Baccalaureate Address 2013
May 18, 2013
President Peyton R. Helm
Good evening Class of 2013. Tomorrow’s the big day. Off you’ll go, launched from your Muhlenberg home into the great wide world. Tonight, however, is my opportunity to join the chorus of professors, parents, aunts, uncles, and assorted other so-called “adults” who suddenly seem determined to give you their two cents of advice about life after college. It’s almost as if we think you haven’t really been paying attention for the last four years, but that you’re going to start now, now that we are ready to tell you the really good stuff that we’ve been keeping to ourselves all this time. You’ll soon learn that this “really good stuff” is mostly a bunch of platitudes you could have picked up on your Facebook newsfeed. Except, of course for my remarks this evening, which you will find memorable, invaluable, and profoundly wise. So stick with me as I reflect on your departure from Muhlenberg, the life that lies before you, and how you should navigate its shifting tides and currents. My theme tonight is “home” – how to leave it and how to find it again.
The first time I left home I was bound for Saudi Arabia. I didn’t get there – primarily because I was only four years old and a kindly neighbor returned me to my mother before I reached the end of our block. Don’t ask how I’d even heard of Saudi Arabia when I was four, but I had somehow and I wanted to go there. I left home again thirteen years later to go to College. Four years after that it wasn’t a neighbor but the job market that brought me home again. I lived with my parents for three years before heading off to graduate school. The rent was free, the food was good, and I saved enough to buy a car so I could make another escape. I have no regrets about this interlude - I was a late bloomer and I needed a bit more time in the greenhouse. Since those days, I’ve lived in three or four different “homes” in three different cities. What made these places “home”? We’ll get back to that.
I believe that most of you have been happy to call Muhlenberg “home” for the last few years – even though you knew it was just a four-year stop (well, maybe five) and that you’d be moving on eventually. The conversations I’ve had with many of you, the letters I get from alumni, and the Facebook status updates I read each day have convinced me that whether you live in a dorm room, a MILE house, or an off-campus apartment, this campus has become a “home” and that, while you are eager to get going, you are also sad to leave.
I know that many of you have been wondering, worrying perhaps, about the next place you’ll call home. I can almost hear some of you – theatre majors no doubt – channeling Scarlett O’Hara: “Oh Rhett, Rhett…. Where shall I go? What shall I do?” Frankly my dears, I have given this some serious thought.
About forty-five percent of you will live with your parents for a year or two after graduation according to national averages for college grads (if you weren’t college grads, it would be sixty-five percent).1 Your parents may be appalled by this statistic, or they may be secretly pleased to have you home again for a little while. You will know which reaction they have soon enough when you return home tomorrow night. If your elementary school paintings are still on the fridge and your “student of the week” certificate from fourth grade is still hanging on your bedroom wall – that’s a good sign. If your former bedroom is now a fully equipped home theatre – or occupied by a rent-paying stranger – maybe not so much.
If you are not among this forty-five percent, perhaps you will soon be searching for an apartment with friends or strangers. Then you will move again, and again, and again. Some of these places may be “homes” and some may not. That depends on you, but not on you alone.
This semester, as in many semesters throughout my life, I have enjoyed re-reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with a class of brilliant students. I always seem to find new insights each time I read them, insights inspired by my students’ ideas and reactions to these incredible poems. This year it is the contrast between the two poems that seemed to fascinate my students most. The Iliad is a war poem of course, but more than that, it focuses on the arrogant, short-tempered Achaean warrior Achilles – a man who has consciously, deliberately sacrificed home and family to achieve military glory. Achilles is not a happy man, nor does he bring happiness to others. He is a perfect example of work-life imbalance.
Odysseus, on the other hand, is determined to return to his home and family after distinguishing himself on the battlefield of Troy. He is neither a perfect hero nor a perfect husband, as my students have been quick to note. He sleeps with any attractive female he encounters on his voyages, gets all of his men killed, and loses all of his ships. Nor is Ithaka, his home, any great prize. It’s a small, rocky, not particularly important island. Its economy and government have fallen apart as a result of his protracted absence and neglect. Odysseus bypasses much nicer places and much more tempting options as he struggles to regain his home. Beautiful women, gorgeous palaces, fantastic wealth, easy living, even immortality are offered as temptations on his journey. And, of course, his arrival requires him to do the bloody work of setting his house in order if he is to regain his home and family. But this is the work he chooses. If we wonder why, the only answer that makes sense is because this is where he belongs – and he is smart enough to know it.
Let’s think about what makes a place “home” for each of you. I would suggest that it’s not just where you sleep at night, but where you feel both safe and challenged. A place where you know and are known by others who are close to you – both physically and emotionally. Where a web of mutual obligations and needs binds you and them together. Because you are both challenged and supported, it is a place where you can discover who you are and who you are meant to be. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this task can be difficult and uncomfortable and it will continue for your entire life. Home, by the way, is the only place where you can do this important work.
Here’s something else to remember about “home.” You can have more than one. I’m not talking about collecting condos in Florida or cottages at the Jersey Shore. I mean places where you belong, where your presence is needed and your absence felt. I hope the place you grew up will always be such a home for you. I hope that Muhlenberg will be too. I also hope that each of you creates a new home when you find a spouse, a partner, or a community you never want to leave. Creating a home worthy of the name takes work, patience, and sacrifice (certainly this must be the lesson not only of The Odyssey, but also of The Three Little Pigs and their houses of straw, sticks, and bricks). It means valuing relationships and obligations as much as professional achievements (a lesson Achilles never learned).
In the end, however, when life’s storms come at you – as they inevitably will – it is home where you will find the comfort, security, support, safety and self-knowledge that you need to withstand bad weather.
Muhlenberg – and the friendships you have made here – can always be one of your homes. I see that every fall when alumni return to campus for reunion. I hope to see each of you return as well – that you will stay in touch with the friends you’ve made here and continue to draw strength and nourishment from the roots you have sunk into this place. God bless you, and God Speed you home!