By Seth Bergeson ’10

Commencement Speech, May 23, 2010

Many members of the Class of 2010 remember me from our first meeting in September 2006. For one week, I ran around campus wearing pink running shorts as I campaigned for a Senate seat. Some people were put off by my shorts, others were put off by my enthusiasm, some — I hope — liked my Senate platform, and many were — I firmly believe — seduced by my legs.

For me, those pink shorts were a symbol that I could be a change in the Whitman community in which I had just arrived and was already idealistically planning to improve.

***

Today, I am immensely thankful to have spent four years at Whitman. I feel much like our own, retired Dr. George Ball who, at 95, still has an office in Memorial and believes that coming to Whitman was his “ultimate break” in life. When I visited his office last month, he reflected on his decades at Whitman and explained to me, “There’s nothing I’d like to change in my life.”

I hope I can someday say those words, like Dr. Ball, with complete calm and wisdom.

Last month, my thoughtful mother sent me a note encouraging me through my final papers and thesis revisions. The card had a quotation from E.B. White:

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

I believe that my fellow seniors and I are torn just like White. The world beckons us with rich adventure to explore but also tragic injustices to address.

We have spent four years here being inspired by dedicated faculty, supportive staff, thoughtful books, and passionate students. In the parlance of Whitman, we want “to change the world,” but we’re perplexed by how to do it.

When we were first-year students, senior Daniel Grant and I discussed this desire to change the world. We concluded that change required balancing idealism, pragmatism, and activism, and I’ve returned to this idea throughout my Whitman experience.

Last week, Daniel and I pondered the future again as we stood on the threshold of Whitman and the great wide open. We talked about the importance of balancing idealism, pragmatism, and activism. We also concluded that without taking care of and coming to better understand ourselves, we could not be true agents of change.

And we’ve learned that change is slow and tiring. On an 88-hour bus trip across 1,000 kilometers of Senegal and Mali, I came to better understand a Senegalese saying: “Ndank ndank mooy japp galo ci naay” — “Slowly, slowly the hunter catches the monkey.”

Last spring, I was working with a Sierra Leonean refugee in Dakar. My supervisor at the organization instructed me to tell the pleading refugee that we could not help him, and to give him advice. I was furious and depressed, and felt powerless to help the refugee. I struggled to tell him that we could not help him and struggled even more to offer him advice. Seeing the reality of human rights work, I began to further temper my idealism with pragmatism, but my idealism survived my time at that organization.

Today, I firmly believe that we must use idealism as a guiding force to drive us forward. Dr. Ball told me to go off into the world with “unrelenting optimism,” and I hope that we will. That optimism will carry us through the hard times.

***

The idealism of the Class of 2010 is astounding and there is great power in our numbers. I hope that we can maintain as much of that idealism as possible as we move forward.

Today, I’m still wearing my pink shorts and I still believe in change as I did as a first-year; I am just more realistic with my aims.

I look forward to meeting Daniel in an airport coffee shop in 10 years to discuss the world. We will certainly modify our life philosophies, but I am also sure that we will not stray too far from the lessons that we’ve learned here.

I know that the Class of 2010 will change the world, but we must also remember to enjoy the world along the way.

I thank members of the Whitman community for your support and inspiration.

I thank parents and family here today for your unconditional love.

And I thank the members of the Class of 2010 for four transformational years of camaraderie.

I look forward to hearing of your adventures and meeting you where our paths cross.

I end with two quotations from the great academic, Dr. Seuss. He begins “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” writing:

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

Dr. Seuss concludes:

Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So … get on your way!