Spring 2011 commencement address given by Dr. Wolff

Dr. David Wolff delivering the commencement address May 7 to the graduating class of 2011

Commencement Address delivered on May 7, 2011 to the graduating class at Black Hills State University by Dr. David Wolff.

President Schallenkamp, members of the platform party, my distinguished colleagues, family members and friends of the graduating class. I wish you all a good morning. And to you, the graduates of 2011, I must go well beyond just saying good morning, I need to say right up front congratulations: job well done. Wow, this is an exciting time, and truly a time to celebrate. Now, if I had my way, I would say that’s enough of this speech, and we would go celebrate. But that’s not how this works. Instead, I am expected to make some profound comments about this day and what your college education means. So I apologize for delaying your celebration.

Nevertheless, let’s talk about your college education. I am sure all of you have seen the banners around campus that say: “transform your life” at BHSU. We are in the business of transforming lives, and during the past 4, 5 or perhaps 6 years, we hopefully have transformed your life. But just how has your life been transformed? Well, today, it is proper for us to reflect upon that transformation.

Now I could stand up here and speculate about transformation, but instead, I did a little research. I took an informal survey of a number of graduating seniors, asking each how their life has been transformed while at BHSU, and I got some very thoughtful responses. Let me just mention a few.

Eric Hoard told me that he learned to ask questions, to challenge his old perspectives, and to find new answers. In the process he says he became a “much stronger, better person.”

Ryan Shippy told me that BHSU gave him the opportunity to discover his passions, which allowed him to set a direction for his life. Ultimately, he gained the confidence that he could do anything he set his mind to.

Crystal Savage told me that BHSU gave her the opportunity to get involved in organizations. In these, she discovered that she could make a difference, and serve as a role model to others. And these experiences allowed her to become a confident woman who is capable of great achievements.

And these are only three responses of the many I received. Then thinking as a historian, I looked these over, did some analysis, and came up with four generalizations as to how your lives may have been transformed. Now this list is not comprehensive, and if I miss how you were transformed, I apologize.

First: At the most fundamental level BHSU provided you with the skills to succeed as a businessperson, or to be the competent, confident, caring teacher the education college wants you to be. Or maybe you gained the background to succeed in graduate school, or to be a success at whatever you try.

Second: In the process of gaining your career skills, you hopefully have been transformed into a life long learner where you realize that there is so much more to learn, that learning should never stop, and that learning can take your life in all kinds of unexpected directions.

Let me digress from my main point to relate a personal story. When I went to college, I really enjoyed the educational experience. My first college degree was in pharmacy, but I also had a strong interest in history. For the 13 years I worked as a pharmacist, I continually read and researched history. In fact my first history article was published while I worked as a pharmacist. Ultimately I decided to do more with history. I quit pharmacy and earned my history degrees. But today I am still not satisfied with what I know. So I continue to read, research and write. I continue to ask questions as Eric Hoard mentioned in his comments. This is life-long learning, and I am sure many of you have come to appreciate that while at BHSU.

A third way your life may have been transformed is in a more personal way. Maybe you met your husband or wife while here, or maybe you had a child while at college. In other words, many of you entered school as your parents’ child, and now you are full-fledged adults. Or if you entered BHSU as a non-traditional student, you probably discovered that you could meet the intellectual challenges, all the while raising a family.

A fourth transformative possibility is that you developed a new relationship with your fellow humans. Perhaps through community service, volunteering, internships, student teaching, or some other kind of involvement, you developed a greater concern for others. Like Crystal Savage, you became a role model.

These are four possibilities as to how you may have been transformed, and as you reflect upon transformation, I am sure you will think of other ways you have changed.

But transformation will not come to an end as you leave BHSU. You will encounter new challenges and new experiences that will be transformative. And hopefully, your time here has given you the skills to deal with these new challenges. But remember as you encounter these challenges, also let our collective history be your guide and inspiration. As historian and filmmaker Ken Burns said: “The past is our greatest teacher.”

Let us look at some examples from our own Black Hills to see how our past is our greatest teacher. Let’s look at those four men carved on Mt. Rushmore, and see what they can teach us.

First is George Washington. Of course, he can teach us much, but one thing that stands out was his commitment to an ideal. He risked everything, his wealth, his family, his home, to fight for American independence. And his civic virtue is all the more impressive when you consider the opportunities he had to take power into his own hands. Most famously, an opportunity came in what is known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. In 1783 several of Washington’s subordinates were planning to stage a coup against the Confederation Congress. At this point Washington could have assumed dictatorial power, but instead he confronted his subordinates and expressed, as he said, his “ horror . . . of the Man who wishes . . . to overturn the liberties of our Country.” By doing this, he held true to his ideals that all legitimate power is derived from the consent of the governed. Washington teaches us to know yourself and hold true to your values.

What can we learn from Jefferson? Above all else, Jefferson was a man of ideas, who believed in addressing a crisis with the written word. He most famously wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he also wrote other memorable documents. When he saw a corrupt state church in Virginia, he drafted a Bill Establishing Religious Freedom. When passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, this act declared the government has no right to dictate religious beliefs. It still stands as a landmark in the history of religious freedom. His writings then could and did transform the nation.

Then there is Lincoln. As we all know, Lincoln held the conviction that this nation could not be dissolved. With all his might, he resisted the secession of the Confederate states. And here this man, who got physically ill at the sight of blood, was willing to watch 630,000 Americans die in order to keep this nation together. But then, when the war was nearly done and he was contemplating reuniting the country, he spoke this line in his Second Inaugural Address: “With Malice Towards None.” He was not about to punish the South, he was not going to prolong the suffering, but he was going to welcome the Southern people back as lost brothers and sisters. Truly a man of great virtue and compassion, and an example for all of us to follow in our time of political discord.

Finally we have Theodore Roosevelt. A great tragedy came to his life in 1884 when his mother and his wife died on the same day in the same house, his wife in child birth. At this moment, Roosevelt, devastated by his losses, hit his lowest low. He wrote this one line in his diary on that day: “The light has gone out of my life.” How then did he recover? He came to the Badlands of northern Dakota Territory and immersed himself in ranch work, and there he overcame his grief, working hard to become a new man. And he was successful. He returned to New York, ready to re-enter the “arena” as he called it, and later he stated that if it had not been for his Western experience/ Western transformation, he would have never become president.

So keep these experiences in mind, keep history in mind, it can teach us much.

And let me close with some final thoughts.

First, let me repeat that you must never close your mind to learning. And related to this, read and continue to read, don’t get complacent in our media driven world.

Second, always respect your fellow humans. In 1963, as the world stepped back from the brink of annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy gave a speech where he said this to the American and Soviet people: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” That crisis had given him a new awareness of humanity. Hopefully you will not need a crisis to know that we are all humans.

And finally, never accept mediocrity; always strive to excel. I trust that we at BHSU have challenged you to do your best. Continue to do your best, always excel, and your transformation will never end.

Congratulations, good luck, and have a great day!