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A turn of the tassel, and off they go

Commencement speakers exhort graduates to live as global citizens and to maintain 'quickness of sympathy.'

By Compiled by Elizabeth Armstrong / June 10, 2003

Anna Quindlen

Novelist, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.

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I can predict, with what I think is considerable accuracy, this about the century to come:

It will be remarkable because its history will be shaped and written by a group of what promise to be truly remarkable human beings. You're what demographers named the millennials, born between 1975 and 1994, 70 million strong, the biggest bump in our national line graph since the baby boomers. For my money you are a great bunch.

That's not the conventional wisdom about your generation, if you read newspapers and magazines. It's littered with negatives. The younger members are said to be spoiled, overindulged by guilty working parents, powered by the timpani of medication and video games. The teenagers are associated in the public mind with lewd music, foul mouths, and one school shooting after another.

Born after Watergate, Woodstock, and Vietnam; heirs to the microchip and the cathode ray tube; under pressure from parents who are high achievers or wish they had been; in a world in which seemingly endless choices, good and bad, swirl like flakes in a snow globe; you live a life that the one-size-fits-all generations before you can scarcely imagine.

The dutiful son has a pierced tongue, the student government president dresses like Morticia Addams. Where once we could identify who was who by the college, the color, the crewneck sweater, now the lines of identity are constantly blurred. I suspect that you're going to need this spirit of individual inquiry and self-confidence as you grow along with this country.

Samuel Butler once said, "Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along." Look in the mirror tonight. Who is that man? Who is that woman? She is the work of your life. He is its greatest glory.

So pick up your violin and lift your bow and play, play your heart out, live well, because you are our role models.

John Herrington

NASA astronaut
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City

I went to college in 1976 not knowing what I wanted to do or what I was going to study. I ended up learning how to rock climb and spent a good portion of my time in the mountains. As a result, I earned two Ds my freshman year of college and they kicked me out the door.

It wasn't because I wasn't intelligent - it was because I wasn't motivated.

That year I was out of college I worked for an engineering firm. My job was to hang off canyon walls and hold a prism as part of a survey crew. If you know point A to point B, and how long it takes to get there, you know the distance. You know the angles, you know the rises to run. You know trigonometry. I was learning trig on the side of a rock from folks outdoors.

The fellow I worked for took maybe 30 minutes to make a difference in my life. He said, "What are you going to do with your life?" Let's see, I'm making $4 an hour, room and board paid, living in the mountains, skiing on weekends. What more could [I] want? And he said, "You need to go back to school."

Everybody here has somebody they're thinking about who has made a difference. Honor them. Take what you've learned and put that knowledge into practice. Do your very best in whatever field you've chosen. In doing that, you're going to make a difference in this world.

And once you've done some good stuff, you get to return the favor. This world today, right now, is a better place because you're sitting in those chairs and you're getting a degree, because you're going to go out in this world and make a difference.

Meryl Streep

Oscar-winning actress
University of New Hampshire, Durham

I went to school in New Hampshire as one of the first women to integrate Dartmouth College. We were 60 intrepid girls on a campus of 6,000 men. We tried to lead them, gently, toward a difficult idea - that women are valuable to a university.

Your graduation class of nearly 3,000 is almost 2-to-1 women, and your school is not an anomaly. This imbalance, to differing degrees, is replicated at colleges and universities around the country.