Commencement Address 2024 - Kingswood Oxford

Commencement Addresses

May 31, 2024

Commencement Address 2024

To our newly minted alumni, before I give the “Charge to the Senior Class,” I’d like us to take a moment to thank some important people. While your diploma is the result of a lot of hard work, an army of supporters has been dedicated to helping you get here today, and I think it is important that we take a moment to acknowledge them. 

 

First, the setting of this commencement is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful you’ll find at any school in this country. A senior green encircled by large oak trees, framed by school buildings that date back to 1916 – this truly is a remarkable spot on earth and an intimate way to celebrate this senior class. But there are a group of people on this campus who work tirelessly to make it look THIS nice – please join me in thanking our B&G crew for spending countless hours making sure everything is in tip-top shape.  And a special thanks to Sherri Malinsoki and Michael Bane and the many others for coordinating today’s ceremony. It is truly a labor of love for the entire community.

 

Next to the parents, grandparents, and others who have taken a role in the upbringing of these amazing young people. Thank you for entrusting us with the awesome responsibility of educating your children. Seniors, these folks have been your biggest supporters and have made more sacrifices than they can count in time, money and energy to provide you with the opportunity to attend KO.  Please join me in thanking them.

 

We also owe a great debt of gratitude to the Board of Trustees of Kingswood Oxford School. Though you do not have the great pleasure that we have of interacting with these amazing students on a daily basis, your tireless commitment, time, philanthropy, and your wisdom have also made it possible for these students to become graduates of KO today. Please join me in thanking the Board of Trustees.

 

Last but by no means least, Faculty please rise.  Seniors, where would you be without this group of talented and caring group of adults, who brought you into their lives, shared their passions with you, laughed with you, cried with you, and helped you dig out of those holes that you sometimes dug for yourselves.  Please join me in thanking the talented faculty of Kingswood Oxford. 

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Now, on to my charge to the Class of 2024. I actually have three charges for you today.

 

Charge #1 – Don’t Take the next four years for granted.

 

It is a privilege to go to college. In many ways you have won the lottery of birth.  Only 7% of the world’s population will have the opportunity to earn a degree from college. In thinking about the importance of education, Oprah Winfrey commented that “Education is the key to unlocking the world, a passport to freedom.” It is the #1 driver of economic growth, poverty reduction, and improved health in the world. But in a developed country like ours, we sometimes take it for granted.  If you think about it, it is an incredible luxury to have the time to spare, to learn how to read, write, play on a sports team, or sing on a stage. Many children in the world start working as soon as they are old enough to contribute to the family economy. A roof over your head, food to eat, and clean drinking water take priority over studying Biology (sorry Mr. Goodman). In South Sudan, 70% of children your age and younger have to move with their cattle throughout the year and thus don’t go to school at all. In Afghanistan, children have experienced three decades of war and violence, and young girls in particular have been excluded from going to school by the brutal, misogynistic Taliban regime. 18-year-olds around the world would do anything to be in your shoes  – to be in David’s Hild’s English class debating Lady Macbeth’s role in the murder of King Duncan or doing homework for that challenging precalc honors class. 

 

The opportunity to go to college is still very much a privilege in our own country. Only about 35% of Americans graduate from college and if you are lucky enough to earn a bachelor’s degree, your salary will be on average 86% higher than those with only a high school diploma. Never forget that college is a great privilege. Remind yourself of this occasionally when you’re stressed out about an exam or feeling overwhelmed by the workload.

 

Charge #2 – is the sibling to Charge #1 – Don’t view your college education as a means to an end, but embrace it as an end in itself. 

 

There has been a growing trend to view education in transactional terms, as a commodity in the marketplace. Sadly, this perspective often starts in high school where the pressure to get into as selective a school as possible leads students to make strategic choices to pad a college resume. 

 

The unfortunate outcome of this system is that it attempts to reduce you to a number.  What’s your cumulative GPA? Your ACT score? How many APs did you take? Are you the first to come off the bench?  Do you have the third most lines in the play? Perhaps soon Artificial Intelligence will develop a formula that can quantify your choices and accomplishments while in school.  Input your GPA, your SAT score, the number of minutes you played on the basketball team, and the words you wrote in the KO News editorial… and voila, out comes your number –  a quantifiable you that the world can rank and use to predict outcomes for you.  Sadly, many colleges use a dumbed-down version of this to make their decisions about whether or not to accept you. 

 

If high school is about getting into a college, then college is about preparing you for the workforce.  In a recent survey of over 86,000 students at 3,000 different colleges, the most common reason (58%) cited for pursuing a college education was “work readiness” and to get a higher-paying job. 

 

There are a few problems I have with this system, the first, and most obvious one is that it doesn’t tell the whole story about you.  It does not measure the intangibles, like your ability to navigate complex social relationships, your ability to bounce back from failure, or how you learn from a mistake.  These are some of the most powerful indicators of success in the real world, and the number does not represent them well. And I have witnessed these traits in so many of you over the past years.

 

Secondly, this system suggests to you that the outcome is the most important thing in life.  Getting the A.  Getting into a particular school.  Landing a high-profile job. It can also make you choose a class, a course of study, or even a career path for the wrong reasons. The emphasis on the end goal makes you lose sight of the process itself and relies on extrinsic rewards to get you there.  Study after study suggests that the most important motivators that lead to deep learning are not external things like grades or a cash bonus, but intrinsic ones like natural curiosity, autonomy, and finding purpose in work.  The great thinkers, inventors, entrepreneurs and difference-makers in the world were not driven by money, power, or other rewards. They achieved great heights and made great discoveries because they were curious, driven to solve an intractable problem, or wanted to make a difference in the world.  

 

So what’s the purpose of college?  Don’t view these next four years as an investment in your future earnings but rather see them as an investment in becoming fully human. 

 

The transactional view of education offers an impoverished understanding of what college is really about. You are not a number and the primary purpose of your college education is not to get a high-paying job. Consider that an “attractive side effect!” The real purpose of these next four years is for you to expand your mind and broaden your horizons, to gain a better understanding of the world around you. Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Spend these next four years heeding the call of Socrates. Surround yourself with people who think differently than you do, who come from different backgrounds and have different opinions. Challenge your own assumptions and ask questions relentlessly. Take a challenging course, that one taught by a professor who everyone knows is a tough grader but has a reputation as one of the leading scholars in her field. The world needs more critical thinkers and it needs more empathy. Learn to put yourself in the shoes of someone else and see the world from their perspective. Learn to engage with others respectfully. In the end, the investment you make in becoming a lifelong learner will make you a more interesting and well-rounded person and will be far better preparation for the jobs of the future than any specialized training can do.  

 

3.  Finally, my last charge to you is to choose something in life that makes you happy and gives you purpose. Enjoy the journey ahead. As Ferris Bueller said in his famous day off, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you could miss it.” Don’t miss it!  In the coming years, you will be pushed and pulled in one direction or another.  You will face challenges and stresses in college and in your jobs.  And you will feel the pressure to be “successful.” To achieve someone else’s version of success. One of my favorite bands from the 1980s, The Talking Heads, warns us in their song, Once in a Lifetime, about a looming existential conflict if, in pursuit of traditional markers of success, we “don’t stop and look around every once in a while.”

 

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile.

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife.

And you may ask yourself,

How did I get here?

 

The singer, David Byrne, suggests that he reached the pinnacle but lost sight of how he got there.  You have all been prepared to “get there.” Kingswood Oxford has prepared you well. I will not be surprised if some of you start your own businesses or perform on Broadway.  It will not shock me to hear that one day, one of you might argue a case before the Supreme Court, deliver a speech before Congress, or even win a Nobel Prize.  Others may not quite achieve these lofty heights, but you may still find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, with a beautiful house, and a beautiful spouse. 

 

But you may get there only to find that you are not happy. Remember that real happiness, indeed, living a successful life, comes from developing meaningful relationships, finding purpose in work, and in service to others.  As you find your way in this world, do not lose sight of how you get there and choose something that makes you look forward to waking up each morning.  We look forward to hearing how happy you will be.   

 

I leave you with a somewhat overused Irish blessing, but overused perhaps for good reason:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

 

Oh yeah, one final charge…call your parents next year at least once a week.

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KO and a Cup of Joe – Thursday Mornings throughout the Summer

Join us for a brief information session to learn about the academic and co-curricular offerings at Kingswood Oxford School during the summer: June 20, 27, July 11, 18, 25, August 1, and 8 at 8:30 a.m. in Roberts Building’s lower lobby. For more information, contact our Admissions Office at (860) 727-5000. What a Difference a Day Makes!