My Postscript to the Class of 2015

06/08/2015 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

As president of several liberal arts colleges during the past quarter-century, I traditionally have made formal remarks during commencement ceremonies. It's important to welcome the graduating class, their families and friends and institutional guests, to the signature close of the academic year; to remind them of their obligations to themselves and to society; to encourage them to engage in lifelong learning and to urge their continued support of their soon-to-be alma mater. (Hint, hint: expect those annual-fund appeals from the advancement office.)

I thank the "dedicated faculty whose skilled teaching, advising and mentoring have guided you during the past four years," and I try to put the seniors' undergraduate experience in a more global perspective. Although they may not keep up on current events as much as we'd like them to, their lives have already been affected significantly by international conflicts and terrorism, climate change, astonishing technological innovation and all the rest. They will need, very soon, to address these challenges and recognize them as their own.

Accordingly, I invite the grads to live well but productively: "As college graduates and leaders," I say, "you have an obligation to strive toward creating the world as you would like it to be." Given the improbability that the students and their families are focused on that ethereal responsibility at that very moment, my remarks are typically received with short, polite applause as the audience thumbs through their programs for what really matters to them -- the names of their graduates.

And well they should. Many students at the colleges I have served are the first in their families to graduate from higher education. It's a proud occasion for them and for us educators who have brought them to this milestone moment.

There are times, however, when I leave the commencement stage wishing I could have said more, accomplished more, in a sense, when longstanding institutional tradition unites with highly personal ones launched that very morning. As the graduates are about to cross over from one realm to another, it's the last real opportunity to say anything else of relevance, to give a warning, to offer hope. I imagine that most of my presidential colleagues, whose schedules, like mine, preempt delivering an address as a guest on another campus, would relish the freedom to go off script once in a while--to deliver a postscript to all the formal, typically predictable and often wildly optimistic rhetoric of the occasion.

Here's what I'd also like to say to the Class of 2015.

  1. Buckle up. With your technological devices and helicopter parents, generous institutional scholarships and luxury cars that college students of a generation ago were denied parking stickers for, your four years have been comfortable. But now you're climbing into the life equivalent of an F-15 cockpit. As those giving commencement addresses have often noted, you'll be expected to fly faster and farther than any previous generation, you'll be 30 before you know it, and you better have a survival plan for when you crash, because you will. All of us do.
  2. Don't panic. Because most of you do not know history, life is going to seem, at times, pretty raw and rude -- as if you're being singled out for punishment. No one says you should be able to take the long view at age 21, or possess the wisdom that begins to accrue at middle age, but you should appreciate the fact that countless people have come before you, often struggled more than you have and endured and even flourished, emerging much stronger for the experience.
  3. Take a number. We tried to give you as many internship, career-placement and resume-building opportunities as we could, but some of you just didn't get it. You ignored us when we said to work on your communication skills, didn't follow through on work-study assignments and foolishly posted self-incriminating trash on social media -- after we warned you time and again not to. Now you're competing with every other college graduate from New York to New Delhi. For your sake, I hope your future employer will overlook any shortcomings. For the best jobs, though, I wouldn't bet on it.
  4. Feel the pain, but also the love. True maturity is a mixture of learning to appreciate both. Your families and our faculty probably have offered you a preliminary formula for balance in your life -- for surviving, working hard and aspiring to personal greatness while enjoying the possibilities presented to you through your education. Now it's up to you to keep the momentum going, balance life and career and keep the engines of your true being in top running order. To accomplish this, you will need to become a master of engaging fully in life, while knowing when to disengage from its meaningless distractions.

I'd give all of this a good 50 years or so to work through, and because patience is not always a trait of you millennials, you're just going to have to subscribe to the old adage of enjoying the ride. Do feel free to come back to campus periodically for a booster shot of confidence, self-indulgence and pure fun. In the frenetic world you're about to plunge into full force, your alma mater is likely to remain one of the few stable, reliable entities you can continue to trust and count on.

That's what I really want for you, Class of 2015. We have each challenged the other to listen, to change and to exceed expectations, and no doubt we struggled to make our four-year relationship work.

And now, even more than your annual-fund gifts, I'd like to think you reward us with your faith and faithfulness for our being so caring and frank with you.

Today you're excited beyond words and even your prized selfies. But to know you will have something you can truly believe in during these times in which we live is the real source of celebration on commencement morning.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives" (, a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.