By Jennifer L. Warren
POUGHKEEPSIE – Diversity. Tolerance. Pluralism. Being an American.
They were words and phrases frequently alluded to at Sunday’s 154th Vassar Commencement, in many ways defined the Class of 2018. This year’s group of 600 (which now brings Vassar’s all-time total alumnus tally to 39,566) was comprised of graduates from 47 states as well as 29 foreign countries or U.S. territories. 234 studied abroad in 39 countries on six continents. And then there are the long list of varied, impressive feats, spanning the athletic, academic and civic realms, by those graduates. It’s that range of activities, ethnic, racial and other compositions, and far-spanning backgrounds, that will prepare this group of young people for the challenges that will confront them as they venture off into the ever-evolving workforce as well as communities they will encounter.
“Your new voice, the one that you developed here, can be your greatest voice,” stressed Elizabeth H. Bradley, Vassar President.
Referring to “engaged pluralism,” Bradley further spoke of the critical need to depend upon two things should that voice falter: imagination and empathy. The first year President added, “Imagination will allow you to try to live like another does, seeing things through their lens; while empathy, will let you not just tolerate difference, but flourish with it, something that requires using muscle memory.”
That muscle memory is something the morning’s Commencement Speaker knows very well. Heather McGhee, leader of Demos, a nationally known public policy organization, as well as frequent guest on such national political shows as; “Meet the Press,” “Real Times with Bill Maher,” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” opened her passionate speech with an immediately riveting tale. Alluding to a time early on in here career when on live television a man said to her, “Im a white man, and I’m prejudice,” McGhee further detailed how she ultimately turned that initially very disturbing remark into a profound learning experience, as well as the man, into a good friend.
“I remember telling him (“Gary”) thank you for admitting his prejudices, as so many are afraid to do so,” said an energetic McGhee. “I then gave him ideas of how to combat his ideas, such as meeting with black people and reading, and he took my recommendations to heart over time; all of this made me think: What does it mean to be an American?” McGee then went on to detail the long list of seemingly justified reasons why so much discrimination has riddled this country’s history, adding that none of them were logical, fair, or humane.
Looking directly at the Vassar Class of 2018, she continued, “I think it’s going to be up to you to determine exactly what that means, challenged McGee. “As you go out today, I want you to remember, the majority of Americans, have not had the pluralistic education you have had here; it’s not going to be easy, but it is always worth it; being a better American is to love more people than the people who look just like you.”
Bringing her talk full-circle, McGhee, who co-chaired a task force for Americans for Financial Reform, one that made pivotal changes to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Consumer Protection Act, then smiled wide as the rain began to pick up momentum, and added, “Gary and I are counting on you.”