Wesleyan University, my alma mater, is a small liberal arts school that gets a disproportionate amount of media coverage, usually for its uber-liberal ways. It has made the press for having a naked dorm and co-ed rooms. This time we made the headlines, and we didn't have to take our clothes off. Sen. Barack Obama veered from the campaign trail to give Sunday's commencement address for Wesleyan's class of 2008.
I happened to be going to the campus this weekend to celebrate my five-year reunion. I flew in to Connecticut from Los Angeles; others came from as far as Madrid and Buenos Aires. We left behind spouses, fiances and at least one baby so we could focus on each other and our memories. We love our Wesleyan.
The news that Obama was replacing the recently ill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as commencement speaker broke on Thursday, and alumni quickly jumped online to forward the news through emails, update Facebook messages and reschedule flights so they could stay on campus for Sunday's graduation ceremony.
Throughout the weekend I heard alumni from all classes say over and over how excited they were to see Obama speak, and how proud they were of Wesleyan.
"Yale doesn't have Obama," alumni said with a smirk, referring to the Ivy League school 30 minutes away. (Yale did get Tony Blair - impressive, but nowhere near as cool.)
The national media has written about the symbolism of Kennedy passing the liberal torch along to Obama. The campaigning senator did not need to come to Wesleyan and preach to a choir of young, educated, liberal elites. Most of the crowd were already devoted followers. Therefore, the argument goes, Obama must have done it to express his appreciation to Kennedy for his strong support.
This logic did not occur to many of us 03'ers. Of course Obama would come to Wesleyan. No explanations needed. We're the best school ever!
Wesleyan's commencement usually attracts around 3,000 people; this year's graduates had five times the crowd, despite the fact that the press said the event was closed to the public. On Sunday morning 10,000 family members, alumni and Obama fans took their seats on Andrus Field in front of Olin Library as church bells played the Wesleyan Fight Song. Another 5,000 laid down blankets on the overlooking Foss Hill, where we had gathered every sunny day for four years to drink 40s and bum cigarettes.
Hung-over graduating seniors in cardinal red gowns stumbled into the procession line to the beat of students playing powerful Japanese taiko drums. And as the national press set up camp and secret service snipers positioned themselves on top of Olin Library and the '92 Theatre, we could not have been prouder.
The crowd cheered at every reference to Obama. And when he finally spoke, the graduates and alumni and family members seemed to cling to every word. It wasn't the eloquence; it was the content. Taking a cue from Kennedy's planned address, Obama spoke about the need to serve one's country.
"You can take your diploma, walk off this stage and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy," Obama said. "But I hope you don't. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation...Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America's story."
He spoke of the need to volunteer, to teach, to bring skills and resources to impoverished communities around the world. He addressed the cynicism of older generations and of the need to "believe again."
He warned the graduates that the time will come when others try to dissuade them from their idealistic pursuits. "But I hope you'll remember," he said, "during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world."
The crowd erupted in applause.
Such advice is fitting at a place like Wesleyan, where our student body is known for choosing progressive and creative endeavors. Since graduating, members of my class have taught in inner city schools, studied how social networking can improve micro-finance techniques, started non-profits, studied civil rights law, translated for immigrant hospital patients, worked to develop democracy in Georgia (the country), traveled in places like Pakistan and Cambodia, and used music to teach kids new vocabulary.
They are members of the educated elite and yet most sacrifice lucrative paychecks at big law firms or investment banks in favor of taking a stab at making a difference.
But as Obama made clear, even at a place like Wesleyan, young people's impulse to change the world should not be taken for granted. That idealism needs to be prodded and nurtured. It must be taken seriously. And sometimes, no matter what side of the political aisle one's sitting on, it's important to know that there's at least one adult out there not calling us naive. This one happens to be running for president.