President Spar, Prepared Remarks

Good afternoon.  And congratulations.

It is an honor to be with you all today, and a bittersweet pleasure to send you off into that adventure known as life.

This is the season when graduates like you are repeatedly told to follow your passion and pursue your dreams; a time when graduates across the country listen to extraordinary people like those on this stage, and hear stories of their work, and their commitment and their awe-inspiring goals. 

It is a time when we want to be mesmerized by the Samantha Powers, and Simi Lintons, and Nadia Lopezes, and Diana Nyads of the world, and want to imagine our paths unfolding along with theirs.

Many of you, I know, in this audience and in this graduating class, are deeply inspired by the women you see before you today – and indeed by the women whom you have seen around you throughout your time at Barnard; the women whose names you first cheered on that projector screen in LeFrak on your very first night on campus: Anna Quindlen, Twyla Tharp, Zora Neal Hurston, and the late, oh-so-very-great Joan Rivers. 

But some of you, I suspect, are also a little bit scared about daring to believe that you will necessarily follow along these paths of greatness.

In your moments of doubt or contemplation you may worry that you’re somehow going to disappoint those folks in the back rows who got you here.  That you may not leave campus on Wednesday and fly directly and immediately into a position where you can simultaneously indulge your creative passions and make the world a better place.

And that’s okay.  Because – if she will excuse me a brief indiscretion – not even Samantha Powers was Samantha Powers on the day she graduated.

It takes time, and luck, and usually a fair number of wrong turns along the way.  And sometimes that magic you dreamt of never quite happens – and that’s okay too.

Many years ago, I got into an argument with one of my closest friends.  We were both quite young at the time, energetic and idealistic, and we were trying to figure out how we could best use our talents to change the world.

My friend argued for an all-encompassing, no holds-barred approach.  He wanted to found organizations, push for change, and lead a life of activism.  I was advocating for a more incremental style, arguing that truly impactful moves were unrealistic for people so young, and that fighting for radical change often proves either ephemeral or disastrous. Better, I contended, to climb slowly up the hierarchy than to aim to topple it from the outset; to subvert rather than attack.

It’s an argument that has stayed with me, and occasionally haunted me, ever since. 

  • Is it better, I still wonder, to devote your life and energies to the major struggles around you, or to chip away at smaller causes? 
  • Is it better to fight the existential battles, even if their solutions are distant and unlikely, or to concentrate closer to home, where the chances for success – for small wins and random acts of kindness – are greater and more tangible?

At moments like this – when we stand in fancy halls and honor extraordinary people – it’s easy to believe that the only way to affect change in the world is to think big; to strive for the most audacious solutions and fight the most important fights.  And the world needs people of passion to do exactly that. 

But the world also needs the quieter types; the introverts; the ones who may choose to address the smaller but urgent problems that surround them:   a man who needs a coat.  A child who needs a home.  A friend who needs a shoulder to cry on.

These aren’t causes, per se, and they rarely make headlines.  But a life composed of simple kindnesses carries a power of its own – a power that changes, not the world perhaps, but that corner of the world that each of us inhabits.

At this time of the year, there is a book that always becomes a repeat best seller. It’s by Dr. Seuss, and it’s called Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  For those of you who don’t know the book, its basic – charming – message is – and I quote:

You’ll be on your way up!

You’ll be seeing great sights!

You’ll join the high fliers

Who soar to great heights!

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have all the speed.

You’ll pass the whole gang, and you’ll soon take the lead.

Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.

Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

It’s a lovely book. You all should read it.  I would suggest Thursday, ideally, when you’re facing the real world and probably feeling a little bit melancholy.

But there’s another book by the great Dr. Seuss that I would commend to you as well. It’s called Horton Hears a Who and it’s the equally charming story of an elephant who, while sitting around, hears a cry of desperation from a dust speck.  A dust speck that turns out to hold an entire universe; a universe clamoring to be heard, and to be saved.

There is a grandeur, no doubt, in contemplating at this moment the biggest dreams you have; of imagining all the places you’ll go and the wonders you’ll create.  But there is a grace as well, in thinking on a more humble scale, and of remembering Horton, the elephant who saved a world by listening to a whisper.

Over the past four years, it has been my pleasure to get to know many of you, and I know – from experience and history and reputation – that greatness awaits you all.  But you should know, and remember, that greatness comes in many forms and sizes.

As you go out into a world full of both beauty and injustice, some of you will lead the protests.  And some of you will follow.  Some of you will support causes with your blood and sweat and tears, and some of you – more quietly, with less fanfare – will host a fundraiser, or write a book, or take the time to listen and learn about a cause that may initially be foreign to you.

All of these kindnesses – big and small – matter.  And all of you will have countless opportunities to shape your world in many ways, whether through singular acts of bravery or through the countless, quiet, expressions of concern that confront us all each day. 

Your job is not necessarily to save the world in a single swoop, but rather to listen, like Horton, to those who need you, and to build a life of meaning – however you define that. I wish you luck as you venture forth I wish you love

I wish you joy and adventure and the challenges that will test you and make you stronger

I wish you godspeed

And I will miss you