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Darren Walker to Graduates: Lead the Way Forward With Empathy, Courage, Compassion


In his address at Hamilton’s commencement, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urged graduates to embrace history – good and bad – and lead the way forward with empathy, courage, and compassion. [Watch full speech]

Walker gave the address at Hamilton’s commencement on Sunday, May 20, in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House where 477 students received bachelor’s degrees. He was awarded an honorary degree, along with Nan Aron, founder of Alliance for Justice; Hamilton life trustee John Rice ’78, former vice chairman of General Electric; and Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the think tank New America.

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The Class of 2018 valedictorian was Natalie Poremba, an environmental studies major from Chesterland, Ohio. Salutatorian was Rebekah J. Brown, a creative writing and mathematics double major from Coleman, Okla.

2018 Commencement facts

Speaker: Ford Foundation President Darren Walker

Ceremony: Hamilton's 206th

Degrees Awarded: 477 Bachelor of Arts

Valedictorian: Natalie Poremba (Chesterland, Ohio) Environmental studies major

Salutatorian: Rebekah J. Brown (Coleman, Okla.) Creative Writing and Mathematics double major

Summa cum laude graduates: 24

Magna cum laude: 48

Cum laude graduates: 47

Phi Beta Kappa: 49

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Also speaking at Commencement was Marquis Palmer, of Utica, N.Y, recipient of The James Soper Merrill Prize as selected by faculty, and class speaker Eleni Neyland of Boxborough, Mass., chosen by her classmates.

Walker began his remarks by recognizing Hamilton’s motto, “Know Thyself.” He said it “must also mean knowing your history -- how this place shapes who you are today. We draw on our country’s history for a shared identity and ideas, but this same history continues to express itself in and through our nation’s toughest challenges,” said Walker.

He maintained that our history is not only the reason we believe that all are created equal’ but also why we have vast inequalities in our society today. Thus, he said,knowing our history will help us ensure that we move forward and together, rather than backward and apart.”

Walker talked about his recent visit to the new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., calling them a means of “excavating an important part of American narrative and ensuring that we do not forget the hardest parts of our history.” He described the visit as “an immersion in pain – in grief, and trauma, and dehumanizing cruelty. But in a strange way it was also liberating,” he said, adding that he came away “with a renewed sense of hope.”

Darren Walker
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker
Photo: Adam J. Brockway

Walker urged graduates to “be courageous in your pursuit of our common humanity,” and “That you ‘know thyself’ and the gifts bestowed unto you—and that you can reach out to others and build bridges of understanding, even and especially when it’s uncomfortable.”

He cited examples of empathy and courage, recalling a visit to San Quentin prison with philanthropist and arts patron Agnes Gund, who he called “an unlikely champion of criminal-justice reform.

 “Aggie is passionate about art, but she is also about passionate about justice,” Walker said, “so she did what any good philanthropist would do and sold one of her prized works of art for the astounding sum of $150 million, and took the proceeds to establish the Art for Justice Fund, which is committed to ending the scourge of mass incarceration in America.”  

Walker said their San Quentin tour guide “was a man whose life could not have been more different from hers. He was black, convicted at age 16, now serving 35 years to life. …  As they talked—Aggie in a practical down vest, her tour guide in a jacket labeled ‘California Corrections prisoner’—I felt sadness, and I felt hope. These two people, with such vastly different lives, were standing shoulder to shoulder and walking hand in hand.

“Empathy and courage make that experience possible,” Walker said.

He mentioned other examples, such as at Hamilton, when 100 faculty, staff, and alumni signed a petition to make the school a Sanctuary for DREAMers, and President Wippman pledged that Hamilton would protect information about immigration status.

Walker acknowledged that the Class of 2018 can’t rewrite this nation’s history.

“But as you leave here today, I do ask that you write the next great chapter of world history in a way that reflects your courage and your empathy,” Walker said. “Because, if recent history is any indication, it will be your generation that has the courage and empathy to make sure all people, regardless of citizenship status, feel safe and able to succeed.

Walker concluded with a message of optimism.  “It will be your generation that has the courage to root out systemic racism and sexism and inequality of all kinds, and the empathy to heal society’s oldest wounds.

“It will be all of you who have the courage to face the painful truths, and the empathy to embrace others because of our differences and our common identity and humanity.

“It will be you and your generation that has the strength to bring people together to build bridges not walls, and forge a way forward.

“For this reason—because of you—my faith in a better future has never been stronger,” Walker said. “And because you come from Hamilton, I know you are up to the task.”   

Eleni Neyland '18
Class of 2018 speaker Eleni Neyland. Photo: Adam J. Brockway  Watch Speech

Class speaker Eleni Neyland, in contemplating the common threads of the Hamilton experience recalled the required first-year swim test. “It reminded me of a great piece of advice I once received: when presented the choice, always go swimming.

“Now the advice was excellent, but it isn’t quite right for this group of passionate and proactive Hamilton graduates. Instead, I entreat you the following: find the biggest, scariest swimming pool you can, and jump in,” Neyland said.

“Strange as it sounds, that’s exactly what we’ve done for the past four years. We went from limping through introductory writing intensives to crushing theses, from joining a sports team or a club like HAVOC to leading it, from living in this community to engaging it as an orientation leader or volunteer, we went from identifying problems to solving them.

“And it is through these challenges that Hamilton has become an inalienable part of who we are,” Neyland said. “….Every one of our moments at Hamilton—the high and the low, the life altering and the utterly mundane—have embedded themselves in how we act and think.

“We are incredibly lucky to be here. And as such, we owe a debt to the world to be our best selves,” she said, recalling John F. Kennedy’s words: ‘For those to whom much is given, much is required.’

“We must keep seeking out greater challenges, because when we finally feel like we’ve risen to a position from which we can change the world for the better, we’ll look back and realize- that through all the good work we did along the way- we already have,” Neyland said.

“But most of all, if ever we’re standing at the water’s edge, unsure of whether we should jump, unsure of whether we’d sink or swim, may we remember to look at our Hamilton College diplomas. Because if that diploma, the one you’re holding in your hand right now, the one that will soon be hanging on a wall or shoved in a drawer, if that diploma means anything, it means that we passed the swim test,” Neyland concluded.

Marquis Palmer '18
Marquis Palmer ’18, recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize and Watson Fellowship. Watch Speech

James Soper Merrill recipient Marquis Palmer spoke about his intellectual journey at Hamilton, symbolized by his daily walk up College Hill Road from Wertimer residence hall. He called his educational journey a time “not only of knowing myself, but of becoming myself.”

Palmer said that during his time at Hamilton, he began to gain clarity. “Who I was and who I wanted to be were far from the same thing, so I had some climbing to do. I strived to become a better version of myself.

“I’ve climbed toward a version of myself that values a form of justice that permeates across socially constructed boundaries of race, nationhood, class, gender, and sexuality; meaningful engagement over opportunistic professionalism; inclusive collectivism over self-interested individualism; a fallible, open quest for wisdom over egoistic intellectualism; and authenticity over whatever the world around us tries to pressure me to become.

Palmer urged his classmates to seek meaningful engagement, a quest for wisdom, and authenticity. “Will you choose to trek on up from the steep trenches of the worst of who you are and to strive upward toward a version of yourself who you wish to be?

“Or, to put it how it was put to me freshman year: Who will you become?,” Palmer asked in conclusion.

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