University of Vermont

December Grad Reflection

December Graduates Recognition Celebration
December 18, 2004
Ira Allen Chapel


Jean Richardson Ph.D
Professor Emerita, Environmental Studies, Natural Resources and Geography

Although this graduation ceremony is informal, it is nonetheless a very significant moment in the lives of everyone here, family members as well as graduates. Your presence here indicates that you understand the importance of these rights of passage in our lives. This ceremony provides a moment to reflect on where you have been and where you are headed.

In preparing my comments I tried to think how we look back on graduations, recalling those feelings of excitement and apprehension. Charles Dickens’ words came to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;...... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us....” !

I recalled that within a few weeks of my graduation from the University of Newcastle on Tyne, England, I boarded a freighter in Glasgow, Scotland. Our cargo was strawberries and whisky. We crossed the North Atlantic in a Force Nine gale, then through the Great Lakes in humid hot days and nights unlike anything I had ever experienced in cool, wet England. I had was the only woman on board, and the only passenger (with 40 Irish seamen!) headed into the unknown of America, to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, full of excitement and apprehension. I disembarked in Chicago, all alone with a trunk of books, and only twenty dollars to my name. When I landed in Chicago I did not know exactly where I was going with my life, but I was ready for an adventure, willing to take risks, and I found, over time, with trial and error, that I was able to adapt to the challenges that the next 40 years threw in my path.

After several years of field research in New Zealand, and a husband and two children later, I came to the University of Vermont where I was a Professor for over two decades, an interdisciplinary scholar, with teaching and research in environmental studies, geography and environmental law. At the same time I was active off campus, providing environmental leadership not only in Vermont but I was also appointed by President Clinton to represent the United States nationally and internationally on environmental science and policy in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

So, I have four points to make:

First, Learn to Trust your Instinct and Intuition.
As undergraduates you will have learned a wide range of facts and concepts from several disciplines. In many ways this education has provided you with a “map” of the world, but I warn you that you will need to keep learning and adapting as that “map” changes. And you will need to trust your instinct and follow your intuition. Let me tell you a story:

Not long ago I was driving with my family to Quebec city. We got lost. My dreamy younger daughter, an English Literature major, had been listening to music on earphones, and had seen nothing; my husband, a forester had been looking for acid rain damage on the foliage of the maple trees, and that day he relied on others to show him the way; my computer scientist son-in-law, the person navigating our route, was adamant the he had followed exactly the numbers on the road map in his hand; my observant agricultural ecologist daughter said she felt instinctively that we were headed west when we should have been going east. We were thoroughly lost. We stopped to ask the way. The locals understood my Parisian french accent, but they spoke with a thick Quebec dialect which was difficult to understand. They seemed to be telling us that this road no longer went to Quebec city. We soon realized that our map was out-of-date. The road numbers had changed. New roads had been built. Villages had been by-passed and rivers crossed by new bridges. Our map was wrong, and yet we had been blaming ourselves and the landscape for our being lost.

There is danger in automatically believing that the “map” we have been given must be correct for all times. So we must not suppress our own instinct and intuition but use it, especially in the face of change, because we all need to have accurate maps of the world, not only for our personal well-being but also because, as well-educated Americans, we must be able to play a leadership role at home and abroad, and knowing where you are is pretty important! . ....

Which brings me to my second point .....

Pay attention!
Pay attention to the changing world in which we live; to the decisions being made in the world’s Capital cities;

Pay attention to the widespread confusion over what “freedom and democracy” really mean.

Pay attention to the war in Iraq and its implications for us all, especially for the men and women, who must bear the brunt of thousand and more deaths and the many thousands with physical and mental wounds that change their lives and the lives of their families for ever.

Pay attention to the unfolding story behind the apparently deliberate poisoning of presidential candidate Viktor Yushenko of Ukraine with one of the dioxin group of highly toxic chemicals. Consider the implications for stability in central Europe. And at the same time pay attention to the health implications for Americans as we continue to add a range of dioxins to our food chain when we incinerate vast quantities of municipal and medical waste, and scrap tires, which produce pollutants to be transported down wind, even though we know that many of the highly toxic dioxins are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Pay attention to the human condition, to the health and welfare of people in this country and overseas. Consider for example women and their needs in the diverse corners of this country and the world. Women must all too often bear many of the burdens without much say in government. Internationally women own only about 1% of the world’s property, and yet they are typically the primary farmers of the world, a major force in industry, the first teachers of our children, yet denied adequate health and medical care, or economic and political equity.

Pay attention to what is going on in Washington DC. - Pay attention to who is serving on the Supreme Court because the make-up of this court interprets the US Constitution for generations to come; Or better still go to Washington yourself and play a role in making the changes that you believe are needed.

Third, Ask The Right Questions.
There are no simple answers to the issues just raised. They are complex and multi-faceted. I do not offer simplistic solutions, I just ask that you make sure you are asking the right questions, because the framing of the questions asked will determine the answers given. And the framing of questions will depend on how you articulate your own values and culture, and your understanding of the global society in which we live. And don’t be afraid to ask the right question over and over again until you get an answer that makes sense to you. Do not assume that the “Rule” must be correct. Do what the poet and civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou would urge us to do, and ask “Who made the Rule?”.

Fourth, Think in an Interdisciplinary Way.
When Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize a few days ago she became the first African woman, and first environmentalist to win the Peace prize. Read what she said in her acceptance speech about why preventing deforestation and being an active environmentalist can lead to Peace through helping establish sustainable communities. - and don’t think that just applies to Africa. And do not forget that you can be an environmentalist whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, and regardless of your actual major in University.

Remember, even though you took courses in separate subjects, this was merely a convenient tool for sharing knowledge. In reality all things are inter-connected. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of nature we cannot afford to ignore the essential relationship between the disciplines. So, to do well in the world, and to make a difference, we must all think and act in an interdisciplinary manner. There aren’t single issues to be resolved in isolation by quick fixes, but complex issues which exist in contexts both cultural and biological, and which demand complex multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches to reach comprehensive solutions which can be adapted to our ever-changing world.

So I am asking that you take your education, and those things that you are passionate about, and go out and make a difference, because, — teachers, family and friends, and graduating students, — we Americans are the kind of individuals who dream about what the world can be, and we must regularly assess where we have been, and where we are headed, and re-dedicate ourselves to making those dreams come true. So remember: Trust your intuition and instinct; Pay attention to what is happening at home and worldwide; Ask the right questions; and Think in an inter-disciplinary way.

My congratulations to all of you.

Thank you.

Last modified December 22 2004 07:44 AM

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