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Rebecca K. Newell Student Commencement Address to Class of 2011

May 21, 2011

Rebecca K. Newell '11

Good afternoon  and welcome to Father Jonathan, Abbott Matthew, Bishop Joseph and the Benedictine Community, Bishop McCormack, Members of the Board of Trustees, Honorary degree recipients, Archbishop Lacroix, faculty, staff, parents, relatives, friends, mom and dad, and you, my fellow classmates of the class of 2011.

In these past few weeks, as we prepare to depart Saint Anselm College, memories have come flooding back to all of us.  Tearful, hilarious, and poignant remembrances of a life time of intellectual and spiritual growth all wrapped up in four short years.  I have one last memory to share with you now that is not too close to here, but very close to my heart.

"They call me Ishmael," the man said as we walked up to him on the frigid streets of Washington D.C.  Ishmael was bundled in dirty clothes and a dirty brown blanket and was surrounded by bags of different items that were his world.  He had long, matted, scraggly hair and piercing black eyes.  He was missing teeth, we realized, as he flashed us a toothy grin that made us feel at ease. 

My companions and I on Spring Break Alternative told Ishmael our names and asked how he was doing.  He said, "Today, I am blessed to be alive."  We agreed, and then offered him a bagged lunch.  He looked up at us, smiled again and said, "Ladies, this is a wonderful thing you are doing, but I cannot accept this lunch from you.  There are other people out there who need it more than I do." 

Shocked by his response, we tried to convince Ishmael to take the food, explaining that he could save it for later.  Instead, he persisted in his response that there were others out there who did not have a meal today, while he had a small amount of food with him, and that he must do his small part to help those around him.  We continued to talk and we got to know Ishmael.  He made us laugh with his jokes and inspired us with some insightful comments and advice.  Ishmael had dreams of going to college.  He spoke about the fact that he would tape record every class to make sure that he never missed anything.  He told us to never complain about school because we were truly blessed to be getting a college education.

 One of the last things he left us with was this, "think of me when you are walking across the stage and receiving your college degree.  Remember me, not to feel bad for me, but just to hope that maybe I am on the same path as you are, and also to realize how fortunate you are."  Well Ishmael, that day has come and today I -- we -- are remembering you.  

Only two of us in the class of 2011 had the grace of encountering Ishmael as one of our teachers.  So, allow me to use our last gathering together to consider the lessons he taught us in that makeshift classroom of the streets.

Ishmael had hope.  Hope that he would get out of the situation he was in and go back to school.  We are entering a time when it is not easy to secure a job or be accepted to graduate school. We face economic obstacles of our own, but as Saint Anselm College graduates, we have great reason to have hope.  We not only have skills and knowledge that will set us apart from the crowd, thanks in a large part to the wonderful faculty at Saint Anselm College, we have gained a sense of self and the world around us.  We came here with hopes.  We leave here with our hopes strengthened, knowing that we will face challenges and disappointments, but determined like Ishmael not to succumb to discouragement or despair. 

Ishmael had courage.  Courage to sleep out on the streets and to keep smiling.  His situation is unjust, difficult, and painful, but he did not complain and he told us to never complain.  He had courage to get up every morning and try.  We must all enter this world with that same attitude.  We will all face many challenges in our lives, and to face them with courage is all that we can do.  Saint Anselm College has challenged each and every one of us and the fact that we are sitting here today shows the courage we all have inside.

Ishmael had faith.  Faith that he shared with us.  He carried his faith with him and his faith carried him.  Many of us may share that in common with Ishmael, knowing that without our faith and without the love of God, we would not be here today.  Ishmael told us he would not have been alive without his faith.  With faith, we can do great things and not be afraid.  Saint A's has helped me to discover and foster that faith and it is a gift I intend to carry with me through all my years.

Ishmael had humility.  He would not take the lunch, knowing that there could be a person out there hungrier than he was.  He never tried to justify his homelessness, but accepted his situation for what it was and humbly went on working to pull himself back up.  We must all work to be more humble in our lives.  Ishmael caused me to remember how important it is to care for all of our brothers and sisters, because not one is better than the next.  No matter what any of us do after graduation and beyond, we must look at our neighbor as ourselves and put aside our own wants and needs for the good of that person, whether that is a friend, a co-worker, a spouse, or a homeless man on the street. 

Now, we all have something Ishmael did not.  We have a home.  In fact, we have at least two.  The one we brought our own bags home to this week, and this home here at 100 Saint Anselm Drive.  We all know the feeling of being on this campus and knowing that we are home and knowing that we could always depend on someone on this campus.   When we lose one of these people, like George Gendron who would always provide a warm smile and a kind word, it feels even more like home.  When we come together like family because of the sickness of a family member like Jen Gurekis, it feels even more like home.  Saint Anselm College has taught all of us the value of community.  The strong monastic community is an example to live by, and we have been fortunate to be surrounded by this.  While today we say goodbye to campus, Saint Anselm College will always be a community to us, and we must carry that value with us wherever we find ourselves creating our new homes and building new communities. 

I look out at you all and among the familiar faces and cherished friends, I see hope, courage, faith, humility -- and, I see home.  And hey, now we have not just a home, but a liberal arts education.  So when we hear the words, "call me Ishmael" we're all supposed to know that it's the opening three words of Moby Dick, even if some, okay, most, of us never actually finished that classic novel.  But, when I hear those words, I think instead of the man we encountered on that frigid winter day, and that to me is the true fruit of my education.  Saint Anselm College has prepared all of us not just to be able to read texts of all kinds, but it has also prepared us to read the world and the challenges it carries.  I know that every student sitting here has had an experience outside of the classroom that has shaped them on the fields, in the church, on the stage, or in the streets. Always carry those with you.

 They called him Ishmael.

 In a few moments the Dean will call all of us by our first, middle and last names.  As I cross the stage, hearing my name, I will have the man who they called Ishmael on my heart and I will receive a degree that I know I must use to work to solve injustices in this world.  I encourage all of you, to think of someone who has inspired you, and keep them on your heart as you cross the stage.  Think back to yourself sitting on this same quad four short years ago, a lost and silly freshman, not knowing what was in store for you.  We would not be here without these people you are thinking of now.

Now, I know you have all heard the grim prophesy that the world would be coming to an end today.  Well, the sun is shining for the first time in a week, and if you ask me, I say the world is just beginning!

May God Bless us now, and forever.