WOOSTER, Ohio – Leadership by way of bridge building was the central theme of Eboo Patel’s keynote address Monday at The College of Wooster’s 148th Commencement, an appropriate subject for the 408 students who received their bachelor’s degrees inside Gault Recreation Center and are now stepping into a world that is seemingly growing more divisive by the day.
President Sarah Bolton set the stage by congratulating and thanking the Class of 2018 while hitting on similar topics that Patel, recently selected as one of “25 Influential Muslim Americans” by CNN, would touch on. “While you are all scholars, you have also been crucial and engaged citizens of our community. Your support and care for one another in times of loss as well as in celebration, and your investment in one another’s success and joy have been powerful. You have faced and addressed challenging issues in ways that are well informed and respectful,” she said and later added “your leadership has mattered here and it will continue to matter.”
Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based, non-profit organization that strives to bring young people of different faiths together through service and dialogue, interspersed concepts of what makes up a leader with personal experiences during his speech, titled “Two Futures.” For example, a “leader has to trust himself,” even when he’s just 14 and has a more innovative idea how to meet NBA icon Michael Jordan than the adults at a crowded golf course.
During his own college days, Patel learned to listen to others. Then a self-described “hair-on-fire activist,” he playfully recalled a professor telling him after class that “people would pay more attention to your points, if you didn’t come across as such a jerk.”
When Patel began doing interfaith work, he quickly came to realize that “the world belongs to the leader, not the critic; the builder, not the scolder.” It was an impactful moment of time where the various leadership lessons he experienced came to a head, as he decided to not “be the guy who was constantly finding fault in what other people were building” and instead “build something myself.”
While Patel’s organization has thrived, he stressed that the need for “people to dare to build bridges” is greater than ever and offered a warning to the seniors that “the future you choose has not just consequences for your life, but for the future of our country.” He implored those “people who love NASCAR and who love the NBA … fans of Fox News and watchers of MSNBC … worshipers of Beyonce and those who identify with Bruce Springsteen” to come together and “engage positively with the differences.”
Patel concluded by stating “the purpose of the bridge is to connect you with people that you don’t instinctively view as your own” and that “those bridges don’t fall from the sky, people build them,” then asked “Will you seize your moment? Will you be a generation of leaders and bridge builders committed to the ideal … that there is room for all?”
Prior to Patel’s speech, seniors Dana Smith and Avi Vajpeyi addressed their classmates. Smith reflected on her own experiences by voicing a sweet letter to her younger sister who will be a Wooster first-year this August, saying “I can’t wait to see how (you) change and grow and don’t even realize it” while warning her that she will be challenged every day “to think more critically about what you know … and most of all Wooster will teach you to have a voice.”
Skateboarding across the stage, Vajpeyi went with a fun, thankful tone. He contrasted his time at Wooster from confused and lost the first few days, once winding up at the local Drug Mart when trying to find Lowry Center, to confidently defending his Independent Study in front of the entire group of physics faculty. Vajpeyi called orals “his favorite experience at the college” because it demonstrated that “my work had value.”
Vajpeyi was one of six seniors recognized individually. He shared the Jonas O. Notestein Prize, awarded to the student(s) with the highest academic standing in the class, with Geoffrey Carney-Knisely, Meg Itoh, Alina Karapandzich, Emily Velichka, and Anna Woos. All six completed their undergraduate career with perfect 4.00 GPA’s.
Jack Marousek also was singled out with the Dan F. Lockhart Outstanding Senior Award, given to the seniors who have made outstanding contributions to the life of the College via high academic achievement, participation in extracurricular activities, and demonstrated leadership in campus affairs.
In addition to the presentation of bachelor’s degrees, honorary degrees were conferred and awarded to Elizabeth Hearne-Claffey ’64, an influential author, scholar, and teacher in the field of children’s literature, and W.A. Hayden Schilling, who recently retired from a 51-year career as a faculty member at Wooster, which including being selected as the 2005 Outstanding Baccalaureate Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation.