As I leave SVC after eight and a half years, I am reminded of the feelings of our students as they participate in their college graduation.
At a college graduation, there is the overt celebration of success, evidenced by the awarding of bachelor’s degrees, oft-times hard-earned degrees. The pomp and circumstance – the traditional robes, music and speeches – all cement the momentousness of the event. But, there is also a sense of wistfulness, a realization that one is leaving behind close friends, faculty and staff mentors as well as the comfortable confines of the college community. And, there is the inevitable uncertainty as to what the future will bring. To use the word in the title of John O’Brien’s book about education, graduation can be very semi-sweet. Indeed, the joy of completing college is mixed with the strong emotions that accompany change.
This duality has always been captured for me by the word “commencement” – often used as a synonym for the word “graduation.” On the one hand, we have our Commencement Exercises, the event where students formally become graduates and receive their diplomas, ending this phase of their college experience. Contrastingly, the word “commencement,” derived from the French verb “commencer,” also has a secondary meaning: begin. This signals the reality that obtaining a degree opens a new chapter, the next chapter. The degree is the gateway into the future, the contours of which remain unknown – particularly for younger graduates who have decades ahead of them to find work that is meaningful and productive.
Preparing to leave SVC has been an opportunity for me to reflect on the remarkable success the College has experienced in both measurable and intangible ways – growth in student enrollment, in academic offerings, in athletics, in student life, in grants and private giving, in the physical plant. As a reminder, Hunter Hall was the first new building in 17 years at SVC and now we have just opened Wagner House, a new Admissions center in the Gatehouse to the Mansion. I have gotten enormous joy from witnessing the academic and personal transformation of hundreds upon hundreds of students. I am proud of our students, our faculty and our staff. And yes, I will miss SVC.
That said, it is time for me to commence the next chapter in my professional life and to deploy what I have learned from my SVC experience with a larger audience, helping students across our nation (and other nations) progress to and through post-secondary education and beyond. Education remains – and of this I am convinced – an appreciating asset. It holds the promise of enabling thousands upon thousands of younger and older folks to obtain meaningful employment and contribute to the strengthening of their communities. As I have said many times before, our Democracy (with a capital D) depends on an educated populace.
We often speak about the role of educators as role models, something particularly important for women who hold leadership positions that remain disproportionately held by men (i.e. CEO’s, Presidents of colleges and universities; heads of schools). As I leave SVC, I feel an obligation to showcase the capacity to leave a place that one holds near and dear and move on to new challenges – even though it is hard. The point is that when we leave a college (whether as a graduate or a president), we do not lose the memories of our time there. Those will be with us always. We take those memories and all that we have learned with us. And the hope is that we will use those memories and those teachings to create a safer, wiser and more just society for all.
Surely one does not travel alone on life’s journey – in college or thereafter. Numerous people and organizations have enriched my experiences at SVC. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to many. I have said to many people on campus: you do us proud. I hope that in my next chapter, I will continue to do SVC proud.
I hope those of you working at the college now will share future successes with me. I look forward to our graduates continuing to share their personal successes with me. I will be there, cheering from the sidelines. And, here is another thing about which I am sure: SVC is a place that transforms lives. I know this from personal experience – I have been transformed as an educator, a leader and a person by my experience at SVC.
I have one final idea (or two) to share in the interest of full disclosure and transparency, hallmarks I hope of my leadership. Leaving SVC has been harder than I envisaged. I am actually leaving a part of myself here. Some of that is evidenced by traditions like the cookie delivery and the book signings; I am grateful and honored by the enduring reminder of my presidency at the library’s entrance. Our sense of community is a constant reminder of what we have built.
I have often spoken about education’s gift – the capacity of a quality education to expand students’ perspectives. Education engenders added complexity but deeper understanding. This gift is actually reciprocal. I, too, have received a gift from SVC – the gift of learning from all of you. I have been working hard to incorporate what I have learned to be a both better leader and a better person. So, while I leave a part of myself with you, I take a valuable gift from all of you with me.
Semi-sweet, yes, that describes how leaving feels to me.