In spring 2012, I was invited by the graduating seniors of Grinnell College, where I worked at the time, to be one of two faculty/staff speakers at the Baccalaureate ceremony during commencement weekend. Below are the text of my comments. For context, I was introduced by Wadzanai Motsi, and spoke before Prof. Kesho Scott, both of whom I referenced in my remarks.
Thank you for that generous introduction, future Zimbabwean Prime Minister Motsi.
I need to start today with a heartfelt thank you to the class of 2012 for inviting me to speak at your Baccalaureate. And though I am nervous as I do so, any pressure I feel in this moment is greatly relieved by knowing that I am essentially just Kesho’s opening act, and that none of you will remember anything that I’ve said after she’s done.
I majored in history at Grinnell, so when I think about what I want to tell you about how to approach your future, my head and my heart instinctively turn to the past. Conveniently, the man who was arguably Grinnell’s most important alum, Harry Hopkins, graduated exactly 100 years before you, in 1912; in fact, he would have sat in these same pews at his own Baccalaureate.
Hopkins is celebrated as FDR’s right-hand man and as “The Architect of the New Deal.” In 1938, FDR appointed Hopkins as Secretary of Commerce. Let me repeat that for emphasis: in 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression, Harry Hopkins – a history major whose career before going to DC was in the field of social work – was named Secretary of Commerce. It is unlikely that any of you will ever face a more daunting task in your career than Hopkins faced at that moment. Well, except future Zimbabwean Prime Minister Motsi.
In thinking about his future at that moment, Hopkins might have been excused for being somewhere on the scale between “tizzy” and “panic” that I have seen on many of your faces in my office this year. But instead he was remarkably calm about his new job. Shortly after taking office, Hopkins wrote a short letter to two professors at Grinnell. The letter is now in the college archives; in fact, we have copies of it that we will hand out to the seniors as you exit Herrick Chapel today as a tangible reminder that someone other than Kesho Scott spoke at your Baccalaureate.
In this letter, Hopkins wrote: “I am still a little vague about what I am supposed to do but I presume I shall catch on soon.”
Let me repeat that: “I am still a little vague about what I am supposed to do but I presume I shall catch on soon.”
Perhaps you empathize with the first part of that sentence. You’re heading out of this comfortable space, this home in which you have spent the last four years, into what many of you seem to think is an entirely new landscape: The Real World. Capital T, capital R, capital W. Whether it’s because you are moving to a new city, starting a new job, figuring out graduate school, joining Teach For America, or because you have no idea where you’re going or what comes next, many of you are still a little vague about what you are supposed to do.
The good news, graduates, is that this is not the first time you have been a little vague about what you are supposed to do, and you have built a long track record of catching on soon.
When you first arrived here at Grinnell four years ago, you were really vague about what you were supposed to do. You were vague about what you were supposed to do when you met your roommate for the first time. And during your first Tutorial class. You were completely vague about what to do at your first Harris party. And at your 10th Harris party. Studying abroad. Applying for an internship. How to talk to that cute student across the classroom. Giving your MAP presentation. 100 Days. Ok, you knew far too well what was expected of you at 100 Days. Bad example. But the point is that in all of these situations, you caught on soon. In fact, your last four years have been a study not only in being a little vague about what you are supposed to do, but also in catching on soon. I’m certain that, as you leave here this week, you may be vague about what you are supposed to do, but you will catch on soon.
That’s not to say that it is going to happen immediately. Just like catching on to Grinnell, you will need time to catch on to The Real World. Many of you are now entering what I refer to as the “Odyssey Years.” This is a healthy, important, and I would even argue necessary period of time after graduation – for most of you it will be the next two to eight years – when you are catching on and figuring out exactly who and how you want to be in The Real World.
My own Odyssey Years lasted six years. Sitting at my own Baccalaureate, I certainly was more than a little vague about what I was supposed to do. After Grinnell, I completed my teaching certificate, won a scholarship, went to grad school in Connecticut, got married, lived in the middle of the jungle in Suriname for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and taught at a talented and gifted magnet high school in North Carolina. To an outsider, my Odyssey Years may have appeared as aimless wandering. Honestly, it felt that way to me sometimes. But in retrospect, whether or not I knew it or could name it, the choices I made were purposeful and intentional. The key was that at each decision point – grad school, applying for a scholarship, Peace Corps, getting married, teaching – I chose the path that made sense in my head and in my heart. I found opportunities that engaged me intellectually and fed my passions.
Ultimately my Odyssey Years led me to an opportunity that needed someone with teaching skills, a master’s degree, knowledge of scholarship applications, the ability to work with and educate highly motivated students, and Peace Corps experience. But this job didn’t exist when I was a student here. At my Baccalaureate, I could not have been bold enough to have planned this path if I had tried, but yet I found it, by listening to my head and trusting my heart.
In other words, you’re going to catch on soon as long as you listen to your head and your heart. Whatever you do and wherever you go from here, ask if the opportunity or job or graduate program in front of you engages your intellect and passions. If so, go for it. You’re catching on, and it is going to lead you somewhere spectacular that you can’t begin to predict. If not, run away quickly, and find something that does engage your mind and your soul. When you do that, you’ll be fine.
As you leave here this week, following in the 100 year old footsteps of Harry Hopkins, and my much more recent footsteps, and the footsteps of tens of thousands of other Grinnellians over the last 166 years, I can tell you that when we graduated, all of us were feeling a little vague about what we were supposed to do. But we all caught on soon, and you will too.