WATERVILLE, Maine — Former Vice President Joseph Biden heaped daunting expectations on Colby College’s graduating class Sunday, but he assured them that the secret to “bending the arc of history to what we want as a nation” is actually simple: build personal relationships and maintain your dignity.
Biden’s words, many of them delivered off the cuff, thundered across the college’s Mayflower Hill under pristine blue skies and before hundreds of people who came to support the Waterville institution’s 480 newest graduates.
“For me, it goes back to something my father taught me,” Biden said during one of many moments he tapped into his personal story. “He used to say, ‘Joey, every man, every woman and every child is to be treated with respect and deserves to be treated with dignity.’ All of us has to do better building the bonds of empathy.”
Biden was brought to Colby’s commencement through his connections with Pete Rouse and Robert Hoopes, college trustees who are longtime friends and professional colleagues of Biden’s. The former vice president, who also served 36 years in the U.S. Senate, largely eschewed politics, with just one passing reference to Republican President Donald Trump and the divided state of American politics. Biden compared the world the class of 2017 is entering to the Vietnam-era turbulence of his own college graduation in 1968.
“No graduating class gets to choose the world in which they graduate into,” Biden said. “You’re graduating into a world of anxiety and uncertainty. You’re walking across this stage without knowing what’s on the other side, but there’s no reason why your generation can’t do the same and better than ours did. You’re better equipped and better educated. You’re more engaged to deal with what lies ahead than my generation was.”
Biden said one of the themes of his years in services, whether he was dealing with constituents or world leaders, was the value of making personal connections.
Fen Bowen, an environmental policy major from Florida, said Biden’s reminder resonated.
“It definitely reaffirmed who I thought Joe Biden was,” Bowen said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of political unrest and turmoil in politics right now, but what he said was really true. We need to get to know each other on a more intimate and personal level. Sometimes we’re all fighting for the same things, just using different words.”
Biden’s speech punctuated a morning of soaring oratory. The only student speech came from Muhebullah Esmat, who hails from Kabul, Afghanistan. Esmat was chosen by his classmates to speak Sunday.
“Sometimes there are things so far beyond our reach and comprehension that we can’t even dream about them,” Esmat said. “Deep down, I still don’t understand how I have been able to make it this far. There are thousands of kids back home who probably deserve to be here 10 times more than I do.”
Esmat urged his classmates to pay attention to the strangers in their lives because strangers can become forces of influence.
“Colby has brought us together as strangers but sends us away as friends,” he said. “Remember to appreciate the strangers in your life.”
Biden and Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, along with Yoshihiro Takishita, an architect and historic preservationist, and Warren Washington, a research scientist and climate change expert, all received honorary doctorate degrees Sunday.
Colby College President David A. Greene bestowed bachelor of arts degrees on 480 seniors Sunday, marking the college’s 196th commencement. The graduates came from 35 states and 30 countries. Approximately two-thirds of the class have studied abroad in more than 40 countries.