If I Were Graduation Speaker

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Commencement speakers are typically chosen for their celebrity, accomplishments, and accumulated wisdom. But some graduating seniors might welcome an alternative voice, less remote from their own experiences. Four years out of college at age 26, I feel at once close to this season's graduates and detached enough to reflect.

Most of us in our 20s and early 30s can identify common expectations and anxieties, even as we reject membership in a monolithic "generation." There are timeless desires: a stable livelihood, a happy family and social life, a nation at peace. What's distinctive for my contemporaries is that the route to these goals is less clear, or at least more variable. Higher education no longer guarantees prosperity; divorce and AIDS have altered many people's assumptions about romance, sex, marriage, and family; TV and computers have changed our appetites for entertainment and community.

While we're fortunate to have averted a military draft and to have escaped the cold war, and while we savor the fruits of technological progress, we worry about society's failings - some of which flow from the very technological advances we cherish. We also grapple with deeper public concerns. Social inequality and environmental degradation are among the greatest priorities. Many in the Class of '96 who want to address such problems are likely to be unsure of how to do so.

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Should you devote years of study to obtain a PhD, given the oversupply in many fields? Are the costs of law school worth it if what you want is a career in the public interest? What about politics? Disparaged by voters and plagued by the campaign-finance system, government has little appeal. To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?

It's a question I'm still struggling with. Yet despite moments of angst, I've come to tolerate this uncertainty; it's as much a hallmark of the times as an aspect of young adulthood. I've had three jobs so far: working for a member of Congress, at a media research center, and at a university. None has prepared me for a specific vocation, but together they've exposed me to institutions that play important roles in how our society confronts basic issues. Learning from colleagues and from my own mistakes, I'm gaining a better understanding of what I'd like to "do," if not precisely what I want to "be."

My message to graduates would be one of comfort, conveying (I hope) sound advice and self-rationalization. Shaped by the stories of my friends - in business, academia, law, the nonprofit sector - I would urge the anxious not to despair. Work, like life, is full of contingencies and confusion. It's natural to have just a vague sense of how to approach the future.

Since it's difficult to plan a career in the traditional sense - and because you can benefit from a range of experiences - don't be alarmed if you're not pursuing a particular employment track. Enjoy the freedom to explore. Seize new responsibilities and challenges, and don't fret about whether they lead directly to a lifelong occupation. Instead, try to fuse them with your broader sensibilities and let the future unfold.

You, who through diligence and opportunity earned a college education, are better off than most. You should appreciate your achievements and anticipate that if you are flexible and work hard, you will do all right. Experiment with different solutions to the problems of the nation and planet; you might spend awhile, say, as an on-line entrepreneur and soup-kitchen volunteer. Be sure to register, vote, and participate as a citizen. And if you discover the perfect balance between ambition and idealism, between material need and social virtue, please share the secret.

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