This weekend is a momentous one for high school seniors across Maine, as many receive their diplomas and proceed to what’s next in their lives, whether it’s college, military service, work or some other life experience.
With high school graduations following a steady stream of college commencements, there’s a lot of advice floating around at this time of year for graduating seniors to ponder. Here’s some from two notable graduation speakers who delivered parting messages to graduates at two Maine colleges.
The speakers, former Vice President Joe Biden and Harlem Children’s Zone President Geoffrey Canada, dwelled in different ways on what’s wrong with the world. But they made clear that they have faith in what’s to come.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Colby College
When the former vice president visited Mayflower Hill in Waterville last month, he spoke of what gave way to what he called “the coarsest rhetoric and stoking of our darkest emotions” during last year’s election.
“[T]he world is changing so rapidly, there are a lot of folks out there who are afraid,” Biden said. “Good people. We know globalization hasn’t been an unalloyed benefit for all communities struggling to get by. People are being displaced by technology; Moore’s Law; the whole notion of digitalization. People are worried, a lot of people are worried.”
He called on Colby graduates to “join in the ceaseless work of perfecting a more perfect union…. You cannot define an American based on their ethnicity. You cannot define an American based on religion. You cannot define America by anything other than an inherent acceptance of the notions contained within our institutional structures.”
At the same time as he appealed to graduates’ grandiose sense of mission, he reminded them of the importance of personal relationships. “I’ve met an awful lot of people who are supposedly, in fact are, powerful. And I’ve found that not all those who are successful are happy. And I’ve found the one common trait, that those who’ve found that sweet spot between success and happiness, are those persons who are personal.
“Caring about your colleague as they’re dealing with a sick parent, or their child has graduated from college, or the child just was in an accident. That’s the stuff that fosters real relationships, breeds trust, allows you to get things done in a complex world.”
Harlem Children’s Zone President Geoffrey Canada, Bates College
Canada, who led the Harlem Children’s Zone for 24 years, spoke of what motivated him to devote his life to service after growing up amid poverty in the South Bronx. The Harlem Children’s Zone today encompasses 97 New York blocks, delivering a wide range of interconnected services to the children and families who live there, from parenting classes to after-school programs.
Growing up in the 1960s, Canada said, “I looked to my role models for guidance,” including two who lost their lives in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
“I was in the 10th grade, so just imagine what I was experiencing. I’m in high school, and Americans are going to jail, being cursed and beaten, being killed, so that one day I might get a good education, live in a decent home, get a decent job. People with everything to lose — money, fame, loving families — lost it all for the ideals that this country stood for.
“Who could not feel obligated to continue their work to ensure that their death would not be in vain?”
Canada acknowledged the lofty tasks before those graduating today who want to improve the world.
“While my generation has done real good and made some real progress, we also have left you a mess,” he told Bates graduates, speaking of years of inaction on climate change, persistent and staggering child poverty, inequity of educational opportunity and the United States’ highest-in-the-world incarceration rate.
But he didn’t despair.
“Let me tell you something else my role models taught me: The best of America is yet to come,” he said. “The work we don’t complete that attempts to make this country a better place, the next generation will finish it.”