A letter to my son on graduation day

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Column by David B. Whitlock

Dear Dave: We watched as you took your diploma in one hand and shook President Roush’s hand with the other. That was a great moment for all of us, for it signified the closing of one chapter in your life and the opening of another.

Now that you have your diploma, remember that it has meaning beyond the listing of your name, the date you graduated and the school, Centre College, which granted the degree you earned.

First, that diploma means you are to be a thinker. Just because you’ve earned a degree doesn’t mean you automatically know how to think or that you will continue to do so. I’ve known plenty of people who have earned degrees from prestigious schools, and having walked across the stage with their diploma in hand, never read another book, entertained a new idea or forced themselves to stretch one mental muscle. Having isolated themselves in a cocoon of indifference, they languished in mediocrity rather than thriving in the fresh air of open-mindedness and challenge.

While your liberal arts education has given you an excellent foundation to think for yourself, you must still work at it just as diligently as an Olympic athlete trains for the games. Thinking means listening carefully to others, evaluating what’s being communicated and asking yourself how their ideas might integrate truth into your life or conversely, negatively impact you and the global village in which you find yourself.

Second, it means you are meant to be you and no one else. Take another look at that diploma. It only has one name on it: your own. Your education has taught you the value of being who you are. When you are not you, the world is cheated because you have unique abilities, talents and gifts only you can give the world.

You have a purpose that extends beyond yourself, but if you try to live someone else’s values instead of the ones you yourself believe in, you compromise something vital within yourself, depriving yourself of the joy that comes in being the individual you are meant to be.

Third, it means you care about others enough to give a part of yourself to them. Education, at its best, doesn’t take place in a solitary cell in an online conversation between a student and an impersonal, unknown grader.

Those times you spent with your buddies at the fraternity house or on the intramural field, the time you gave to others on the Student Government Council, or the moments you enjoyed interacting with friends at The Campus Center, were important. They can teach you how to cooperate, work for a common goal and have fun in the process. So much of success in life is about getting along with others and making personal sacrifices that enable others to succeed. When you do that, you yourself are succeeding.

Fourth, as you look at that diploma, remember the people that handed it to you. I do mean President Roush, of course. But I also mean others as well, people like Dr. Wyatt, who ignited your love for historical research, Dr. Lucas, who directed you in your chosen field of study, Mrs. Nash, who in second grade instilled in you a love for reading, and Mrs. Followell, the high school teacher who first encouraged you to write, and Glen Richardson and Coach Robbins, whose demands on your physical discipline helped make you mentally tough.

And be grateful for all those people standing in the shadows: secretaries, teacher’s aides, administrators, custodians -- people who helped in anonymous ways along your journey to the stage.

And lastly, pick up that diploma and take it with you. Take all that it represents -- the learning that enlightens your mind, the friends that are now a part of you, the work that makes you strong -- and tuck all that in your heart, letting those things expand your mental horizons as they light the path to your future.

When you strive for that, even when you fail along the way and few if any recognize the sacrifices you’ve made, remember: You truly are a success.

And as you find your way, having walked away from the stage with diploma in hand, look back and give mom and dad a wink.

And don’t be sad if you see a tear falling from my cheek; it will be caught by the smile on my face.

Contact David B. Whitlock, Ph.D. at drdavid@davidbwitlock.com or visit his website, www.davidbwhitlock.com.