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Baccalaureate (non-)address 2017

Each year, as part of the graduation ceremonies, Grinnell hosts an event called Baccalaureate. I’ve gone a few times. As part of Baccalaureate, they ask a faculty member to speak to the graduating class. There are so many excellent speakers among the faculty that I doubt that I’ll ever be asked. I had some hopes for this year, given that half the SGA cabinet are CS majors, but it’s not to be the case [1]. Still, this graduating class is important to me, so I’m writing a speech anyway [2].

Good morning. It is very strange to be on the stage of Herrick Chapel. I am much more accustomed to being in the pews for a concert, speech, or other event. It is wonderful to see all the students who have impacted this campus as well as the families and friends who have supported them.

My first remarks are to the families and friends. While I do not know all your students, I know many of them. Given my experiences with the students that I do know, I can extrapolate to the full class. And I have to say Thank you for sharing them with us for these four years or three years, or four-and-a-half years (thank you ninth semester student teachers) or however long they have been with us. They are awesome people and have made Grinnell a better place. We will miss them.

Now, on to the students. Hi, I’m Sam Rebelsky. Some of you know me well. Some of you know of me. Some of you read my musings. Some of you know one of my sons:, Eldest ’17, Grinnell’s first student with honors in three majors, or Middle ’20, a first-year diver and singer who is more social than Eldest. And some of you have no idea who I am.

Let me begin by saying Congratulations. Grinnell is a challenging institution and you should be proud for having not just surviving, but even thriving (a least once in a while) at this institution.

I have some comments and recommendations for you. Those of you who know me know that I will say some things that you dislike or disagree with. I hope you will listen anyway. I may not be as articulate as Dean Latham, but I will do my best.

I should warn you that outside the bubble, you will find that people are often less nice than they are at Grinnell and that there are fewer policies to protect you. Whether you like it or not, you will have to deal with people insulting you, calling you a name or pronoun that you consider inappropriate, or dismissing you because of some superficial aspect of your personhood.

When this happens, you can’t react in the way that you do at Grinnell. In particular, people will respond to the Grinnell Smackdown even less well outside of Grinnell than they respond within Grinnell. And, in some cases, strong reactions will elicit dangerously strong reactions from people in power. For example, whether you like it or not, anything but polite responses to people with weapons are risky, even if that’s unfair.

This is not to say that in most cases, you should not respond to inappropriate words or comments, about yourself or others. You have some responsibility to speak out when you see others being treated poorly (as long as speaking out does not put you in physical danger). Don’t use the Grinnell smackdown; use the argumentation skills that you have developed in your time at Grinnell to convince others that what they do is hurtful.

Your Grinnell education makes you one of the more privileged members of society, even if it doesn’t make you one of the 1% (or 10% or 25% or …). Very few people have a College education in which they got to interact with faculty on such a close level. And with privilege comes responsibility. Take time to mentor, advocate, lead, and more.

You heard John tell you to follow your passion. I’m going to suggest a tangent: Don’t do only what you love and what is easy; continue to challenge yourself to learn new things and try new things. You have been trained to work hard and to pick up new ideas.

You are likely anxious about what you will be doing next. Don’t assume that what you know now, or do now, or for the next few years, has to be your life’s work. People change careers, regularly. My mother was an award-winning professor of psychology. When she hit my age, she said I’m only halfway through my adult life. It’s time to start thinking about a new career. (She taught for another decade and then used her time for advocacy.)

I’m a computer scientist. I know that technology is changing the world. I know that the people who build the technology affect what technology it builds and who it supports and does not support. Right now, most technology is built by a few groups of people. We will all be better off if a wider group of people build technology. So, whether or not you choose that path, please do what you can to encourage women, people of color, and other groups to participate. (Diversifying my field part of my responsibility and my mission, so I had to put it in this speech.)

When you first sat here, almost four years ago, we gave you a variety of important pieces of advice. Here are two that I hope stuck with you. First: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. At that time, we were suggesting that you be willing to ask for help from the academic resource centers, your faculty, the academic affairs staff, and others. You were (and still are) high achievers and, as such, unaccustomed to needing or asking for help. I hope that you’ve learned to ask. Please keep asking: your friends, CLS, your faculty, among others. Second: You are surrounded by awesome people. At that point, we encouraged you to get to know them. At this point, I encourage you to not only continue your relationships with these wonderful people, but also to get to know other Grinnellians. If my alums are to be believed, you will feel a connection to these folks, even if you never overlapped here. Grinnell Plans is a good resource.

You should realize that your faculty care deeply about you. Please take the time to send us a note once in a while to let us know how you are doing. We will appreciate it.

I know that Grinnell is a rich institution, and it feels like we don’t need money. However, if you do the projections, at some point our endowment can no longer keep up with our needs. I know that there are many worthy organizations out there. I know that most of you will need to spend the next few years being fiscally conservative, particularly given the burdens of student loans. But when you can, please send a few dollars Grinnell’s way so that we can continue to provide for others the same quality of education we provided for you.

Two more things.

First, my students are accustomed to hearing a Friday Public Service Announcement. I would be remiss if I did not include one in this talk. As I said, you are awesome people. That means that you have a responsibility to take care of yourselves. Pay attention to your wellness. If you choose to consume substances, please do so in moderation. And remember, if you cohabit with another person, consent is absolutely, positively necessary.

I’d like to end with a story my mother used to tell at the end of her classes. On my last day of fourth grade, my mother stopped by to thank my fourth-grade teacher who was moving on to another profession. The teacher broke down in tears. Mom said, I assume you’ve been crying all day as you’ve been saying goodbye to people. My teacher said, No, I’m crying because I forgot to say goodbye. I know that you are busy with family right now. I know that you are busy packing up your stuff. I expect that you are freaking out about your post-bubble life. But please take the time to say goodbye (or at least so you later) to the people who are special to you.

Congratulations again. You are special to me.

[1] It turns out that they picked Katya Gibel Mevorach. I’d pick Professor Katya over me, too.

[2] After I sketched out that introduction, I discovered that they had voted to induct me as an honorary member of the Class of 2017. From my perspective, that is an equal honor. But I’m writing the non-address anyway.

Version 1.0 of 2017-05-22.