May 23, 2010

AMHERST, Mass. — Describing the members of the Class of 2010 as “a stalwart, smart crew of great hearts, great minds,” Amherst College President Anthony W. Marx today encouraged the school’s graduates to advocate in their lives and careers for the common good.

“Use your education to decide how we are to answer the higher calling to fairness, to the good, the just and the true,” he said in his address during the college’s 189th Commencement. “Count on the strength of Amherst in each other, to see you onward supporting each other.”

Marx’s remarks and the exercises themselves capped a weekend of activities celebrating the graduating seniors. The events also included the awarding of eight honorary doctorates to distinguished guests and 431 bachelor of arts degrees to the students, as well as lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorands and photos from the weekend can be found on the college’s Commencement website.)

Beginning his speech by telling the graduates that “we send you forth into interesting times,” Marx went on to outline his belief that the country is currently in what he described as “one of those rare moments of historical transformation.” He cited several examples of similarly pivotal periods in U.S. history (the founding of the country, the Civil War and the Great Depression, among others) and noted that the students are now poised before their own moment—a moment of reckoning for the idea that aggregating the separate and private interests of all will eventually serve the collective good.

Today’s society and the members of the Class of 2010, Marx said, face a broader social question of how to avert harmful inequities that arise when the economy transforms rapidly. Still, imbalances created by events like this decade’s financial crisis can be gifts, he noted, because “they restore our attention to that collective good.”

“Recent years have reminded us how private interests alone neither stem environmental degradation—as we see now so dramatically in the Gulf [of Mexico]—nor ensure health care or financial stability,” he said. In times of turmoil, “the tradition of seeking a broader vision that pulls us together again emerges.”

Using sailing as a metaphor, Marx continued by offering words of encouragement for surmounting the societal and personal challenges that are inevitable in life. Sailing into “strong headwinds,” he explained, requires great training and forethought, but “by your labors and leadership you will also inspire others to move against the currents of fear of change, of self-interest, camouflaged principle, that draw too many people backward. This type of advance requires subtler perceptions and greater agility than when you ride with the advantages of the wind at your back. You will need all of the skills we have tried to impart here, and more.”

“Tacking upwind isn’t easy,” he concluded. “It is a way of redirecting countervailing forces toward a new direction, firmly forward. Take hold of the tiller now. Bring us forward against the headwinds.”

Prior to Marx’s remarks, the graduates heard from Maryam Khan ’10, who was chosen by her classmates to speak at the ceremonies. In a speech that was both humorous and poignant, Khan described life lessons she learned at college, starting with her valiant attempts to manage her life and schoolwork using a planner. “When professors handed out paper topics, I would illegibly scrawl things in my planner, when someone made a dinner plan I would pull out my planner and look conflicted. My plans and lists always failed, however, because I would never pencil real life in.” Personal organization notwithstanding, she said she discovered quite a bit about herself and life during her four years on campus. Among the lessons she learned: “nothing is a given and the truth has to be fought for” and “the best things in life are the small ones.”

Khan ended with an inspirational request for the graduates. “Think back on the lessons you learned here: those lessons in loneliness, in heartache, in love, lessons in your abilities and your limitations. These lessons don’t get [stored] away and can’t be sold to… underclassmen. They are yours to keep. Pencil this into your planner: ‘I made it, May 23, 2010.’ Never scratch it out.”

Following the speeches of Marx and Khan, the college awarded of bachelor of arts degrees to the graduates and honorary degrees to eight distinguished guests. Honorands included South African activist Zackie Achmat, founder of the AIDS/HIV advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign; Joshua M. Epstein ’76, a pioneer in agent-based computational modeling; Walter Dean Myers, author of children’s and young adult literature; Sir Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University and Nobel laureate; advocate Harvey J. Rosenfield ’74, founder of Consumer Watchdog; Mary Jo Salter, an award-winning poet who is also a playwright, lyricist, essayist and reviewer; Dame Marjorie Scardino, CEO of the education and media company Pearson PLC; and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.

Also recognized during the ceremonies were ’81 alumna Christine Noyer Seaver, who received the Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time; and teachers Phil Hockensmith, of Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Mo.; Paula Mark, of Hialeah High School in Hialeah, Fla.; and Paul Tierney, of The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., who were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards after being nominated by graduating seniors. Christopher (Kit) Kaufman ’67 and Carlyn Clement ’77 served as Honorary Marshals 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 Robyn Bahr, of East Meadow, N.Y.

The Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods of Enfield 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 Gina Isabel Rodriguez of Nutley, N.J. Rodriguez also won the Mellon Foundation’s inaugural Senior Thesis Prize, which recognizes work that is not only excellent, but also shows potential for publication. Her thesis is titled Tuesday Today, Tuesday Tomorrow.

For more photos, audio and text of speeches, go to the Commencement website.