by Ulysses “U.J.” Sofia
William K. and Diana R. Deshler Chair of Astronomy

Baccalaureate speech, May 23, 2009

UJ Sofia

I don't think that students realize how much their Whitman experience mirrors the faculty’s. We, like you, applied to Whitman by submitting essays and transcripts, and going through an interview process. We did whatever we could to make ourselves look good to the college, and we kept our fingers crossed hoping to get in. If we received several offers, then we chose to come to here because it fit best with what we wanted from a school. While at the institution, faculty are constantly learning, exploring, being tested and evolving. And some of us even join fraternities. But there are of course some major differences in our Whitman experiences. For instance, most faculty do not undertake as much self discovery as do students.

Four years ago I was at a dinner for admitted students at one of Admission’s visitors’ days. Without warning, I was asked to speak to the group. I am sure that I was expected to say something inspiring about academics, but instead I encouraged the students to put aside their GPAs in favor of taking classes that they might find more interesting. I further suggested that they come to Whitman and experiment with everything, yes everything, that they could. This was the last time that I was asked to speak extemporaneously to prospectives. But I stick by that advice, and hope that those of you not at the dinner found that path on your own. Your college years should not have been all about academics. The independence of living on your own gave you the freedom to try new things, and hopefully your concurrently developing critical-thinking skills allowed you to determine why many of these things were really bad ideas.

Every year just before graduation, I pull out the Handbook from the graduating class’ first year and look at the photos of the students whom I’ve interacted with. This year, I took the Handbook to the end of the academic year celebration. For those family and friends not familiar with this event, it’s a mix between the Olympics, Mardi Gras, and a Spencer Tunick photo. Based on my brief observations and conversations that evening, I do believe that most of you found that path of experimentation and self discovery while you were here.

Did you come in pre-med but are leaving with a philosophy degree? Did you come in a Baptist but are leaving a Buddhist? Did you come in straight but are leaving gay? Did you come in a capitalist but are leaving a socialist? Did you come in either conforming or rebelling but are leaving with a self-defined morality? If you answered yes to any of these, or could answer yes to the myriad similar questions, then you have succeeded in that important but rarely discussed part of your education where you figure out who you are and why.

Another major difference in the Whitman experiences of students and faculty is the reasons that we leave. You are moving on to take the next steps of your professional lives, whereas faculty generally leave in order to retire. That’s not the case for me. This is my last semester at Whitman, and as is true for many of you, my departure is the result of a set of circumstances that make it time to go rather than a choice to leave.

I accompanied a group of Whitman students to New York this spring. We heard from several alumni that their current success is the result of choosing the unfamiliar path at different points in their careers. And they credited Whitman with giving them the skills to adapt. So as we move on to new challenges in the next months, we should recognize that change is good, and feel secure that we are well prepared to navigate the unknown ahead. These are things that I am constantly reminding myself of these days, so I’m right there with you if you are nervously excited about the future. As a result, I feel much more like a graduating student this weekend than I do a faculty member. I’ve even joined the Facebook group for Whitman College Alumni in Washington, D.C. So even though I'll be sitting with the faculty at the commencement ceremonies tomorrow, my heart will be across the aisle in the student section with you.

And as a final comment on your college experience: Have you ever wondered about the improbability of your excellent Whitman education? You came to Walla Walla to learn about global ideas. You were prepared for the “real world” by professors who can’t be fired. Most of the campus construction that you endured was to improve athletic facilities. And the education process is deemed successful when the entering 18 year old who knows everything graduates four years later knowing nothing (although questioning everything). We are indeed part of an amazing institution here.