President’s Blog – Higher Education Matters:

Thoughts from Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross

Making Memories with a Commencement Speaker

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by Karen Gross


2010 Commencement speaker Kwan

At my high school graduation exactly four decades ago, there were 21 female students in the graduating class and Margaret Mead was the Commencement speaker.  Yes, really.  I still remember what she said, which makes her speech a rarity.  Many people cannot name their Commencement speakers from high school or college, let alone the content of their speeches.

Margaret Mead said that life was a constant pot of stew on the stove, and our task was to keep putting in ingredients.  Sometimes the stew tasted wonderful and at other times, the taste was just not quite right. Mead advised us that in those instances, we had to keep adding ingredients and in due time, the quality of the stew would improve.  In short, we control our own destiny and even when we do not, we need to keep adjusting to the changed circumstances.

Sage advice.  It is advice I still use today.

Some years after that, I was invited to give the Commencement address at an inner city high school in Philadelphia where I taught part-time.  By the time of the event, I had moved out of town, I was newly married, did not have much money for travel and was completing graduate school.  I turned down that invitation and have regretted it ever since. It would have been a great opportunity to pay it forward, and to give the students a taste of the amazing Commencement I had experienced in high school.

In one of life’s strange turns, I now have opportunities for a mulligan – a do-over and here’s how.  As a college president, I get to participate in the selection of Commencement speakers for the institution I lead.  And, the main criteria for me is finding someone who can make memories, someone whose presence and whose words will stay with students for decades to come. 

I want the three M’s for our graduates:  Margaret Mead-like Memories.

Now, the three M’s are not so easy to create and part of the reason, of course, is that Margaret Mead remains one of those iconoclastic figures of the 20th century.  But, I think I’ve found such a person for this year’s 83rd Commencement Exercises at Southern Vermont College.

Our speaker is an icon herself – figure skating champion, Michelle Kwan.  She has graced us with her grace, she has won more awards than any other skater in history, and she has worked hard to achieve success – no silver spoons here.  She has fallen and gotten up (literally and figuratively), she has pursued a dream, she has kept true to her values, and, as the nation’s first Public Envoy for Diplomacy for the U.S. State Department, she has become a role model for youth across the globe.   

Michelle is a memory-maker…and we are delighted to welcome her here to address the graduates of Southern Vermont College.

To comment…

Send Karen Gross an email at Not every email will receive a personal response but themes raised in the emails may be addressed here and certain responses shared with readers.