University of Vermont

Ceremonial Events - Commencement

Judith Cohen Closing Reflection Commencement 2006

Closing Reflection

Judith A. Cohen,
Vice President of the Faculty Senate

photo of Judith Cohen giving closing reflectionI remember standing in your very shoes 31 years ago as I participated in my own UVM commencement ceremony as a student. It is an important moment in your life as it was in mine. It is a time of hope and expectation. You begin the next stage of your life with your intellect, the education you received at UVM, both in the classroom and out, your energy, your enthusiasm, your humor and your dreams. All these will serve you well in whatever future you have envisioned for your self - (or whatever future happens to you that you have not envisioned).

When you arrived on campus, could you have imagined what was in store for you? The classes and the friends, the parties and the studying, the organizations and the activities?

And yet, we seem to also be surrounded by violence and war, grim visions, natural disasters, by uncertainty, vulnerability, despair, and hopelessness. In spite of our privileged position as highly educated, informed individuals, we can often be tempted to throw up our hands, at least metaphorically, and throw in the towel. What can we do? What can anybody do?

Please don't allow yourselves to be drawn down this path. As an alternative to living a life of detachment, cynicism, pessimism, and disengagement, I ask you to consider living a life engaged by hope.

Dr. Esteva spoke so eloquently about hope this morning but what does “hope” mean to you? I hope I did well on that exam, I hope my friend gets a job, I hope my spouse will support my decisions. We use the word "hope" for a range of desires, from the trivial to the substantial and the profound. But often we are left with the sense that hope has no power to actually accomplish anything.

But I have a different and deeper sense of hope. I did what any speaker does when preparing a reflection. I went to the dictionary to look up the etymology and definition of hope. Some suggest a connection between hope with hop (v.) or the notion of “leaping in expectation. Although there were many variations, the words desire, expectation, future, and promise were used in many of the definitions.

But this one was my favorite:
“To desire with expectation or with belief in the possibility or prospect of obtaining”

Not just desiring, but desiring with the expectation of obtaining it. It's vision combined with work.

If we are to be a hopeful people, filled with a sense of the possible, we must expect it to happen and we must work so that it does happen. Do we hope for peace in our world? Then we must work for justice and oppose oppression. Do we hope for homes for the homeless and food for the hungry? Then we must build houses and provide meals. Do we hope for an end to violence and terrorism? Then we must seek to alleviate the root causes of violence and hatred.

One thing I'm sure of is that your years here at UVM have given you a clearer vision, a deeper understanding, and the ability to question critically. Using these tools, you are in a position to imaginatively and hopefully address the problems and trials of your lives and of the world.

Where does one find a sense of hope? How do we “keep hope alive?” For me, a reliance on hope, an engagement through hope, a denial of hopelessness and despair, comes from many places.

From personal experiences which are characterized by the trials and tribulations of life but which ultimately can lead to new transcendent meanings and a renewal of spirit;

From the world's religions which inspire me in my spiritual life and allow me to see not only the self but what is beyond myself;
From history itself, which despite all examples to the contrary, does hold evidence of the dignity of the human heart;
From caring/healing relationships which can lead to creative imagination of future possibilities;
From the words and actions of prophetic women and men throughout history which challenge us to live with courage and to create the world we envision.
You have probably heard the quote from Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

These are hopeful words, reminding us that change for the better is possible and that you, we, are the agents of that change. Empowering words of hope and possibility.

So I would urge you to consider taking one more gift with you as you go. It is not another course requirement or something to add to your resumé. It is rather a mindset, a way of being and acting in the world. It is the gift of hope.

Move forward with courage, with heart
Fight against fear, detachment and cynicism,
Live with hope.

Last modified June 04 2006 12:01 PM

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