Public Speeches

Who Are You Anyway, Baccalaureate Address, May 2014
President Helm's address to the graduating class

Sat, 17 May 2014 20:00:00 EDT

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Baccalaureate Address 2014
May 17, 2014

Good evening, Class of 2014.  Here we are on your last evening as college students; your last night at Muhlenberg.  Savor this moment.  Tomorrow you become alumni and, by nightfall, will have scattered to the four corners of the earth – or at least of New Jersey.

Four years ago I welcomed you with a joke.  Here’s how I began my opening convocation address:

Members of the Class of 2014, you have arrived at Muhlenberg fully formed, intellectually mature, with impeccable values and perfect judgment.  Just kidding!

I then went on to imply, though I must stress on the advice of counsel that I did not contractually guarantee, that your Muhlenberg education would actually help you achieve this ideal state. Well….

Let us be honest with each other.  God isn’t finished with any of us yet – not me, not you, not even – despite what they might like you to believe -- your favorite faculty members.  And if you ever find yourself believing that you have achieved intellectual maturity, impeccable values, and perfect judgment, you will not only be mistaken but you will also be positively insufferable.  In such circumstances I suggest that you immediately have children or seek out the company of teenagers who will set you straight.  This has worked for me over the years and I’m sure it will work for you.

I’m all for self-improvement, but achieving an ideal state is simply not in the cards.  Our lives are research projects where the hypotheses keep changing, the variables are infinite, and new data arrives with every conscious moment (as well as in our dreams while we’re sleeping).  Assumptions of which we are completely confident at one moment may change utterly in the next:  I am a husband, a father, a scholar. I have a job I love. I have many friends. I am in perfect health.  Until…  Until things change.  And then how will I know who I am?  

The same is true for you, and the changes will be more significant than those you make to your Facebook profile.  You will fall in love; you will get dumped; you will win important jobs; you will be fired; you will, perhaps, have children. You will certainly lose loved ones. If you are now physically strong, you may be severely injured.  If you are healthy, you may develop a chronic illness.  If you are proud, you will be humbled.  I realize that this sounds like a downer, but my point is this: these qualities and circumstances may shape you, but you must not let them define you. If you are thoughtful, if you are wise, if you take time to reflect and reevaluate, then you will develop a deeper understanding of who you are and who you are meant to be – at your very core, despite the changes life will inevitably bring.

We human beings are designed to make meaning out of our experiences, and making meaning is tough work.  Four years ago I spoke to you about the tribes with which we seek to define our identities – some relatively mutable and superficial, like those based in political affiliations, food preferences, or admiration for particular television shows.  Other affiliations are more profound, like religious faith, ethnicity, gender identity, and others that deeply shape how we perceive the world and how others perceive us.  Even these facets of our experience, however, are subject to doubt and reappraisal as we seek to make meaning of our lives.

At the beginning of last fall’s Sedehi Project during Orientation, the performers introduced themselves by citing their identities.  “I identify as Latina.”  “I identify as Lesbian.”  “I identify as African American.”  “I identify as….”  Such aspects of identity are formative and profound.  But as important as they are, especially during one’s college years when so much of one’s identity remains to be discovered, such self-identifications are, at best, only partial. You have begun the process of building on these aspects of identity over the past four years.  But you have not finished.

In addition to the other skills, perspectives, friendships, and memories you have accumulated over the past four years, I hope Muhlenberg has equipped you with the determination to continue exploring that combination of values, habits, and beliefs that defines you.  As the ground shifts beneath your feet, as circumstances change, as relationships with those you cherish evolve, your task will always be to deepen your understanding of who you truly are – the essential qualities that will persist no matter what life throws at you.  Doing so will require of you many of the same traits that have enabled you to thrive at Muhlenberg:  an openness to people who are different, a commitment to community, a focus on service to others, an interest in new ideas, a refusal to accept “received wisdom” – knowing that true wisdom cannot be received but must be forged in the crucible of experience.

I hope we have prepared you well for this lifelong research project. I hope you will draw on the friendships you have made, the lessons you have learned, and the insights you have achieved to live a life worthy of your potential.

The world awaits you.  Tomorrow you will go out there and show it what you’ve got.  I know you will make us proud.