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Warren Wilson College Commencement 2012

Record number of graduates hear commencement address by Janis Ian By John Bowers Grammy Award winner Janis Ian sang and spoke to the delight of graduates, families, friends and alumni gathered on Sunderland Lawn May 12 for the 2012 Warren Wilson College Commencement. Ian began her address by performing her unforgettable song “At Seventeen,” a hit single for which she won a 1975 Grammy for “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.” After the song, Ian placed her guitar on the stand and began encouraging the 222 graduates, a record number for the college, to “Live as though there is nothing on earth to fear.” “No one knows better than you who you are,” she said. “And who you are has changed enormously since you got here. If there is one thing you can count on in this world, it’s that people change. Relationships evolve. Nothing stays the same. Years from now, this day will be just one highlight in a life of highlights. So pay attention. Learn to love yourself. I don’t mean how good you look, how smart you are, how whatever. Love yourself—the indefinable things that make you into you.” She told students that “the world is a hard and unyielding place—but it is a good place to be alive. If you make your own mistakes, if you embrace your own failures, they will be yours, and you will learn from them and profit by them.” She closed by urging graduates to make their own miracles, to embrace the ability to rise above the universe. “Pat yourself on the back every time you make the hero’s choice,” she said. “Astonish yourself and you will astonish the world.” Preceding the presentation of undergraduate degrees, President Sandy Pfeiffer and Dean of the College Paula Garrett awarded the college’s first honorary degrees. Irwin Belk, a successful businessman and longtime higher education philanthropist who endowed the Carol Grotnes Belk Outdoor Leadership Chair at Warren Wilson in 1996; and Billy Edd Wheeler, a 1953 graduate of Warren Wilson Junior College, staunch supporter of the college and prolific songwriter and singer, each received the Doctor of Humane Letters. The 2012 Pfaff Cup Award, the college’s highest student honor, went to Freesia McKee, gender and women’s studies and creative writing major from Milwaukee, Wis. Mayuri Patel, biology major from North Wilkesboro, N.C. received the Sullivan Award in recognition of spiritual qualities applied to daily living. Other award recipients included Stephen Cartier, faculty member in chemistry, for Faculty Teaching Excellence; and Thomas Wilder, assistant supervisor, building services, for Staff Teaching Excellence. 1

Commencement Address

Embracing Failure By Janis Ian

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests. Mr. Belk, and my dear friend Billy Edd Wheeler. Mr. President, Mr. Former President, Mr. President Who Is Not Here As Yet, and those of you who hope one day to be president—good morning. For those who came for the fashion show, and have no clue as to why I’m standing here, my name is Janis Ian. I am a songwriter by trade. I wrote my first song at twelve—was published at thirteen—made a record at fourteen, had a number one single at fifteen, was a has-been at sixteen. By your age I was starting my second career, struggling to be known as something other than a child prodigy. Fortunately for me, I was again successful. Which doesn’t begin to explain why I’m here. In fact, I’m more at a loss than any of you. I never graduated from college because I never went to college. For that matter, I barely went to high school. The first day of first grade, when my mother asked me how it had gone, I told her I hated it and was never going back. I hated school all my life. I quit the day I turned sixteen, and I have never regretted it. So I find it ironic that I put my brother through college, my mother through college and graduate school, and my partner through law school. And after all that, I now help to fund a foundation that does the same for complete strangers. I cannot understand it myself, except that I was taught to give back, and I can think of no better gift than an education. I am nervous today because almost everything I know is self-taught. I learned from books, and movies, and other artists. So I’m not quite sure how to deal with a horde of people who know about things like final exams, graduation ceremonies, dorm rooms, and Sterno. I tried to figure out what graduating must feel like. My last graduation ceremony was sixth grade, when the homeroom teacher gave us each a pencil box and warned us not to chew the erasers until the end of next year. At first I wondered if it was like writing a song. There’s an incredible feeling of achievement; it’s like walking on air. And then, an equally incredible letdown as you wonder whether you’ll ever be able to do it again.


Then I thought perhaps it’s like making a record. That takes a good three months, a very long time in the life of a performer. And at the end, you feel pretty good about it… at least, until it comes out and no one but your family buys it. Last, I thought maybe graduating from college must be like having a baby. That takes nine months, plus a little preparation. But unlike graduating, where you actually get to leave and move on, that baby is with you forever. Sometimes they even move back in, whereas I doubt most of you plan to come back here and take courses next semester. Now, I think that going off to college and graduating must be like being an astronaut. One day, you’re down here in a familiar place. You know what is normal, what the sky looks like at night, what the air smells like when the grass is fresh-mowed. Your feet are planted on the earth, and you have a firm connection to that soil. You know the shape of the stars at night. There’s a certain comfort in all that. Then one day, by your own choice, you leave it all behind and take off for outer space! And “normal” changes, because nothing is normal any longer. Even the familiar things—the Earth, now seen from the stars—gravity, where “up” is now a relative term–even those things are strange and unfamiliar. So I think going off to college and graduating must be like being an astronaut. There’s the tremendous excitement when it begins, the fear and astonishment that you of all people get to do this great thing. Then there’s the wear and tear, the daily struggle, the incredible effort to make everything work. And at some point, there’s the boredom, the waiting for it to finally be over. Then, as you approach re-entry, the fear that you will fail, and in failing, be destroyed. America is built on the dream of success. For centuries, that dream has been defined by financial achievement, political power, dominance and subjugation. We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.


I rarely failed in what I did, because if I wasn’t good at it, I didn’t do it. I played piano at two, and played well. I picked up a guitar at ten, and within a couple of years I was writing songs good enough to get Grammy nominations. I succeeded in everything I did—writing, performing, recording. But in my early thirties, I found myself at a loss. I was wealthy, respected, admired… but I hated my work. I longed to be Picasso, and instead it felt like I was painting Christ on black velvet to sell at the local mall. And it was killing me. You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent… well, it was killing me. I was fortunate, at that time, to know a great lady of the theater—Stella Adler. She was 83 years old to my 33, and through her I’d come to understand that my legacy as an artist went far beyond the work of my generation. My legacy began with the first caveman who sat down around a fire and told a story of the day’s hunt. My legacy began the first time someone described the stars as diamonds, spread across a blanket in the sky. My legacy began when that first crude piece of life began—because that’s what art really is. A beginning. And all I knew was endings. When I told Stella I couldn’t seem to write anything that pleased me, she took my hands in hers and said “Oh, my dear. You have reached the age where talent is no longer enough.” I’d been successful because of my talent, but I had learned about as much as I could from my gifts, and it was time to learn differently now. Truth be known, success doesn’t teach you much. Failure, disappointment, collapse—those are the things that build. You can only know what works when you know what doesn’t work. That’s hardwired in our bones. How many times does a baby fall on its butt, before it learns to stand without help? It learns a lot from falling—up and down, sideways and backwards, coordination, looking ahead—paying attention. And every time it fails, those muscles get stronger.


I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again. So over the next few years, I took on a bunch of things I’d always been scared of before. I took ballet. You can’t tell from there, but underneath this robe is not a ballerina’s body. My dance teacher told me months later that after my first day, her only thought was “Good God, how can I get her to leave and never come back?!” I was awful at ballet. I was awful at opera, photography, physics, and line dancing. And I loved every minute of it, because I learned to separate knowledge from the worldly view of success. So get used to failure. Learn to embrace it. Because this world will beat you up. This world remembers failure before it rewards success. It blurs the line between fame and notoriety, between pandering and achievement. You will fail, and fail over and over again. The rest of us survive it— so will you. Speaking of failure, another thing to know as you go out to face the world is that most people will not like you. I’m sure you’re astonished to hear that, but it’s true. And that’s okay. Between Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus, we have so many friends we’re going to have to start hiring enemies just to see some contrast in our social lives. A person can only tolerate so many friends. Robin Dunbar theorizes that humans only have the brain capacity to manage 100-250 relationships total. 250 people is about the amount of people graduating this year. Do you really know each and every one of them well enough to care what they think about you? Embrace your failed relationships. They will turn out to be more important than you’d think. You are the largest graduating class Warren Wilson College has known. That’s a great and a dangerous thing. Great, because it means the school’s message is being heard in ever-widening circles. Dangerous, because with growth comes temptation. We have only to look at the banking industry to know that.


So be good alumni. Not just by sending money. Any idiot can make money. Anyone with a bank account can send it. Money is important, but it’s just a medium of exchange. You can have fifty million dollars in your hands, but it won’t keep Alzheimer’s at bay. You can be as rich as Croesus, but if you are dying of thirst in the desert and your companion has only enough water for one, all the money in the world will not buy it for you. Money is a medium of exchange. It has no intrinsic value. It’s only useful if you can use it to buy what’s really important. So think about what is really important to you. From my vantage point, time and energy are precious commodities. I don’t remember the last time I was bored, because I can’t remember the last time I had time to be bored. For me, money buys the time to do what I care about, not what’s expected of me. You’ve spent much of your lives doing what this world expects of you. Honor your father and mother. Tie your shoelaces. Don’t wear pajamas to school. Get good grades, be upwardly mobile. Graduate. Now they will expect other things. Straighten up. Get a job. Get married. Raise 1.14 children. Don’t rock the boat, don’t push too hard, don’t take on things you can’t handle, don’t act like a kid any more, don’t don’t don’t. People from your old life will say “I’ve known you for years. I know who you are, what you need, what you want. Choose this, not that. Trust me, I know what’s best for you.” Don’t you believe it. Don’t you believe it for a second! No one knows better than you who you are. And who you are has changed enormously since you got here. If there is one thing you can count on in this world, it’s that people change. Relationships evolve. Nothing stays the same.


Years from now, this day will be just one highlight in a life of highlights. So pay attention. Learn to love yourself. I don’t mean how good you look, how smart you are, how whatever… love your self. The indefinable things that make you into you. This world will not hand it to you. This world will grind your nose into the dust and dare you to get up. This world will tell you everything you cannot become, and try to suck you into the poverty of its own diminished expectations. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let fear rule you. Don’t even let it come into consideration. Live as though there is nothing on earth to fear. You will get hurt. Your heart will get hurt. There will be pain. This world is a hard and unyielding place—but it is a good place to be alive. And if you make your own mistakes, if you embrace your own failures, they will be yours, and you will learn from them and profit by them. At the end of the day, we all stand alone. I have lived with the love of my life for 23 years, and yet at the end of the day, I know we are alone. You are a country of one. You must make your own miracles. And you cannot make a miracle without failing now and then. Astonish yourself with your bravery, and you will astonish the world as well. Thank you for your time.


Senior Speaker By Sam Wasko I love the speeches of graduation: the appreciation, the stories, the quotes, the heartfelt wishes, the charge to do one’s best and then the grand ‘sending-forth’—it’s all very exciting. I am honored to contribute. Of course, within the five minutes allotted to me, I will have to cut straight to my favorite speech components: a couple quotes, a simile and gratitude. To begin: These quotes, for reasons you will soon understand, have probably never been uttered on Warren Wilson Campus before. The first comes from the late American jurist and law professor, Paul Freund: “At commencement you wear your square-shaped mortarboards. My hope is that from time to time you will let your minds be bold, and wear sombreros.” This quote is clearly geared towards Harvard grads. Every day at Wilson is sombrero day. Or a funky fedora day. Or a I-don’t-even-know-what-that-person-is-wearing day. And who can forget let’s-wear-a-foxtail-day?! It’s wonderful. According Paul Freund’s hat standard, bold minds are in great proliferation here. My fellow Wilson grads, my hope is that every now and then—just as a cross-cultural experience to see what it feels like—we take a break from sombrero day to wear a normal hat. We could even call it Mundane Mondays. I believe this gesture will help us better understand our Harvard colleagues. Continuing on with the theme of cross-cultural understanding, let’s see what President Theodore Roosevelt had to say to the graduates of his era: “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” Yes. It is true. With our degrees, we are now capable of monumental white-collar crime. I guess Roosevelt is trying to illustrate the full spectrum of our potential: not only can we rise like glorious, well educated, philanthropic beacons of hope, we also have the choice to seize our privilege by the silver gilded handle and go forth to monopolize in ways that our less educated peers can hardly begin to fathom! By George, if you’re really a Theodore graduate at heart, expand your sphere of imminent domain and build an empire! But we are Wilson grads. I suppose most of us knew we were on a unique path before we even got here. Things like the work program, community service, widely encouraged critical thinking, community bike shops, spontaneous live music, Community Meetings, Community Governance, Maoist professors, continual talk of ‘wellness,’ sidewalk chalk and daily yoga sessions—these all tend to raise red-flags for traditional imperialists looking to become barons of industry. The word community comes up too much. It’s


suspicious. As a consequence, we don’t get many students intent upon domination. We are hard workers, creative intellectuals, and caring community members. We have lived and will continue to live with these values. Which brings us to the Wilson simile. We know what Wilson is, but what is Wilson like? When pressed for an answer, I would say, “Warren Wilson College is like middle-earth without Lord Sauron”. This is because:

• We have people who think they’re fairies. • We have enough beards on campus to form a dwarven kingdom. • We have quaint rolling hills, forests, and short people as well as superb pastoral scenery. • We have ‘Outdoor Programs,’ which is basically a ‘quest’ department. • Enya can be heard on occasion. • Some of the cast is going into the west. • And we have blacksmiths. That’s right—blacksmiths. We have door hinges forged in the fires of Blacksmith Crew. Not many colleges can say that.

Of course, no simile is perfect and Warren Wilson College, of all places, defies concise summary. It’s fun to try, though, and I invite every one of you to come up with your own simile or metaphor in the days ahead. The last component of this speech is by far the most important—giving thanks to those who have made our education possible (which includes our fellow students). I am humbled by the incredible energy, effort and integrity that have gone into our time here. Walking through these halls of learning and fields of wisdom, we have been supported by a vast and dedicated community of staff, faculty, family and friends. Together, we have worked to build habits we believe in: interconnecting disciplines, thinking critically, communicating openly, reflecting, playing, planning for the future and manifesting our beliefs through work and service. Thank you, all of you, for supporting these values and practices. My fellow graduates: May we continue to honor ourselves and our community by living lives rich with intention, integrity and good works. And, to all of middle earth, may it be an evening star shines on you. Thank you.


Closing Remarks By President Sandy Pfeiffer At the close of each commencement, it’s become customary to summarize the results of a survey done of our senior class about their immediate plans after Warren Wilson. Here are just a few pieces of information gleaned from the survey you completed about your next adventures. For some of you, the next stop will be an advanced degrees or more training. Some of your fields of study include medicine, philosophy, social work, veterinary medicine, osteoarchaeology, biochemistry, biology, social work and chemistry. Many of you will be heading straight to jobs, internships or state or national service positions. Here are a few you mentioned in your responses. Tandem Hang Gliding Instructor Conservation Biologist Salesperson Ground Water Extraction Well Manager Public and Private School Teacher Customer Service Representative Bureau of Land Management Intern Communications and Development Coordinator College Press Assistant Manager Mead Maker Program Director and Captain Landscape Manager Student Life Fellow Writing Center Fellows Coordinator Tomato Research Intern Farm Hand Environmental Educator Seaweed Farmer Land Steward Camp Counselor Warren Wilson Public Safety Officer Pollinator Enthusiast Social Justice Camp Teaching Assistant Residential Hall Counselor Deck Hand Field Instructor Community Outreach Partner AmeriCorps Peace Corps


This summer and into next year, many of you will be traveling around the country and to other nations such as Mexico, England, Scotland, Italy, Greece, China, British Virgin Islands, Portugal and Spain. All in all, you’re a diverse and ambitious group with dreams and plans that will change the world, like the intrepid group of Warren Wilson graduates that have gone before you. We will follow your progress, keep you informed about the college and welcome you back here many times in the future. My thanks to all of you—family members, friends, crew supervisors, faculty, staff, volunteers and others who helped share and shape the experience of the Class of 2012.

Pavilion by Ann Vasilik 2005


2012 Commencement  
2012 Commencement  

2012 Commencement featuring Grammy-Award winner Janis Ian.