Amherst President Biddy Martin To the Class of 2013: “Hold To Your Desire for Poetry”

Submitted on Thursday, 6/26/2014, at 2:42 PM

May 26, 2013

New Amherst alumni celebrate Commencement (photo by Rob Mattson)

AMHERST, Mass. — Quoting the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Amherst President Biddy Martin today exhorted the graduating members of the Class of 2013 in her annual Commencement address to remain true to their liberal arts educations, and “hold to your desire for thought, hold to your desire for poetry.” The themes of seeing beauty in the everyday via poetry and “putting together a good life with others,” as Martin put it, were echoed in an at-times humorous and poignant speech by Reilly A. Horan, of Darien, Conn., who was chosen by her classmates to deliver the student address during the college’s 192nd Commencement.

Cloudy skies, cool temperatures and the threat of rain failed to dampen spirits during the morning’s exercises on the Main Quad, where families and friends gathered to see 464 students receive their bachelor’s degrees. The event also included the awarding of seven honorary doctorates to distinguished guests and an honorary bachelor of arts degree to one man who cut his Amherst career short with the approach of World War II. Commencement capped a weekend of activities that included lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorees and photos from the weekend can be found on the college’s Commencement website.)

President Biddy Martin addresses the crowd (photo by Jessica Mestre ’10)

“I came here for many of the same reasons you did,” Martin told students, “Because of the strength of Amherst’s faculty, because of the talent of its students and the quality of its educational programs...I came because of its commitment to a student body that reflects the rich diversity of the country, indeed the world. I came, as you did, to contribute in some way to making Amherst even better, and to figuring out what it might mean, here as elsewhere, to take full advantage of the diversity you represent.  I have learned an enormous amount from you on that front, a lot about the challenges we face and the opportunities we need to seize.”

Martin went on provide statistics, accomplishments and insights about this, the second group of students she has had the honor to send off as graduates. She listed, for example, the most common first name for the Class of 2013 (John), the total number of classes taken by the graduates (14,564) and the number of senior theses written (189 by 186 students; three completed two theses). She noted the seniors’ leadership and athletic prowess, as well as their “silliness and mischief, critical elements of a good life.” She recounted memorable conversations and encounters she had with various members of the Class of 2013, and remarked that the quality of the instruction the young people received at their alma mater is rare.

“I hope that [the faculty] have required you to work hard, and that something more has been demanded of you by them and by yourselves than you could have imagined doing when you arrived at Amherst,” she said. “If that’s the case, I think you’ve succeeded.”

She closed with a passage from one of the writer Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” noting that now more than ever, human beings need the kind of connections that are best expressed in poetry. She noted that Amherst students get this: One third of all the graduates took a poetry course at some point in their studies at Amherst.

“Given everything that has occurred this year, I wanted to send you off with a poet’s words about what it means to approach one another, what it means to care about one another,” she explained. “I hope you go forward and succeed at everything you wish to do. I hope you take seriously not only what you build in the way of careers, friendships, relationships, homes, but that you also … hold to your desire for thought. Hold to your desire for poetry.”

She wrapped up her address with the poem “Salute,” by A.R. Ammons: “May happiness / pursue you / catch you / often, and, /should it / lose you, / be waiting / ahead, making / a clearing / for you”.

Reilly Horan ’13 shares some insight (photo by Jessica Mestre ’10)

Prior to Martin’s remarks, the graduates heard from Horan, who talked about the important task of finding happiness in the “day-to-day grind of our existences” after graduating. She described her own quest for contentment during her college years and referenced several comic examples, such as an evening when she showed up to a dinner to which she wasn’t invited—and then realized that no one noticed or cared. “Most of the lessons I’ve learned about happiness at Amherst have to do with how I reconcile myself in a room full of others,” she noted. “This is something we’ll do our whole lives, and it’s a problem I really grappled with here. My big takeaway is this: While I’m dealing with my problems and insecurities and dreams, so are other people. That makes me more in charge of my own happiness than I ever thought I was.  And once I learned that little bit of self-love, I found it far easier to care for others as well.”

Horan also urged the graduates to stop worrying about how they are being evaluated by others and to find a community. “The good stuff comes when you stop frantically looking around while you tread water and realize that you’re already buoyant and just start swimming.” She concluded: “We now have more control over our own happiness than we’ve ever had. Think about what you love and what makes happy, and what community will help you do the things you want to do. I think with that, you’ll find that making yourself happy and making those around you happy are not so distant missions. … And my goodness, I hope when you’re doing all the impressive, incredible things you’ll be doing, that you always have time to laugh. The world will love you for it.”

In addition to Martin and Horan’s speeches, the exercises featured the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to the assembled graduates, as well as an honorary bachelor of arts degree to World War II veteran Arthur J. Ourieff ’45, who truncated his undergraduate career and raced to complete his premedical coursework in the 1940s so that he could enroll in Harvard Medical School as a uniformed Navy seaman. The college also conferred honorary doctorates on seven special guests: Virtuosic guitarist and composer Freddie Bryant ’87, labor activist Madeline Janis ’82, veterans’ advocate Paul Rieckhoff ’98, acclaimed civil rights attorney Barry Scheck, hit songwriter Jim Steinman ’69, former Wellesley College President Diana Chapman Walsh and pioneering AIDS researcher Robert Yarchoan ’71.

What’s more, Alan S. Bernstein and Kent W. Faerber, both members of the college’s Class of 1963, were recognized with the 2013 Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time. Teachers Deborah Hepburn, an English teacher at Clinton Senior High School in Clinton, N.Y.; Larry Klein, a history and social studies teacher at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, Calif.; and Fred Murphy, a history teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy in New York, N.Y., were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards after being nominated by graduating seniors whom they had taught in high school. Richard S. Banfield ’46 served as the honorary marshal for the ceremonies.

The Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, given by the trustees of the college to members of the senior class who have shown by their own determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education, was awarded to Hadassah Masudi Minga of Parktown North, Republic of South Africa, and Nguyen Quang Ha of Evanston, Ill.

The Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods and Charles B. Travis of the Class of 1864, was awarded for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. It went this year to Alex Paul Butensky of Farmington, Conn.

For more photos, audio and text of speeches, go to the Amherst College website the week of May 28.

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