College graduation is a turning point, a time to reflect on the past and prepare to make a leap of faith into an unknown future.
At Oregon State University’s 150th commencement ceremony Saturday morning, a number of speakers took the opportunity to touch on the institution’s past while advising the latest graduating class on how best to approach the future.
President Ed Ray, in a nod to the university’s founding in 1868, began his remarks by acknowledging that the campus was built on the ancestral lands of the Marys River Band of Kalapuya Indians, who were forcibly removed from the area after the signing of an 1855 treaty.
He also called attention to how far the university has come in the century and a half from its first graduating class in 1870, which consisted of three people (two men and a woman), to the Class of 2019, which boasted a record 7,202 graduates.
Nearly 4,200 of those graduates, dressed in their academic regalia, were seated on the field at OSU’s Reser Stadium under sunny skies to receive their degrees on Saturday.
The official attendance estimate was 27,500 to 29,000, making it the second-largest crowd ever to attend commencement at Oregon State. (The record, estimated at 33,000, was set when first lady Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker in 2012.)
Rani Borkar, the chair of OSU’s Board of Trustees, called the university’s 150th commencement “an incredible milestone for this hallowed institution” and advised the graduating class to take stock of who they’ve become during their time at the university before taking the plunge into the world of work.
“It is important to know what you believe in, your self-identity and your value system,” she said from the podium.
“These are the foundations of a purposeful life and your anchors in a changing world.”
OSU distinguished professor Jane Lubchenco, a world-renowned marine ecologist and widely respected expert on climate change and the ocean, gave this year’s commencement address.
She congratulated the students on earning their degrees and assured them that their OSU educations have prepared them to succeed in life.
As an example, she cited how her own education had readied her for the challenge of taking on high-level roles in the federal government, first as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then as the State Department’s first science envoy for the ocean.
By the time she arrived in Washington, D.C., she joked, “I already knew how to swim with sharks.”
The biggest challenge they will face, Lubchenco told the graduates, is their rapidly changing world.
“Make no mistake: This means the world is increasingly hard to predict and full of surprises,” she said.
“Change is upon us. Change has become a defining feature of our world.”
With that in mind, Lubchenco offered three guiding principles to make it easier to navigate an unpredictable future: Embrace change. Nurture yourself, your community and nature. And take charge by taking action.
Lubchenco acknowledged that the pace of change can seem overwhelming, but said there is no point in ignoring it or trying to hold it back. Instead, she urged the graduates to take a systems approach to global problems such as climate change and find ways to tackle them head-on.
For inspiration, she cited a quote by John W. Gardner, secretary of health, education and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, who said, “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”
She asked the students to adopt a nurturing attitude, not only toward themselves and their families but toward their communities and the natural world.
“Our planet is out of balance, but it’s not too late to transition to more sustainable practices and policies,” Lubchenco said.
“Take heart that there are good and encouraging changes underway.”
Finally, she exhorted the students to take charge of their own future.
“We often forget that each one of us has the power to do something,” she said.
As an example, she pointed to Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old girl who launched a global wave of teen climate activism with her lonely vigil outside the Swedish Parliament.
“This is just the beginning,” Lubchenco said. “Youth will lead. You will lead.”
She asked the graduates to inform themselves about climate change, to talk about the issue with others in their lives, and to express their convictions at the ballot box.
“We invite you to take your place in shaping the world. In fact, we are relying on you to do just that,” she said.
“You have worked hard for your degree,” she added. “Now go out and use it. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’”
Both Lubchenco and Pat Reser, the former chair of the OSU Board of Trustees and, with her late husband, Al, one of the university’s most generous financial supporters, received honorary doctorates during the ceremony.
In addition to earning their academic degrees, 35 graduates who completed the ROTC program also earned their commissions as junior officers in the U.S. armed forces. As they stood to recite their oaths of office, they received a standing ovation from the audience.
There were cheers as well for those receiving master’s and doctoral degrees, but the loudest ovation of the day was reserved for the moment when President Ray invited several thousand graduates receiving bachelor’s degrees to move their tassels to the left side of their mortarboards.
Ray concluded his remarks with what has become his traditional sendoff to each year’s graduating class: “I wish each and every one of you a wonderful life enriched by honorable service.”