2004 Precommencement Address at Saint Louis University

Welcome graduates, grandparents, parents, spouses, children, friends of our graduates, and faculty and staff of Saint Louis University. 

May 14, 2004 . . . 

This date marks a very special day in many ways. 

Today is a special day not only for all of you and for Saint Louis University but, as you will soon see, today is also a special day in the history of the United States.

My message today is about discovery and adventure, finding and following your passion, and responsibility.

Today we celebrate the commencement of a new beginning for you, the 2004 graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences at SLU.  It was four years ago, for most of you, that you embarked on a new adventure – transitioning to becoming “a college student.”  Because you did not fully realize at that time what being “a college student” really involved, this transition likely represented a major life change.  However, you were up for the challenge of this new adventure and the discovery of a new and unique pathway of your life.  While this four year process of learning and changing may at times have seemed endless for you, especially some nights and weekends before some exams or papers were due, in the geological history of your life you will soon find that it was really a very short period.  Upon reflection, these college years have undoubtedly been a time of emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth.  This, to some, encapsulates an educational transformation of the whole person.  However, this transformation does not end today with your achievement of graduation from SLU!  The philosophy of the educational experience at SLU is one where “knowledge touches lives”.  I hope that you will remember this throughout your life as you ponder your sense of responsibility to yourself, society, and our planet Earth. 

The underpinnings of the Jesuit educational odyssey have been formulated over hundreds of years to provide you with an effective and comprehensive experience so that you can live out rich and fulfilling lives. Personal growth is a life-long process.  The personal and now transformed experiences you brought with you to SLU are the essential foundation and ingredients that you will use in living out or seeking your passion in life.

What is your passion? Hopefully, your journey over the last four years has helped you formulate your life-long passion and that passion will lead you to now embark upon another voyage of discovery.  Finding and following your passion in life is critical and essential to your mental and physical well being.  Follow your passion in life. Figure out what is most fun and meaningful for you and follow your it; don't give up and you will be incredibly happy and incredibly successful for the rest of your life. If your passion is education, then be an educator. If your passion is to be a writer, then be a writer. If your passion is to be a physician, then be a physician. If your passion is to be a scientist then be a scientist.  The one mistake that we can all make in life is pursuing a life-long career or ambition because someone else wanted it!  YOU have to want it!  In finding and pursing your passion you need to explore, you will need to take some risks, you will need to meet new people and go to new places.  This is not unlike what you just experienced as a college students.  You are up for the challenge of this voyage of discovery.  Explore the riches of different cultures, different perceptions of thought, and of different parts of our planet, armed with the broad knowledge that you have acquired in your experiences at SLU. These experiences will also help you to better formulate in your own minds what it means to be good stewards of our planet and the diversity of life unique to our planet.  Find and follow your passion in life.

I transitioned to SLU in the summer of 2001, after being in higher education for 30+ years.  I am absolutely confident that you are among the most blessed in our nation’s educational system because of the experiences that you have had at SLU while pursing a degree in the College of Arts and Sciences. Among other reasons, I wanted to be part of the SLU community because of what is encapsulated in the educational system that you have just experienced.  It is one of the finest in the world.  If you don’t already know this, you will come to find that this will be validated as you transition into the next stage of your life-long career, as you pursue your own passion. 

You are a special group of graduates in another way.  Your voyage ahead is metaphorically similar to another great experience that we celebrate today in the history of our country. 

Exactly 200 years ago from today a voyage of discovery was launched from the banks of the Mississippi River at Fort Wood or the area near Wood River, Illinois. As you may know, this Odyssey had as its beginning the famous Louisiana Purchase. Two individuals, both with a great passion for life, desire for discovery, and motivation to expand our culture, Meriwether Lewis (30) and William Clark (34), traveled by boat (without the aid of motors) with roughly 40 other people up the Missouri River to explore new areas and cultures. 

The leaders of this expedition were people not unlike you.  They were broadly trained, had a desire to learn, sought out challenges, were willing to take risks to further their understanding of being, were committed to their charge, and were passionate about what they were about and their mission.  They, like you, were dedicated discovers of truth, were responsible citizens of an emerging new world, and left a long-standing mark on the history of the free world. 

Although largely unrealized during his lifetime, Meriwether Lewis' accomplishments were numerous, and they made an enormous impact on our country’s perceptions and knowledge of the West. Clark’s contributed significantly to American Indian diplomacy, which occupied a large portion of the remainder of his career. Blending fairness, honesty and strength with patience, respect and understanding, Clark recognized the personal dignity of American Indians, honoring their cultures and religious beliefs.  All of these are attributes that made these people and others of this famous and perilous voyage so noteworthy in our society. 

Another equally famous person forming an integral part of this expedition was Sacagawea, a young Shoshoni Indian woman that most of you know as appearing on the golden colored US Dollar.  Sacagawea and this adventure are also famous in the history of SLU.  One day during the expedition Lewis and Clark were approached by a French-Canadian trader named Touissant Charbonneau, the husband of Sacagawea, who asked that they be able to participate in the expedition as guides and interpreters. Their participation in this expedition turned out to be crucial to the success of the journey and in our appreciation of cultural world history.  Interestingly, in February 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a baby boy, known as "Pomp" to the members of the Expedition.  Pomp, or Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, returned to the St Louis area following the expedition where he spent part of this early life and attended St. Louis College in the early 1820’s – the forerunner to Saint Louis University.  Thus, he, a SLU graduate, along with his mother are some of the few to occur on US currency! You can see him in the papoose on Sacagawea’s back.

So, on this historic day, May 14, 2004, you embark on your adventure.  In your voyage to find your passion or pursue your passion in life you may travel to unfamiliar lands and societies, experience diverse cultural situations, encounter hurdles, currents, or waterfalls that may impede your progress, and engage in other quests like those of the now famous Lewis and Clark expedition with which you share this famous launching date. While I don’t anticipate your future expeditions will necessarily entail smoking Pipes of Peace or exchanging medals of Peace as Lewis and Clark did, you will experience similar cultural and linguistic opportunities and experiences, situations requiring your leadership abilities, occasions for spiritual and ethical reflection and action, and instances where you will perceive things as barriers to your progress.  Draw upon your breadth of experiences that you have gained throughout your education at SLU --- just as Lewis and Clark, and Sacagawea, had to draw upon their broad experiences in their voyage of discovery of a new world.

As graduates of SLU you have the essential ingredients and foundation through your spirituality, your families and your education to be responsible citizens and leaders of our communities and the world.  We entrust our future and the future of our planet to you; we look to you for wise stewardship and understanding.  Our cultures, our societies, our ecosystems, and our biodiversity need the leadership and vision that you all possess.  Make your mark on society, pursue your passion in life, and continue in the great tradition of exploration that embarked 200 years ago today seeking new knowledge, embracing cultural diversity, and facing sometimes what appears to be insurmountable challenges.  At the same time realize that you are responsible for making informed decisions about the future of our society and the well-being of our planet Earth. You are our leaders of the future.

Fish illustrations by Joseph R. Tomelleri and used with permission.