Speech: The James Soper Merrill Prize Recipient

Jacob Sheetz-Willard '12

Video Duration: 5 min. 41 sec.

Download Video: Closed Format: MP4

Friends, what an honor it is to stand before you today at the culmination of our undergraduate journey, and the commencement of the rest of our lives.  When I look back on my four years, I am so thankful for all of those people who inspired me, challenged me, and accepted my talents as well as my shortcomings.  I encourage you today, to think about those individuals in your own life who have made this journey possible.  Were it not for the teachers, mentors, coaches, administrators, employees, and most importantly, our friends and families, we wouldn’t be the people we are today.  This opportunity has truly been a blessing and a privilege.

As you, Hamilton College’s 200th class, prepare to enter the world, recognize also that this privilege comes with responsibilities.  We are called to be stewards of this nation and this planet – politically, socially, and ecologically – and we cannot shirk our obligations.

The need is great, the urgency palpable; we inherit a world full of division and inconsistency.  The banality of hyper-partisan rhetoric masks the severity of the crises we face as a nation and as individuals in this globalized world order.  We have to start asking the tough questions: how can we preserve the ideals of our political institutions while challenging injustice?  Do we have ethical obligations to those marginalized groups that carry the burden of our affluence?  How much is enough?  How much is too much?  How can we reconcile the fibrous roots of tradition with the winds of progress?  I concede that there are no easy answers, but the exigency of the present moment compels us to ask.

Throughout the 20th century, we, as a people, approached questions of this magnitude with calls for innovation, revolution, government action, or political change. But I contend that superstructural solutions will not adequately address the foundational problems that plague our society.  What we need most are not Marshall plans or Manhattan projects, bailouts or Federal legislation; we must look closer to home.  Creating a world that is freer, more equitable, more just, and more tolerant, begins with each one of us.

As members of the millennial generation, we may easily feel disunited, disconnected, and cut-off.  Technological innovation and political centralization have drawn us away from the communal bonds that have formed the bedrock of human identity since time immemorial.  Our reality seems ever fragmented and fractured, oriented towards individual desires and impulses.

What we need now is a bit of humility and a holistic conception of the self to inform our vision of the future.  Our actions have consequences that extend far beyond our own lives.  We cannot afford, therefore, to live as atomized individuals.  As members of a human community, we have the opportunity, as well as the obligation to care for our neighbors, and those less fortunate than ourselves, to promote freedom in all of its manifestations, to ensure the longevity of democratic political institutions, to live conscientiously, and to make ethical choices in our everyday lives

In this room are some of the best and brightest the world has ever seen.  We must use our lives as a model for the world we hope to inhabit.  So have the courage to build community.  Take pleasure in our mutual responsibility to one another.  Realize that differences in language, ethnicity, sexuality, geography, and political persuasion are vital to the health and beauty of every community and polity. Celebrate these differences by cultivating empathy.  Find something to love in everybody, but hold yourself and those around you to a rigorous code of ethics.

I’m optimistic that this liberal education has prepared us to meet these challenges.  Our time at Hamilton has taught us to think critically about the decisions we make in our own lives, and to consider local and global repercussions.  We have learned the value of truth and the importance of honesty.  We have been taught ambition as well as conscientiousness, individual expression as well as commitment to a group.  These are the values that must outweigh the mere earning potential of our degree.

So as I leave you this morning, I charge you to apply these values in your own life and remember how fortunate you have been.  Never forget to thank those people who have made a difference; gratitude and humility go hand in hand.  Focus on the details but never lose sight of the world around you. Be great in the small things.  Plan for the future, but surrender to the present; the world is never more beautiful than right now.  Take a chance and dare to live boldly – this is the only life you get, so make it special.

Class of 2012, congratulations, and enjoy this day.

Thank you.