Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin was keynote speaker at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo 2019 Fall Commencement held Dec. 21. Here is a transcript of her remarks.
Whenever I see a bunch of people dressed in academic regalia, I feel that someone should say something weighty in Latin. Unfortunately, I could not really find a Latin quotation that I liked well enough, but I did find some words by the French playwright Moliere that I thought might be appropriate: “Once you have a cap and gown all you need to do is, open your mouth. Whatever nonsense you talk becomes wisdom.”
I hope my remarks today will be more than nonsense, but I also hope that by wearing my cap and gown, I can communicate two things to you. First, I work at a university, and I take that work seriously indeed because it is a great privilege to come to work every day at a place where I can make a contribution to your success. Second, even though I have been a professor and a dean and a provost and now a chancellor, I started exactly where you are now. I understand many of the anxieties, expectations, and dreams that you have, and I and all the faculty and staff are so very proud of you, proud of what you have accomplished, and confident that you can and will go out and do great things in the world as responsible citizens, ethical human beings, and skilled professionals.
Commencement speeches, with rare exceptions, are meant to be inspiring or entertaining. All I remember about the one I heard nearly 40 years ago is that I thought it was funny at the time. I don’t remember what the speaker said, why I thought it was funny, or whether or not it was relevant to my life.
What I do remember are strange moments in my college career. I remember the 8 AM 18th century Spanish literature final where my professor brought Oreo cookies to class, a rare occurrence in those days. He meant the cookies to be a treat, but he did not think to open the package ahead of time, so he tried to open the crinkly wrapper with his keys without making any sound. He failed. Throughout the three-hour exam, he would periodically get up with the tray of Oreos, and walking up and down the aisles of the classroom, offering us cookies. It seemed rude not to take one, even though we did not have the all-important milk to dunk those cookies in!
If that is the kind of thing I remember, what does it say about my education? With all due respect to my Spanish professors, I did not find 18th century Spanish literature very engaging, but I remember a professor who cared about us. Education is not always measured by what you learn, but by what you are able to do with that knowledge. I never had to teach 18th century literature, but I always tried to make my students know I cared, whether that was through spending time with them in my office or bringing treats to the final exam.
If we at UH Hilo have been truly successful, you may not remember what we have taught you, but you will be able to acquire knowledge when you need it, and you will want to seek knowledge whether you need it or not. If we have been successful, you know how to think for yourselves. If we’ve been successful, you know how to communicate what you think. If we have been successful, you may not remember us, but you will treat other people with respect and generosity and aloha and leave every relationship, especially your professional ones, having contributed more than you’ve expected to gain. In the end the particulars don’t matter because your memory of them will fade away as new experiences, people, and places take the place of those that seem so important to you now.
We will still be part of you, whether you remember this gray-haired lady speaking at commencement or not. I used to teach a course called “Myth and Culture,” and my favorite definition of myth applies here. Myths, you see, are stories about things that never happened, but always are. Even if they are not true, their truths continue to be relevant. If you have been successful here at UH Hilo, we won’t remember what you’ve taught us, but we will know we learned from you. If you’ve been successful, your faculty may not remember what your research paper was about, but they will be better scholars because they mentored you and learned from you. If you have been successful, your teachers may not remember you, but they will be better teachers to those who follow you. If you have been successful, the graduating classes of 2020 and 2030, and maybe even 2070 will benefit from a better UH Hilo.
Another memory from college is my fellow students. I remember preparing for an American literature final. It was December and a bunch of us were working on the take-home portion. I do not remember how any of us actually did on the exam. What I remember is that we were in it together. I remember that I had good friends in the class and I remember how fun it was to share a passion for reading books and digging into what they meant. I remember the comfort in being able to consult with others if I did not understand the homework. I remember the community in the residence halls and the community in my classes. I remember the anxiety and the joy of living away from home and finding my own way. Many of you have had similar experiences here. Whether it is laughing with your roommate, struggling with a friend through an assignment, or just hanging out in the library, the people with whom you have shared this space at this moment in your life will always be a part of you, whether you remember their names and faces 10, 20, or 40 years from now.
I study stories. I don’t tell them very well, but I find them fascinating—why we tell them, when and how we tell them, to whom we tell them—all these aspects of storytelling are important in identifying who we are. I study the living, breathing, changing stories that constitute who we are as individuals and communities. Each of us has their own story, of course, but we play important roles in other people’s stories as well. You are part of the story of your family, of your community, and of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. You are also a special part of the whole long history of this island and of humankind on earth. If the story is important enough, you are important even if you play a small role or are here just for a while.
On behalf of the faculty and staff of UH Hilo, I’d like to thank you for letting us be a part of your phenomenal stories. We’ve tried not to tell you what to write, but how to write this chapter of your lives with passion and dedication.
My charge to you today is to reflect on the story you want to tell. As you turn this important page in the story that is your life, as you dare to dream into the future and begin to write the next chapter, I’d like you to consider as couple of things:
First, who will want to read your story? It doesn’t have to be an exciting one, but try to make it an interesting and valuable one. Keep telling your stories to one another. It’s so important today that the business leaders exchange stories with the artists, and the teachers exchange stories with the scientists, and the nurses share stories with the poets. Your voice and your story matter, but so do those of the student sitting next to you. It is sometimes more important to listen than to speak. I have learned so much in my short time here just by listening to you, and to the faculty, staff, and community. Share your stories with those you meet, and keep in touch with us here at UH Hilo, we look forward to hearing your stories as we help others write theirs.
Secondly, when you reach the last page, what kind of story do you want your life to have been? Try to write your story in such a way that you will learn from the tragic chapters and spread the joy of the inspirational ones. Instead of regretting a passage that might not have gone the way you intended, all of you need to use the tools of your education and your life to revise your stories and grow from them. Instead of just celebrating a passage in your story where everything went just the way you intended, think of those who might read this story and how your success can benefit others, especially those who do not have the same privileges that you do. Many of you have people in your lives who have made sacrifices so that you could be here today. Some of you have struggled to write this chapter, others have had an easier time of it, but what you now share is the privilege of being among the only 6.7 percent of the world’s population with a college degree. 6.7 percent.
An even smaller percentage of students has a master’s or doctoral degree. So I want to pause a minute and recognize those students graduating with graduate degrees today. These are students who had so much fun the first time, that they came back for more! Seriously though, earning a master’s or doctoral degree is a great accomplishment. It is because we have graduate students that we are a university and not a college. Those of you getting graduate degrees today are completing the second or third college chapter in your stories, and I hope you’ve inspired some of those sitting among you to take that same path. Those of you who are undergraduates, I hope you look upon your graduate student colleagues as role models for the next chapter in the story that you are writing.
Every semester when I was teaching mythology, I used to ask my students who their heroes were, I was struck by the numbers of students who proudly described a parent or grandparent or influential teacher. They were those people who made sacrifices for the good of someone else. As you all look up in the stands around you, think about all the people who have helped you write your story thus far, especially the chapter we celebrate today, as I ask you one final question, which I hope UH Hilo has helped prepare you to answer: Whose hero are you going to be?