WOOSTER, Ohio – Before members of The College of Wooster’s Class of 2019 departed campus in different directions Monday, Deborah Bial suggested the 477 graduates take a moment to reflect and challenge some societal norms as she delivered the Commencement address inside a jam-packed Gault Recreation Center, where families, friends, faculty, and staff stayed dry from the unseasonably cool and rainy weather.
Bial spoke from experience. She was raised in a “stereotypical middle class environment,” but thought outside-the-box by founding, in 1989, an organization that identifies and prepares diverse, talented students from urban high schools for highly-selective colleges. Today, the Posse Foundation, of which she still serves as president, has awarded $1.4 billion in scholarship, and there are 9,200 scholars and alumni within the network.
While Bial, who was awarded an honorary degree (doctor of laws) by Wooster and noted it was “extra special … to graduate alongside this year’s Posse scholars (Antonio Bailey, Robert Dinkins, Jr., Myles Parker, Jada Smart, Shirtoria Smith, D’Khorvillyn Tyus, and Josie Veal)” has done her part to confront the status quo, she said “the truth is that my generation is handing a mess to yours” due to becoming “complacent, impervious, desensitized, and numb.” In reference to climate change, misogyny, racism, and poverty, she put part of the blame on “adults (having) trouble separating … from things that make us comfortable” and advised everyone should “make a conscious effort to look at our society in a reasonable, effective way to determine … what is worth keeping and what is harmful and destructive.”
Despite the “tremendous challenges” ahead, Wooster’s graduating class provides Bial a source of optimism because today’s students are accustomed to “the ever-changing environment we live in now.” She added, “We need to find comfort … in the idea of change (being) the opportunity for something better. The idea that we can should give us hope. I can see very clearly that you already have a higher expectations and you’re going to hold us all accountable.”
Bial’s organization, along with other initiatives, has helped transform Wooster during the 12 years that it has been a partner with the Posse Foundation, a point Wooster president Sarah Bolton alluded to during her opening remarks. “You brought your passions, your faiths, your values, your languages, your traditions, understandings, talents, and perspectives, and mixed them and brought them together,” she said, and by living and studying amongst such a diverse study body, “one potent mixture” is formed, a mixture that “prepares you to make a powerful and positive impact in the world.”
Bolton turned the stage over to Christina Gorey and Mylo Parker-Emerson, who addressed their classmates both touching on a theme of “what’s next?” Gorey, a self-designed global health major, spoke of the challenging Wooster education leading to a breaking point “where every student thinks (they’re) not smart enough or skilled enough,” but having endured “we are uniquely skilled as interdisciplinary thinkers,” which will allow “us to excel in virtually any environment,” no matter whether one knows the answer to what their future holds.
Existentialism was Parker-Emerson’s topic of choice, fitting for a philosophy major. Greatly simplifying the complex subject, Parker-Emerson broke it down to “taking control of your own existence” and that “who you are is only defined by you.” With that idea in mind, Parker-Emerson proposed to stop “grasping at things that don’t exist” and “don’t get sidetracked about what could have been,” instead simply “choose who you are” through reflection and growth, “take a deep breath, and get ready for the next step.”
Gorey was one of three winners of the Jonas O. Notestein Prize, awarded to the student(s) with the highest academic standing in the class. Gabrielle Girard and Andrew White were the others, each completing their undergraduate academic career with perfect 4.0 GPA’s.
A fourth individual recognized was Christian Betre, this year’s Dan F. Lockhart Outstanding Senior Award recipient, an honor given to the senior who has made outstanding contributions to the life of the College via high academic achievement, participation in extracurricular activities, and demonstrated leadership in campus affairs.