by Elana Congress ’12

Whitman College Baccalaureate
Saturday, May 19, 2012 

A line is a boundary of sorts, a way to mark off two distinct areas. We have physical lines, like the boundary between two teams in capture-the-flag.

Remember the game of capture-the-flag we played during freshman orientation? Anderson and Prentiss versus Jewett, Lyman, and North. That warm August night, when I approached the line dividing the south-of-Boyer team from the north-of-Boyer team, I asked myself, “Can I cross this line safely? If I cross this line to try to steal the flag, will someone from Jewett tag me and send me to jail?”

We also have metaphorical lines, like the line that we will cross tomorrow morning, the line that separates college students from college graduates. Approaching this line, I keep thinking back to that first-year game of capture-the-flag. Is it safe to cross this line? What’s going to happen when I go to the other side? This line marks a difference between “being invested in” and “investing in others.” We move from being students who were invested in by others to graduates who are expected to take what we’ve learned over the past 20-something-years and invest in others, “make a difference”, “change the world” – or at least not squander our college education.

Investments are not just of the monetary type, although we do certainly invest money in people. We can also invest time, energy, and love.

When I was four years old, my dad taught me how to make oatmeal. Now, I eat oatmeal on a daily basis, and throughout my years on the meal plan, I tried to share my love of oatmeal with my peers. There you go! A simple example of the line in action – my dad invested in me by teaching me how to make oatmeal, and now I am able to invest in others by endowing them with the skills to start their morning with four grams of fiber and five grams of protein.

We can also invest in ourselves; we can teach ourselves to make oatmeal. We can take time to relax, go for a walk, continue to learn even when grades no longer exist; these are just a few ways we invest in ourselves. We make a commitment to our futures and to our potential. We start to develop into the people we want to become, realizing that we are our own best assets.

This weekend, we celebrate the culmination of the greatest investment thus far: the investment of a college education. And with this celebration we start to think seriously about how we can use our education to invest in others, how we, as college-graduates-to-be, can give back.

Okay, well what am I supposed to give? What do I have to give? How can I possibly make a difference?

I don’t know about you, but I find these questions kind of stressful to consider. I just have this fear – what if I end up selling buttons? Is that anything meaningful? I won’t be stopping global warming, I won’t be ending hunger, I won’t be promoting educational equality. I’ll just be selling buttons.

So maybe we won’t all become doctors, or start humanitarian not-for-profits, or do those jobs that we typically consider meaningful, and that’s okay; we can do something meaningful in every moment. It’s not just about impacting the world through our professions; it’s about impacting other people in our daily interactions. It’s about writing a kind note to an old friend. It’s about stopping in the middle of Ankeny, when you’re late to your 1 PM class, and giving someone a hug. It’s about teaching your grandma how to use the computer without getting frustrated. It’s the small gestures.

When we receive our diplomas tomorrow morning, will we have crossed the line for good? Will we shift to the active, investing in others position forever, never to be invested in again? I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I personally like to imagine moving back and forth over the line as a constant activity; in part because it’s kind of funny for me to imagine everyone in here jumping back and forth over an invisible line, but also because our relationships with others are incredibly dynamic. And I think that ideally, when we put this theory of the line into practice in our everyday lives, we start to dance: a constant back-and-forth between being invested in and investing in others.

It’s not easy to switch back and forth between being invested in and investing in others. Each position requires a different mindset. With practice, though, we will become more graceful, better able to navigate this dance of giving.

In addition to dancing with grace, we can try to dance with gratitude. Say thank you to those who have invested in you in sustained ways throughout your life, and say thank you to those who gave to you in specific moments, moments that may have seemed inconsequential to the giver but moments that you’ll never forget. Conveniently, anyone who was willing to schlep all the way out to Walla Walla to see you wear a royal blue gown probably invested in you at some point in your life. So say thank-you.

Thank you to my friends and family for your never-ending support. Thank you to the Whitman and greater Walla Walla communities for all you have taught me over the last four years, and for providing a welcoming place for growth. To everyone in attendance today, thank you for listening. And to the Whitman Class of 2012, congratulations. Let’s go out there and dance!