Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Graduation Weekend 2009

Colleges and universities across the region held their commencement exercises over the weekend of May 15-17, including George Mason University in Fairfax and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

As noted by former Congressman Tom Davis, the featured speaker at the undergraduate convocation of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University, “This is a very, very challenging time to be graduating. In our country and across the world, we have the highest unemployment rate in a generation. We have a world full of ethnic and religious tensions and an unprecedented threat of global terrorism. We have a national debt that is so high that, just in the last few months, if you were to stack up thousand-dollar bills, the stack is 60 miles high.”

Davis, who represented Virginia’s 11th congressional district for 14 years before retiring in January, now teaches part-time at GMU. He pointed out that the school has many accomplishments of which to be proud, including a faculty with two Nobel Prize winners and two Pulitzer Prize winners; a student body that produced a Final Four NCAA basketball team; and a rating by Princeton Review as one of the best bargains in higher education. He called GMU “America’s number one up-and-coming university.”

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is the largest unit among George Mason’s several schools. The convocation on May 15 provided an opportunity for its more than 3,000 graduating seniors to be recognized in advance of the all-university commencement the next day. Davis – who before his election to Congress was chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors – took his speaking opportunity to present “Davis’ Five Rules for Moving on in Life after College.”

Those five rules were:

(1) “Follow your instincts. We all have a special talent or special gifts that make us, if not the best in something, at least a little better than the average bear… Take that instinct for whatever it is, and ride it… Take that talent, develop it, and go with it.”

(2) “Don’t give up easy. Set high standards for yourself and stay with it. It’s so easy to get discouraged, but as I tell my kids and I tell other people entering politics, ‘If you’re afraid of losing, you’re never going to be a winner.’”

(3) “Always give back to your community. No matter how bad things are or how good they are, give back to the community… Nothing is a better feeling than having accomplished something that helps somebody else.”

(4) “Once you leave college, don’t stop reading. Continue to be curious, continue to ask questions, continue to enrich your mind… Read and learn, think for yourself, form your own opinions.”

(5) “While you’re doing everything else, take some time out for yourself. Stop and smell the roses… As that great 20th century philosopher, Ferris Bueller, said on his day off, ‘Life moves pretty fast and if you don’t stop and look around, you can miss it.’”
The next day in Richmond, physician-geneticist Francis S. Collins received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and addressed the graduates there. According to university president Eugene P. Trani, some 3,800 students received their degrees that day, in addition to approximately 2,000 who received degrees in December, for a 2009 graduating class of nearly 6,000 members.

Collins, who from 1993 to 2008 was the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, oversaw the sequencing of the human genome (DNA), which was accomplished in April 2003 – ahead of schedule and under budget.

Collins is the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and his commencement address was both edifying and entertaining.

Taking a cue from his own scientific endeavors, Collins told the graduates that they will be part of the first generation “where your lives will be profoundly affected by knowledge of your own DNA, the human genome. That human DNA sequence … our own instruction book, is three billion letters long. If you printed it out on standard paper with standard margins and reasonable font size and piled the pages on top of each other, they would be as high as the Washington Monument.”

“You have that information inside each cell of your body,” he continued. “If we decided to have a reading of the human genome… and we could pass it around and each graduate could read for a little bit, and then pass it along to the next one – probably not a good idea, because we would be here seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for 31 years.”

Although the Human Genome Project cost about $400 million, Collins said that “in the next five to ten years, each one of you will likely have your complete human genome -- if you’re interested -- sequenced at a cost for less than $1,000, and placed in your medical record where it might be pretty useful at some point where you need to know something about your own instruction booklet.”

Collins noted that he had listened to dozens of commencement addresses but only remembered one of them, from his high school graduation in Staunton, Virginia, where the speaker challenged the class to answer the most important questions in life. He chose to present four such similar questions to the VCU graduates.
(1) “What will be your profession, your life’s work? Some of you already know what that will be. Some of you don’t, but that’s ok. Some think you do, and will be surprised later on when your plan gets utterly revised.”

(2) “What are you going to do about faith? …We do all have to come face to face, sooner or later, with life’s profound questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s the meaning of suffering? …What happens when we die?”

(3) “What role will love play in your life? Well, as much as possible, right?”

(4) “What’s the fourth? Fun! After all, life is full of sobering, tragic moments, so you’re going to need to exercise your sense of humor.”
At this point, Collins picked up a guitar with “a double helix on the fret board” to accompany himself on a song parody of “My Way,” having fun with academic stereotypes and the experiences of everyday student – and faculty – life. He called it “A Song of the Student Experience” and it was met with exuberant cheers and applause from the audience in the Richmond Coliseum, students, faculty, family, and friends alike.

Video of the speeches by Tom Davis at GMU and Francis Collins at VCU can be seen on YouTube and also right here, below.

First, some highlights of the convocation ceremony at GMU, held in the Patriot Center:

Then, in two parts, former Congressman Tom Davis addresses the graduates, faculty, friends, and family:

Here are some highlights of the VCU commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16. Note how the orchestra begins with "Gaudeamus Igitur" (as one might expect) but also plays an arrangement of "For All the Saints," an odd choice for a secular institution's graduation exercises.

As the platform party took the stage, the orchestra played "Pomp & Circumstance," followed by the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" by J. Chase Peak.

Dr. Francis Collins chose to speak for a few minutes longer than Congressman Davis did, so his address is divided here into three parts. The last section includes his musical number, a parody of Paul Anka's (or, if you insist, Frank Sinatra's) "My Way."

For more photos from the GMU College of Humanities and Social Sciences convocation, look here. For more photos from the VCU commencement, look here.

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