by Matt Dittrich ’12
President, Associated Students of Whitman College
Friday, August 26, 2011
Welcome, Class of 2015! There isn’t glue on your seat. The doors behind you aren’t locked. And if you should arise to leave this moment, I won’t wrestle you. You are not restrained. Yet, our rendezvous at this hall and moment indicates a bond. We are, forever, the Whitman community. Before you flee at the prospect of becoming my eternal relation, let me present the best of tidings: As the newest Whitman class, you have the most to gain from this community. Accordingly, you have the most to give. I’m not referring to tuition (Although, we do still appreciate your money). Our community asks much of you; I offer but the first several requests:
Rather than G.P.A., set your scholarly bottom line in terms of the number of academic collaborations you experience. I recall the horror of the A-; the grade atop my first Encounters paper. It nearly initiated the all-too-common freshman-four-point-o identity crisis. What I didn’t anticipate in my moment of terror was three years of academic partnership with peers and professors that’s honed my abilities, distilled my interests, and contributed to our college’s scholarship. Descartes is dead. Rather than resign to a fire-lit den, I plead – open the door: collaborate. If ever you fear that Calculus II problem set, summon a class-mate, a cup of coffee (or a pot of coffee), and your favorite indie-hipster album. A foreboding assignment can become a lighthearted date. If ever you stare bewildered at a wordless word-document, assemble your section-mates, your notes on The Odyssey, and various toga supplies. Outlining a paper can be an immersion experience. If ever a research project unexpectedly possesses your intellectual being, seek your advisor, your preferred text on existentialism, and above all else, seek our college’s Director of Grants and Fellowships, one of my best friends, Keith Raether (a man we reverently call Earl Gray, for being soothingly warm, subtly reminiscent of British nobility, and innately able to exude color to the bleakest of scholarship applications – I should know). Your research today may prove the foundation of a lifetime’s contribution to humanity. For those of you who, like me, are first-generation college students, I ought to clarify something. Regarding these folks in the front: The amount of material they wear denotes the amount of power they wield. Actually, they’re all quite powerful. With great power comes great ability to positively influence lives. If I ever coax someone into marriage, there is a reason why I’ll invite Bob Withycombe to my wedding. At Whitman, professors are mentors. The ivory tower is a farce. Our microcosm of academia is a multicolored commons. And the people here eagerly anticipate meeting you.
In these four years, cultivate, not just a network, but a family. I challenge, if ever you find yourself alone at meal time, utilize the situation as an excuse to develop new friendships – whether it’s going lunch speed-dating with a fraternity or sorority downtown, or presenting a pudding cup to a lonely professor in Jewitt Dining Hall. If ever you find yourself roommate-less, use the opportunity to gain 20 roommates – whether you organize a moon-lit camping excursion to the Blue Mountains, or a twin-mattress-framed fort in your section lounge. And, if ever you find yourself overwhelmed in the excitement of your new life, find comfort with those who can empathize; the cliché applies: your RA, SA, counselor and professors’ metaphorical doors are always open, and my cell phone is always on – 360-931-2940. Yes, I have unlimited texting. And, as my advisor and fellow bow-tied president, Dr. George Bridges, can attest, Facebook-chat and cross-campus yelping are among my preferred mediums of communication. No residence hall room, nor library sofa, nor fraternity house roof is a home, per se. Our relationships bridge the difference. At this place, build a family. Wherever your family treks, you will assuredly find a home.
Don’t learn for learning’s sake. Learn to change the world. It’s probably not an exaggeration that every assignment which you complete in these four years will indirectly or directly implicate your senior year examinations. As you forge intellectual connections toward senior year, I challenge, forge connections to people beyond the wheat fields. Patiently studying pine tree pollination with your advisor in 2015 could contribute to guaranteeing dry shelter worldwide in 2050. It’s probably not an exaggeration that every relationship which you develop in these four years will impact your life to some degree. As you befriend members of our community, I challenge, attempt to positively impact their lives more than they impact yours. Violently mock-interviewing a friend for a consulting position in 2015 could lead to guaranteeing healthcare worldwide in 2050. It’s probably not an exaggeration that every leadership role you fulfill in these four years will inspire others to lead. As you serve here, I challenge, strive to inspire global change. You, the person in this hall who will be President of ASWC in 2015, could inspire the ascension of another, in this same room, to the presidency of Whitman, the United States, or a yet to be foreseen galactic republic in 2050. I endeavor, but I will fail to impress the following sufficiently: A Whitman bachelor’s degree is hardly just a resume bullet – it’s a mandate to serve.
Appropriately, your journey to this moment and place has most definitely been concerned with evaluating how Whitman can benefit you. Now, as President Kennedy’s proverb follows, you must ask: How can you benefit Whitman? I can reason but one answer: Everything. Our community members, such as Trustees Brad McMurchie and David Nierenberg, have personally modeled to me the good of selfless generosity – generosity which has given us relative resilience through the recession of today and immense expectations for the progress of tomorrow. By their example I ask, in your four years, give as much – as a pupil, relation and leader – as is absolutely possible. Your investment will pay increasing dividends, in perpetuity. In 1944, Ellen Heath stood in my place as the first female president of ASWC; 67 years past, this stage has supported student leaders with identities ranging from African-American to homosexual to Muslim; the etymology of our college’s name has become misleading. Ironically, I may be a “white man.” But, we are a heterogeneous union. Our diversity strengthens our ability to contribute to global progress. Our plurality intensifies our bond. And I must attribute our progress in part to my predecessor, Ellen Heath. After President Bridges assigns your first scholarly task, and we emerge from Cordiner Hall, squinting to orient ourselves in the sunshine of this new year, I hope that you’ll meditate on your 67-year impact. In posterity’s stead, I thank you.