Commencement 2021 Address
Sunday, May 16, 2021
Good evening! Today is a very special day for Wake Forest University and its Class of 2021. It is worth a 21-gun salute, a fireworks extravaganza, and most importantly, now that we are permitted, the warmest embrace of family and friends. For the last 15 months, all of us have lived in the valley of the shadow with the reality of COVID-19 conspiring to rob us of much that is best about a residential college experience. Instead of conversation and engagement, we faced isolation. Instead of coming together for concerts, lectures, and sporting events, we stayed huddled in our rooms. Instead of gathering with friends in close companionship and endless discussion, we were forced to stay to ourselves. And while many of us felt insecurity and fear because of the disease, others came to know the pain of loss as loved ones and friends succumbed to this pestilence among us.
I am so grateful for where we are tonight, together in person, with COVID receding and the vaccine giving us hope for a return to patterns of normal living – which once we took for granted but now relish like the sweet scent that fills the air after a passing storm. COVID may not be fully behind us, but its grip on us has been broken, and tonight, we can celebrate with grateful hearts and renewed hope.
I want to salute you, the Class of 2021, for all that you have done to achieve this milestone – for your diligence amidst adversity, your courage to take on new risks, your patience and goodwill in trying times and changing conditions, and your commitment to each other and to Wake Forest in sustaining this as a viable learning community. I am so proud of you – for your perseverance and grit, your good cheer amidst difficulty, and for your commitment to finish well. You have done a remarkable job, and tonight, we honor and celebrate you.
It is too soon for any of us to know exactly what we have learned over the last 15 months. That will take time. We know we have taken on unexpected challenges, worked through dark nights of soul isolation, and coped with deep frustration at the loss of expectations for what a senior year in college should look like.
But I am confident of one thing: the adversity you have experienced has and will make you a stronger and wiser person. Like gold being refined in a furnace, the trials of this year will work to strengthen your character and make you much more capable of the challenges ahead as you go forth from this place. C. S. Lewis once noted that, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
I am amazed, when I read the stories of notable people, how often trial and adversity steeled them to become who they were.
It was living through the horrors of the trenches in World War I that helped shape the vivid imagination and creative vision of the authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Both Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou had wretched and abusive experiences when they were young. But they turned those experiences into inspiration that led to them becoming life-giving people.
Benjamin Franklin had to drop out of formal schooling after his 10th birthday because his parents couldn’t afford it. That setback only fired his curiosity.
Franklin Roosevelt became paralyzed at 39, but that only stiffened his resolve. Steven Spielberg twice was rejected as a student at USC film school. Jimmy Carter was only admitted to the Naval Academy after three years of trying. And Apple founder Steve Jobs, in a famous commencement address at Stanford, admitted that the best thing that ever happened to him was getting fired from the company he had started because it forced him to rethink many of his assumptions.
My point is that the severe trials you have experienced this year are not just something wasted and lost. You have not been marking time, even if this year was not what you wanted or expected. I would not want to underestimate the pain and disappointment you may have experienced; but neither would I want to underestimate the strength of character that has been forged in these last months. In the long run, over the course of your life, what you have gone through will stand you in good stead. As the English poet William Cowper once wrote: “The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”
There is a saying that “a struggling vine makes the best wine.” The goal of high-end wine grape growers is not to produce the most grapes, but the best grapes. To do that, the vine needs to struggle a little. A vine that has plentiful water and fertilizer produces many grapes, but not better grapes. A vine that encounters some struggle – sparse water and less fertile soil – pours its energy into making fewer, but better grapes. Fewer, high-quality grapes make for rare, richer wine.
We may not see the fruits of the trials we have faced these last few months just yet, but I am certain they will appear. Like a lot of life experience, we may not have chosen this experience or wanted to go through these months, but the lessons we will draw from this time are certain to be abundant. Though it might not be obvious, I hope that in coming years, when you look back at this time, you will see how the trials and experiences fit into place.
Class of 2021, you hold a special place in my heart. Not only do we share the experience of having to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also leave Wake Forest at the same time. While we have been dramatically shaped by the last several months, our Wake Forest experiences have unfolded over several years. I invite you to reflect on all of your years here and take in the whole experience. I imagine it is rich with moments of connection with others and personal growth.
When I think back on the 16 years that Julie and I have been at Wake Forest, I will remember the glistening buildings of Wake Downtown and Farrell Hall and the renewed Reynolds Gym. I will remember new academic programs, the OPCD, efforts in diversity and a magnificent capital campaign. I will remember the Atrium deal, which takes academic medicine from something at risk to a long-term position of strength. I will remember new athletic facilities and exulting in some great athletic wins. And I will remember the people – all firmly committed and invested in the success of the students, mission and future of Wake Forest. I can think of no major accomplishment that has not been launched by committed teams uniting together on behalf of this community.
The most strenuous test of the Wake Forest community has taken place this year. Together, we demonstrated resilience, a strong work ethic, goodwill and abundant grace. Wherever you go and whatever you do, I know you will carry these values forward and be outstanding representatives of Wake Forest University.
Author, advocate and educator Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.”
Today, as you leave Wake Forest, may you see your time here as one that has been refining. May you eagerly look for the lessons that come from the adversity you have faced. And may you consider it joy when you experience trials of many kinds – knowing that testing produces perseverance, and perseverance yields character, and character gives us hope.