HARTFORD, CT, May 19, 2013 – Spurning the cliches that have come to dominate many commencement speeches, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack ’88, told the 566 students who received their degrees Sunday to beware of people who tell them that life is simple or that shortcuts really work.
“The truth is,” said McCormack, “you’ll mostly have to just figure things out as you go along.”
Having said that, McCormack, who has had a distinguished career as a Legal Aid attorney, founder of two law clinics, a law school professor and now a Supreme Court justice, shared with the 541 undergraduates and 25 master’s degree students some personal observations.
“First, life is much shorter than you realize. Second, you need a plan, but you should be very flexible about deviating from your plan. And third, the most personally rewarding things you are likely to do in life will not be things you do just for yourself.”
McCormack’s address came on a day in which hundreds of students, faculty, administrators and guests gathered under the soaring elms on the Main Quadrangle in front of the Long Walk to witness the College’s 187th Commencement exercise. Overcast skies and a steady drizzle did nothing to dispel the gaiety, tradition, speeches and handing out of diplomas in a ceremony that lasted about 2 ½ hours.
As the proceedings got under way, Trinity President James F. Jones, Jr., delivered some brief welcoming remarks. He was followed by Paul E. Raether, ’68, P’93, ’96, ’01. Raether, the longest serving chair of the Trinity Board of Trustees, extolled the benefits of a liberal arts education, saying it shouldn’t be viewed as simply a path to a job but “as a flexible, infinitely remarkable resource that will enable [students] to engage with the world for the rest of [their] lives.”
McCormack, who was elected to Michigan’s high court in 2012, directed her remarks both at family members and students, congratulating parents for a job well done and reminding them that, despite their never-ending concerns and worries, commencement was a day to put their fears behind them and to celebrate their child’s achievements
“Getting here required a lot of hard work, and time, and investment not just by your child, but by you as well,” said McCormack, the mother of four teenagers. “And here we are, at what is one of life’s milestones.”
She urged parents to burn their children’s accomplishment into their memory banks, and turning to the graduates, exhorted them to do the same.
“Congratulations…for what you have accomplished over these last four years,” she said. “You have grown a lot, and learned a great deal. You have learned to be critical thinkers and effective writers. You’ve learned how to manage your time, lead your peers when asked, and to work cooperatively with them more often than not. You’ve learned, more than anything else, how to keep learning. You have joined the ranks of the educated and you can never go back.”
Although McCormack urged the students to have a plan as they go forward, she also said deviation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Trial and error can be a plan. Experimentation can be a plan. You don’t have to know exactly where you are going now. In fact, I think it would be unrealistic to think you could know that.”
She also noted that failure is an acceptable part of a plan, and she told the graduates to “embrace failure…Failure will make you more successful.”
In conclusion, McCormack told the students that they will derive the most satisfaction from doing not just for themselves, but for others, whether that means joining the military, participating in the political system, developing a new drug, creating a new product, volunteering at church or helping a family member, friend or neighbor in need.
“I’ve never met anyone who helped their neighbor and regretted it. I’ve never known anyone to try to make their community just a little bit better and thought they had wasted their time…So don’t waste valuable time. Set your course. And find ways to use the values your parents have taught you, and the skills the Trinity faculty have taught you, to work for some greater good.”
McCormack received an honorary Doctor of Law degree for her “exceptional devotion to legal education, especially her passionate commitment to developing clinical opportunities for law students to learn while serving the public.”
In addition to McCormack, honorary degrees were given to three Americans who have distinguished themselves in their respective fields: Michael Stanley Dukakis, a former presidential candidate and three-term governor of Massachusetts, who received a Doctor of Law degree for a “lifetime of service to his nation, state, community and profession;” Margaret Ann Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at the Yale University Divinity School, who received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree for her “integrity, dedication to her profession, unstinting service to her fellow human beings and steadfast belief in justice as the yardstick against which love is best measured;” and Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe and a staff writer for The New Yorker, who received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree for her “brilliant reporting, which has played an important role in raising awareness of what may be the single most important science story of our time, and for her dedication to exemplifying and promoting the highest standards of journalism.”
The valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2013 were also named: Christopher Alan Hyde of Canton, CT, who graduated summa cum laude with honors in international studies, had the highest grade point average of his peers, followed by Han Wu of Hangzhou, China, who graduated summa cum laude with honors in engineering.
This marked the first year that Trinity abandoned the Optimae and Optimi designations, meaning that students had earned an A- or better in all courses required for their degree. Instead, the more commonly used terms summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude were conferred. Thirty-three undergraduates fell in the first category; 25 in the second; and 50 in the third.
On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Raether presented awards for Faculty, Student and Staff Excellence. The first went to Paul Assaiante, coach of the men’s squash team that has won national championships 14 out of the past 15 years. On Friday, an endowed chair in the physical education department was established in Assaiante’s name.
The first student to win the Trustee Award for Excellence was Emily Catherine Howe of Memphis, TN, who graduated summa cum laude with honors in psychology, and the second was Ayiti-Carmel Maharaj-Best of Trinidad, who graduated summa cum laude with honors in the interdisciplinary major of health and society.
Recognized for her outstanding contributions as a Trinity staff member was Margaret Grasso, administrative assistant in the English Department.
In addition to Assaiante, five faculty members were honored for their devotion and dedication to the academic life of Trinity, whether in the quality of their teaching, research, writing or all three. Samuel Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History, was presented with the Thomas Church Brownell Prize for Teaching Excellence, which is given to a senior faculty member who consistently performs exemplary work.
The Arthur H. Hughes Award for Teaching Excellence, which is given to a faculty member who has taught for fewer than nine years, went to Ciaran Berry, assistant professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program.
And the Charles A. Dana Research Professorship Award, good for two years, was bestowed upon Mark Setterfield, Maloney Family Distinguished Professor of Economics; Zayde Gordon Antrim, associate professor of history and international studies; and Jeffrey Bayliss, associate professor of history.
To view pictures from Commencement, please visit the Commencement Photo Gallery page.