President of the Student Body
Washington and Lee University
May 24, 2012
Thank you President Ruscio for inviting me to speak here on this beautiful May morning. I can’t think of a better day or a better view than that of the colonnade from where I now stand. When each of you, my classmates, come up here in a few minutes, I encourage you to look at the red bricks that Robert E. Lee tread on 142 short years ago. I ask that you gaze at the eggshell columns brushed against by thousands of alumni. I hope that you’ll be refreshed by the green grass that you tread upon only days ago. And I pray that you peer upon the faces of your classmates that you may not see again for another five, ten, or twenty five years.
As you stand on this stage, look to your left at the faculty members that you once loved—and others who you didn’t. The men and women who sit before you wearing funny hats and capes—funnier, even, than our own—have brought us a long way. I imagine that there is not one of you who have not met with a teacher in their office and talked about something other than shop. Baseball, football, politics, cooking, how they could hear the noise from your Saturday night party from their bedroom—we’ve all had opportunities to get to know this faculty and administration in ways that are unique to this place.
As your gaze shifts from President Ruscio’s eyes, to your diploma, to the colonnade, to the faculty, I hope they will rest finally on your family who sits before you—pausing an extra second with a giant smile as they take your picture from the back row. As you look at Mom, Dad, grandparents, and siblings, remember all of the support that they have given you. Think about all that they have sacrifice to send you to Washington and Lee, just to see you reach this day, and how excited they are not to send another check addressed to this place.
They didn’t send you here simply because they knew you’d learn how to tap a keg, though I’m sure it played into their decision. They sent you here, so that you’d learn to think and speak and read and write and research. They knew that after four years—because that’s all they told you that they would pay for—at W&L that you would walk away ready to take on the world.
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In a few minutes you will walk across this stage and become and alumnus or alumna of Washington and Lee University. From there you will run off to Law School, Medical School, New York, DC, the Grand Tetons, or back home. Once you step off of this stage though, after a few seconds, a couple of handshakes, and a pause for a picture, you will become a certified adult, with a $200,0000 piece of paper to prove it. All of a sudden, you will be automatically incapable of behaviors involving drunkenness, debauchery, and immaturity… at least until Alumni Weekend.
Graduating from Washington and Lee University is different from graduating from most other schools. Rather than joining hundreds of thousands of living alumni, we join only a few thousand. Yet these few thousand are proud and proud of this place. They know what it is to be a W&L student, and they live successful lives across the country.
Just last summer I was working on a gubernatorial campaign back home in Mississippi, and the whole campaign staff was required to go to Philadelphia, Mississippi for the Neshoba County Fair. It’s a huge event in that hosts more than 600 log cabins that only receive electricity during the two weeks leading up to the fair and the days following. The grounds are huge and the cabins are tightly lined with only four feet of space between them around a horse track.
I knew one person in the entire county—a coworker four years older than me who graduated from Mississippi State—and I had no intention of leaving his side. After an hour of forced conversations with strangers—primarily about the Mississippi heat—we headed to a cabin where my friend knew people—and of course, I didn’t. As we walked down the red clay road, though, I saw a blue flag with a familiar white logo hanging from a cabin. Knowing nobody else in the whole all of Neshoba County, I left my friend telling him that we’d meet up later, stepped onto the porch and knocked on the sliding glass door. On the glass was a W&L Alumni sticker.
I asked the man who answered if anyone in the house had gone to W&L, and immediately a smile beamed across his face. I was ushered in, handed a beer (the man joked that he knew I’d prefer a Natural Light), and joined by his son, a 2004 graduate of W&L. After the two of them interrogated me about Lexington, Greek life, student houses, Honor System, the President, Deans, and so on for an hour, I reluctantly left the cabin. When I rejoined my friend, he asked me where I’d been and how I’d known those strangers. I told him that I’d seen the flag and that frankly, “these were my people.” We then both looked out over the sea of cabins, all covered in Ole Miss and Mississippi State flags, he shook his head and said, “Yeah, that wouldn’t really work for me.”
The great thing about Washington and Lee is that it works for us. We are a small knit group that—though not based out of a central area or region—sticks together behind a place. I’ve got friends at Ole Miss who can probably tell you somebody who lives in 50 to 55 of the 82 counties of Mississippi if they think about it. But what I’m proud of is that I can do them one better. Looking through my cell phone the other day, I realized that should I have a blowout somewhere, I could make a call—though potentially an awkward one—but I could make a call and have either help or a place to stay in 41 out of 50 states—and that includes Alaska (if anyone is from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, either Dakota, Hawaii, Vermont, New Hampshire, let me know after this). This place has brought together a group of people who are diverse, smart, care about doing their work, and who love where they are now. That is one of my favorite aspects of this place.
Back in August, I had the responsibility of introducing President Ruscio to the freshmen parents before Orientation Week. These men and women likely heard the same speech that your parents here today heard back then. President Ruscio asked them to close their eyes, and he led them on the journey that would be their child’s college experience. It involved papers, parties, and even police records—he truly prepared them for everything.
But he closed his remarks by making the parents that were falling asleep in the back wake up with a jolt. He mentioned that inevitably every year, two freshmen, somewhere during their four-year span, fall in love, and will be engaged to be married with Lee Chapel wedding plans by graduation. Our class has seen that.
Our class was the last to see the Colonnade before renovation, and the first to take a class in the new Newcomb Hall. We were the first Johnson Scholars—translated “curve busters”. Our class acceptance rate was 16.81%. We have witnessed the innovation of a “social floor” of the library. We’ve seen a porch collapse. We’ve seen a student home engulfed in flames. We’ve seen 18 inches of snow, and many of us may never see anything like it again. We were the last to enjoy a 6-week Spring Term. We correctly picked the Republican nominee though our Mock Convention—chaired for four years by members of our class. We witnessed an Open Honor Hearing. We’ve watched fraternities get kicked off campus, return, and get booted again. We were here for the birth of a new sorority and the mansion that followed. We’ve danced at four Fancy Dresses. We saw the election of new President of the United States, and we listened as our classmates both danced in the quad and “Booed” throughout Graham Lees. We’ve experienced four O-Weeks. Faculty Members, administrators, trustees, and classmates have all come and gone during our four years at W&L. We’ve seen ODAC Championships and national championships. And everyone here today has even passed a swim test, though, admittedly, myself included, many of us would float better now than when we initially arrived on campus.
Yet here we are. Here we sit, only a few minutes away from the next chapter in our lives—I’m sure someone just won a $5 bet thanks to that phrase. In a few moments you will walk up these stairs a student of this university, and will walk down them an alumnus or alumna. I hope that after you leave here, once you’ve packed up your room, loaded everything into your U-Haul, kissed your housemother goodbye, and hugged the last of your friends, that you will remember this place. Remember what it means to live in an environment where people trust you and take you at your word. People often talk about the “W&L Bubble” after they leave here. Here, in Lexington, you are safe, they tell you. But once you graduate, everything changes. I ask, though, that you not change simply because you are no longer in Lexington. I ask that you remember what you learned at Washington and Lee, for what you learned here—a lifestyle of honor and integrity—is what unites every single Washington and Lee class and it’s 20,000 living alumni. What you learned here, you could not have learned anywhere else.