What lies ahead for the Class of 2004

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(Host) As a visiting college professor, commentator Madeleine May Kunin has been thinking about what lies ahead for this year’s graduates.

(Kunin) Graduations are a happy tradition. Cameras click and flash as parents kneel before the podium to capture that split second when the diploma is moved from one hand to another. In that short moment, the son or daughter is transformed from a student into a college graduate.

Times may change, but the rituals don’t. The procession of students marches down the aisle wearing their caps and gowns, all exactly alike. Only their shoes give them a separate identity. A baby whimpers, programs are used to fan pink brows. The alphabet moves slowly. Then I look at the students’ eyes and think, what kind of future do these young people face who are going out into the world in the year 2004?

The president of St. Michael’s College, Marc VanderHeyden, gives his greeting to the graduates. I hold on to one phrase and think. He urges the students to “…not be facile in saying no to things.” I find myself agreeing.

There are so many things to say no to – everything from new experiences to new ideas, to new food, new places, new people. Yes, there are some things that it is necessary to say no to – no to violence, no to oppression, no to injustice. But as a new college graduate, it is equally – if not more important – to say “yes.” No is for old people. With age, the world becomes more narrow, options more limited. Things are closing down instead of opening up.

Yes is for youth. Yes means optimism, hope, risk taking. As we cast our eyes around the globe in the year 2004, it is easy to conclude that the world is too dangerous, too uncertain, too cruel to feel optimism and hope and take risks.

There are places that aren’t safe to go to, chances we may not take, people we cannot trust. It is easy to say no. It is easy to deny ourselves the full experience of leading a courageous and exciting life even in dangerous and uncertain times.

But it is precisely now that “yes” is so important. As the traditions of caps and gowns and diplomas and well wishers continue at graduations in the year 2004, the tradition of telling young people that the world is theirs to explore, that their lives are beginning, that there is so much to be done, and that there is always hope, that too, must continue.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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