Alice Greider, ’18 PF International Politics, Global and International Studies, and Master of International Affairs, addressed the Paterno Fellows graduating class and guests at the ceremony on May 5 on the Pattee Mall. (View photos of the ceremony and reception.)
Hello everyone, and thank you to Dr. Wanner, Dean Welch, Associate Dean Taylor, Liberal Arts and Paterno Fellows staff, and my fellow graduates and families. Whew. The past month has been a blur of preparations for this weekend, but I remember getting an email a few weeks ago from the Honors College informing us that as of Monday we will be coded as “graduates” and unable to access the records system and so on. (I honestly stopped reading once I realized it wasn’t them telling me there was another thing wrong with my thesis formatting!) Now, I don’t deign to think that this means that we are out of Penn State’s “system” from what I can tell from my alumni friends, but this email nonetheless has made me think of all the things that as of Monday we won’t have access to. As of Monday, there will be no more resource fairs, advising sessions, workshops, theatre tickets, or email reminders of funding applications. As of Monday, there will be no free New York Times subscriptions. As of Monday, there will be no more Lunch with Honors or Paterno Fellows Forums.
I’ve spoken earlier about how one of the hallmarks of a Paterno Fellow is our curiosity. Well, another is our engagement – our commitment to more than our classes. Yes, we all excel academically, but we also volunteer, lead, travel, intern, and challenge ourselves ethically. And the hope is that those behaviors have become habits. Because engagement is easy in college. So much is simply offered to us. Opportunities to reach out, think, criticize, wonder, and explore. Being a college graduate, however, comes with responsibilities – “adulting” if you will. And I don’t just mean remembering to wash your sheets, pay your taxes, and get your five servings of vegetables a day. I mean being an active and engaged member of society.
It is as important today as it has ever been to be engaged. Active engagement means questioning leaders and holding them accountable. It means wanting society to live up to its ideals.
It means reading without it being on the syllabus. In my very first civics class in 7th grade, I chose It Can’t Happen Here off the reading list, mostly because I wanted to know what “it” was. Turns out, “it” is authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Although semi-satirical and written in 1935, it reappeared on bestseller lists recently for good reasons. Books allow you to escape the normalized narratives and phrases, invigorate our ability to think about ambiguous situations, and judge the intentions of others. Political dystopia not your style? Try another classic book about tyranny and resistance – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Read new books in your field. Read classics. Read bestsellers. Whatever you do – read.
Post-college engagement means investigating without a professor telling you to, or Barb and Dr. Wanner organizing an event for you. In college we’ve learned through academic research to discern facts – it is this skill that makes us informed individuals and our collective trust in facts that make us a society. Those that investigate for a living and adhere to ethical standards to do so, journalists, should be supported.
In that vein, engagement means supporting the truth. If you verify information before you pass it along, you refrain from harming those who may see it down the line.
It means being active in organizations that support your views. By volunteering or donating to these causes, you are helping to create civil society. It creates the backbone of free association that builds a strong and informed society.
It means putting yourself in new situations. In college we are exposed to so much that we can electively avoid once out of school if we so wish. But for a resilient society, barriers that keep people apart must be breached. This involves engaging yourself in areas you wouldn’t normally. It means introducing yourself to your neighbors, attending town halls, and getting outside your home. The Arab Spring was certainly organized on social media, but in the end people from different backgrounds physically went to Tahir Square in Cairo to protest.
It means being ethical in your profession – corruption, malpractice, discrimination all stem from individual decisions. Aggregate individual decisions and you can create norms of professional ethics, no matter how “exceptional” the circumstances or position of the government.
It means being open enough to learn from others – especially those from other countries. The opportunity to learn from others does not disappear after you receive that diploma.
There’s a famous quote about the eternal vigilance of liberty – a free and open society must be supported every day or it will be taken advantage of. In February 1933, the Reichstag fire in Berlin sparked a public terror that provided the political opportunity to enact a decree that suspended the basic rights of all German citizens, allowing them to be preemptively detained by the police. After that night, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.” Being a citizen means actively fighting for your society by holding it and your country to high standards and ideals. It is a role that requires judging your nation and wishing and working to make it better. As of Monday, it is a role that is entirely our responsibility.
That role is more important than ever today, and I’m glad, warmed, and proud to be a part of this group of Paterno Fellows that will work to fill it. Congratulations everyone, and thank you.