminar, or speech that we have encountered has been able to do. And so I encourage all of us as we move on to not only keep up these friendships but also to remember what he have taken from them.
And so we move on. In just a short time, we will be getting our diplomas, and in the next couple of days we will be leaving this campus, no longer as students but as alumni to take on new jobs and positions that will represent a whole new world of challenges. A Washington and Lee diploma will open up a number of doors for us. It is a tremendous thing to have and a wonderful gift that we have all been given. Luke 12:48 says that to whom has been given much, much is also expected.” So as we take our diplomas, I encourage all of us to never forget where we came from, never to take for granted the lessons our faculty have taught us, never to sacrifice our sense of honor for apparent worldly returns, and never to forget the friends that we have made along the way nor the life lessons that they have taught us. And let us apply these lessons to our respective fields, to be ever cognizant of the blessing that we have been fortunate enough to have, and to share our fortune and be ever mindful of those less fortunate than we are.
Lastly, and I promise this is the last thing, I would simply like to end with a short prayer that my grandfather sent me. It was a simple Irish prayer he heard given by the President of Princeton at one of my brothers’ graduations, one that he immediately recognized from a small copper box he had bought some 20 years ago from a small shop in Britain. So please bow your heads with me.
"May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind always be at your back,
May the sun shine warm on your cheek,
the rain fall gently on your fields. and until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Thank you all, and God bless.