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Anderson encourages grads to seek gratitude, wonder and courage in his final address

May 27, 2012
President Loren J. Anderson enters the Tacoma Dome to give his last commencement address on Sunday, May 27, 2012. (Photo by John Froschauer)

President Loren J. Anderson enters the Tacoma Dome on May 27, 2012 to give his last commencement speech. (Photograph by John Froschauer)

President Loren J. Anderson’s final commencement address to the Class of 2012


Distinguished Graduates, Family, and Friends:

Commencement day is finally here!  It is a big day, an important day; a day that marks an end, even as it signals exciting new beginnings.   For some, your PLU journey required just two years, for most of you four, some a bit longer, . . . and, of course, it took me 20!  But we have all made it, and tomorrow, MaryAnn and I, like so many of you will be packing the car and preparing to hit the road, and leaving daily life in the so called Lutedome for the last time!

So, in a very special way, MaryAnn and have been thinking of this as our commencement day, and so we hope that it is O.K. with you if we claim for ourselves honorary membership in the class of 2012!

And we are excited to join your class, because transition times are unsettling.  We, like you, are feeing anxious and bit uncertain, wondering if they will like us, and wondering if we will make it out there in the real world beyond Pacific Avenue and 512.  Yes, at this important turning point in life, good friends and classmates are more important than ever!

And MaryAnn and I are proud to claim membership in your class, because you are an accomplished and remarkable group.  There are some 680 of you graduating today, you have come together in this great PLU learning community from 32 different states, and 14 different countries.  Your membership represents the great diversity of the human family, religiously, ethnically, economically, five of you are only 20, and the oldest “real” graduate is 65, the oldest “honorary” grad is 66!

You have done well at PLU!  Today, 222 of your number are graduating with academic honors, 48 of you have completed the International Honors program, dozens have participated in demanding student-faculty research projects,  and all of you receiving Bachelors degrees have survived your capstone projects. You have brought distinction to the University, and yourselves, as award winning musicians, accomplished thespians, outstanding student athletes,  dedicated social advocates, and remarkable leaders.

You have worked with us in building bridges with Tacoma and our greater South Sound community by serving in our schools, working in Boys and Girls Clubs, reaching out to our Lakewood neighbors in a time of horrific tragedy, and one year ago leading us all onto the road of hope called “Be the Spark.”  And at the same time you have built bridges around the world, as 346 of you, over 40 percent of your class, including over one-third of you receiving your Master’s degree, has studied away, 75 of you have done so at least twice, and, as a class, you have studied in 48 — yes, that’s right, 48 — different countries, and on all seven continents!  It is a very impressive record.

And, now, it is is time to turn our faces to the future, and the exciting news has been rolling in daily:  Four of you have earned Fulbright Fellowships, others of you are off to medical, dental, and veterinary school programs, and an impressive number of you have garnered spots in the most prestigious graduate programs in your field.  Jessica was accepted by seven universities and, in the end, turned down Harvard Divinity to accept a full scholarship to Yale.  Kristin, on the other hand, turned down Yale and Princeton, and will study women’s health at Vanderbilt, Kelsey will study social work at Smith. Anna is off to seek a Ph.D. in neuroscience at UC-Davis, Ashley in nanoscience at Colorado, and Joe in plasma physics at Wisconsin.  Angela is headed to the New School for Drama in New York, while Jordan will join a theatre company in Washington DC, and Abagail in Philadelphia.

The “I’ve got a new job stories” are also exciting.  Shannon and Annie will be working at Bank of New York Mellon as financial analysts; Lauren as an accountant at Moss Adams.  Master’s graduate Chris will be teaching science at Washington High School; Melanie will be in elementary special education in Clover Park.  Sean is off to teach life skills through soccer in Uganda, while Nikki will be working to save lives in the ICU at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Yes, the Pacific Lutheran University Class of 2012 is ready for launch, and while the trails you have traveled make us proud; the paths lying ahead stretch our imagination, and, I know, will be even more remarkable to witness.  And as you go forth, I offer three ideas, three hopes really, that I believe will enrich your journey.


First, I wish for each of you a thanksgiving spirit, as it is the source for a life lived in gratitude!

And “gratitude,” write Melody Beattie, “unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity . . . Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Living gratefully begins when we recognize and accept in joy the incredible gifts that are ours.  In the faith tradition of Pacific Lutheran University, we believe that God’s greatest gift is life itself, your many talents and abilities are an inheritance.  Each member of the Class of 2012 has been nurtured and loved by a village that cares deeply, and to whom you matter greatly.  And during your PLU time, you have been taught and mentored by this remarkable faculty and staff that flanks you today, and for whom your success defines their highest vocational calling and their greatest reward.

And now, armed with your new PLU bachelor’s or master’s degree you have joined the ranks of the privileged and prepared few who will have the greatest opportunity to impact and shape the future.  In the United States, you are now 1 in 4; in our global village, you are 1 in a 100.  Yes, as you walk across this stage today, your earning capacity doubles, your chances of unemployment are cut in half, you are more likely to vote and be active in your church and community; even your life expectancy is increased, and the probability of your finding happiness in love is higher.

Today is a day to celebrate great gifts, to give hearty thanks — and to commence living a life of gratitude!


Second, I wish for each of you a life of wonder, the ability to stand in awe as you contemplate the beauty and complexity of God’s creation; and always, the child-like capacity to always ask “why?”

I remember so clearly heading off to college many years ago in search of great knowledge and certain answers.  And I recall the surprise of leaving college 8 years later, with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in my drawer, and a brand new Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in my pocket, with a new awareness of how shockingly little I know.  But, now, as I look back, I realize I left school prepared to wrestle with a lifetime worth of questions, and with a great curiosity that continues to fuel my wondering and my learning.  As you look back on your PLU education, I hope you will see a similar pattern.

Because you see the search for truth and understanding is continuous, never ending, and what we “know for sure” is organic; and that reality requires of us a kind of intellectual humility, an openness to the possibility of being wrong, and then learning anew.  I lived for over 60 years knowing there were nine planets, now we are not sure how many, or even how we best define and distinguish them!  Last month, my MD said, “well, you’ve been taking those statins for 10 years now, and we hope they reduce the chance of a heart attack, but we really don’t know.”

So the counsel of poet Rainer Maria Rilke is important.  In his “Letters to a Young Poet,” he  urges us to “have patience (and) . . . love the questions . . . and live the questions now.  . . . then someday far in the future , . . . you will . . . live your way into the answer.

One person who modeled Rilke’s wisdom was the great Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl.  In 1939, he was conducting research along the coast of British Columbia in a effort to understand the northern Pacific ocean currents, when he as called home because WW II had broken out in Europe.  In 1998, 59 years later, and at age 83, Heyerdahl came to be our PLU commencement speaker, and he arrived three days early so that he could visit BC and continue his research.  Heyerdahl personified our great human capacity to wonder, to stand in awe of creation, to ask “why,” and to the live into the question — for a lifetime.

Today is a day to reflect on our learning — and to commence a life of wondering!


Third and finally, I hope that your PLU education has encouraged a strong and positive sense of your own person, a clear sense of identity that is the foundation of a life of courage; for living courageously!

A brief explanation:  I realize that on this day of transition and change, along with  uncertainty about the future, courage may seem a strange and elusive virtue.  And that is certainly true if we if we think of courage in the popular sense as a kind of  “fearless and even reckless bravery.”

But, there is more, for a closer look reveals that the word courage is derived from the Latin root “cor,” meaning heart, and the English suffix “age,” meaning action.  In other words, courage can be properly understood as “an action that comes from the heart” and, as such, it is a nobel action, grounded in our core values, and with the welfare of others in mind.

In his now oft-quoted commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, the late Steve Jobs, who at the time was living in shadow of his first bout with pancreatic cancer, spoke eloquently about living with courage:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living the result of other people’s thinking.  Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your inner voice.  And, most important, have the COURAGE to follow your heart and intuition.  They already know what you want to become.  Everything else is secondary.”

Now I realize this may sound somewhat familiar, because during your PLU days, we have exhorted all of you to “reflect on the big enough questions,” to begin exploring your sense of life’s calling and vocation, to understand your talents in the context of the world’s needs, and to reach out boldly for the brass ring we have so often shorthanded as your “wild hope” for your “one precious life.”  And we hope you continue this great conversation with yourself and others into the future, for it will enliven your journey — and it will both call and compel you to live with courage!


I summarize and conclude:

As we commence on this day, I wish for each of you –a deeper sense of gratitude for the gifts of your life,
more wonder-filled appreciation for the great unknowns, the enduring mysteries of the created order,
and then a stronger and sharper understanding of your unique and precious self, the    longings of your heart, and capacity of your voice!

And these hopes for you brings us full circle back to PLU’s mission of to educating every student for a life of “thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care — . . .because the wellspring of service and care is gratitude, inquiry and learning is the natural response to wonder, and authentic and effective leadership has its grounding in courage.

The final word for today comes come from the poet Mary Oliver who in her poem “Sometimes” writes, and I quote:
“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Members of the class of 2012, we send you forth this day in confidence and joy, and with a prayer that your journey will be long and productive, and your homecomings joyful. “Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it!”

Thank you very much!  God bless you one and all!

Loren J Anderson, President of Pacific Lutheran University