Remarks to the Class of 2022
by Keynote Speaker Deborah Bial
Connecticut College’s 104th Commencement
May 22, 2021
An Ode to Grandparents
To President Katherine Bergeron, Board Vice Chair, Karen Quint, and the entire board, faculty, and staff – to the whole community here at Connecticut College, thank you so much for this honor.
Congratulations to all the graduates here today and a special congratulations to all the Posse Scholars graduating today!
It is a pleasure to be here with the graduating class of 2022 and to celebrate, in person, the achievements of a group of students who have weathered a really tough past couple of years. Nice to enjoy the sunshine, feel the breeze and see each other’s sparkling eyes and selection of shoes – all together, in the same space.
To the families here: what a moment this is. A little over 2 decades ago, you were celebrating the birth of a brand-new person with so much promise ahead. You looked at this child and thought there is much to come, so much to be achieved. You may have wondered what this person will become, what will they do, what will they experience? And today that child has grown up and, in a few minutes, will walk across this stage in a ritual that marks the milestone completion of a college education. To all the families who have loved and supported these young people (graduates?), congratulations to you today. You have much to be proud of and I hope you enjoy this moment. We need moments of joy, don’t we?
And specifically, to the grandparents here today: congratulations to you. How many grandparents are here? Can I see a show of hands? There is a profundity to this moment that connects directly to you. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
Hi graduates. You’re looking beautiful. I hope you feel happy.
In 2016, I interviewed 53 9-year-olds for my commencement speech that year. I thought it might be interesting to hear what their dreams and fears were and think about how their future was in the hands of the graduates.
This year I talked to grandparents.
Some of the conversations were amazing. I want to talk about what they told me and how different life was just 2 generations ago.
Let me take you back to the 1960s. The famous 1960s. Some of your parents were not even born yet. Or maybe they were brand new people themselves. But a lot of your grandparents were your age or just a little bit younger.
Your grandparents were maybe 15 or 20 or 25.
The 1960s was a time of change. The Vietnam War was raging and people your age were being drafted. There were protests against the war, many of them on college campuses. It was a time of change. The Civil Rights movement involved so many people your age at the time – these were young people fighting for social and racial justice, for the rights of Black People, women and other under-represented groups. The Stonewall uprising happened in the 1960s, a turning point for LGBTQ+ gay rights in this country. Millions of people immigrated to this country in the 1960’s. And, Rock and Roll was new. Mini-dresses, afros and long hair defined the styles. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and millions of people watched it happen live on their black and white televisions. President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated during this time –hugely historic events that shocked people to their core.
People then – who were your age now – these were your grandparents. While these events were enormous and will remain as important markers in our history books, it is also important to remember that everyday life was different then too. Really different.
I talked with a group of people who are today in their 70’s and 80’s, the age of many of your grandparents.
They remember their childhoods as existing in a very different world. They played jacks, and pick-up-sticks. Stick ball and hand ball. They’d ride their bikes. Roller-skate. Jump rope. Play hopscotch. Punch ball. Stoop ball.
One said, his family didn’t have a television until he was 12. And there was no color television at that time. He said, “Mostly growing up, we listened to the radio. Mainly music. But also “those shows like the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet.
Another said, “We didn’t have telephones until I was six years old.”
“We were one of the first to get a telephone in my neighborhood.” And they all still remembered their first phone numbers. “Dickens-61104.” They didn’t have area codes.
Some people had party lines where they shared a number with other people in other homes. When I asked them how they communicated they said, you’d write a letter, a postcard. You’d yell through the wall.
They underscored that phone calls were not free. You had to pay for each call – even to someone you lived next door to. One said, “My grandfather would talk for 2 seconds on the phone because he had to pay.” Think about how that affected life in general! A common line to yell when a call came in was, “It’s long distance!” That would express the urgency of the call and you would need to make sure you made the most of the time you had on the phone.
And they remember phone booths.
One man named Eddie said, “You have to remember, Deborah, if you didn’t have a phone, you didn’t miss it. If you never had any of these things, you never missed them."
They told me that they didn’t have air conditioning. They had fans. In the summer people often went to the movies, which were air-conditioned, to cool off.
When I asked what struck them as some of the greatest innovations or inventions of their time. One said, “You grew up with nothing. Everything was an invention.”
They started listing things…
Television, computers, the internet. They spent some time marveling about the invention of the personal computer. One asked, “What’s the thing, when you want to ask a question?” I suggested, Siri? Alexa?
“Alexa!” “We didn’t have that.”
Another said, “The thing is, the computers we had were literal… information in, information out. Today the computer will ask, do you mean that? It interprets for you.”
Nobody would have said social media.
Tapping and swiping weren’t even concepts.
And they remember Polio. “Polio was a big event. People from the city were running to the country. To get away from the city. They were afraid of Polio. There was no vaccine yet. Sound familiar?
One said, “A lot of people died much younger than they die today. They were dying of measles and mumps and stuff like that.” Another added, Tuberculosis. Life expectancy then was around 65 years.
There wasn’t the same king of medical care we have now.
Many of their parents were immigrants and didn’t speak English. One said, “My mother was a little girl when she came to the United States. She was about eight or nine; she came from Poland. And my father came in 1919 from Russia. He was one of five children and the only one in the family that spoke English, and at nineteen, he became head of the household, and that was a hardship for my grandfather.”
These men and women represented hope for their parents, as I’m guessing many of you do for yours.
They got summer jobs and made $35 a week, and $45 a week. One said, “I was a big shot. I was making $100 a week which was considered a big salary at that time. You could get an apartment in the city for $45-$65 a month.”
One said his first job after college was at a hospital making 75 cents an hour, but he wasn’t certain. Another said, “My first job after college was as an accountant and I stayed in that place for 50 years.” Imagine that.
They told me that not many women drove. The men would drive.
Gas was 33 cents a gallon.
There was no GPS, “Everybody had a map. You had a map of the area in the glove compartment.” Another said, “I don’t know how we got anywhere, honestly.”
They remember air travel becoming prevalent.
They lived such rich lives. So much happened, so much changed, during their 70 or 80 years on this earth.
Today your generation will have its own set of challenges and opportunities.
We are witnessing the war in Ukraine. We are struggling with the impact of the pandemic. We face ongoing racism, attacks on women’s rights with Roe v Wade, on voting rights, on much of the progress those before us made in advancing and protecting our civil rights and liberties. We shockingly are being told, not to say gay. And we are so worried about our planet.
But think about what your lifetime will bring. So much good is already happening in the world we’re living in now. We elected the first Black man as president of the United States. We have the first Black woman, Kamala Harris, in the seat of vice president ready to take on the role of president if anything were to happen to President Biden. We have the first Black woman, Ketanji Brown Jackson, on the Supreme Court. While we are living through a global pandemic, we now have vaccines and treatments. You are a greener generation than those before you. You are seeing incredible AI, virtual and augmented reality. The Metaverse. Now, we have the most advanced smart phones we have ever seen -- with truly incredible cameras. So, what’s next?
Remember what Eddie said, “You have to remember, Deborah, if you didn’t have a phone, you didn’t miss it. If you never had any of these things, you never missed them.” What might not exist today that will exist in 10, 20, 30 years? You are going to be the ones to imagine these things into existence.
You are going to be surgeons and senators. You’re going to invent new technologies and discover new medications that will change our lives for the better. You are going to lead movements and volunteer to help those in need. You’re going to write novels. You’re going to perform on Broadway. You are going to move this world forward and we are so excited to see what you will do.
Make the most of every day, the most of your lives. Be good to one another, to your friends, to your families. One day you’ll be sitting in a seat like this, watching your grandchild graduate from college. Thinking about the things you’ve seen in the world and feeling all the hope and promise of what lies before them.
Deborah Bial, the founder and president of The Posse Foundation, will deliver the keynote address at Connecticut College’s 104th Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 22, 2022.
The winner of a 2007 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Bial is a leader in the field of college access, persistence and student success. Her experience in advancing equity, diversity and talent at selective colleges and universities—and in creating solutions towards more equitable admissions—has gained her national prominence in higher education administration.
Bial received her bachelor of arts degree in American and English Literature from Brandeis University in 1987. She also holds both masters and doctoral degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a member of the Brandeis Board of Trustees, where she chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, and she also sits on the Board of Directors at Xometry, Inc.
Bial started the organization she would call “Posse,” after hearing a student lament that he would never have left college if he had found his posse. Bial’s idea was to partner with selective colleges and help them bring teams, or posses, of talented student leaders from the same city to pursue higher education on their campuses. That simple idea has turned into one of the most successful college leadership programs in the country. Since 1989, The Posse Foundation has sent over 10,000 students to 60 partner colleges, institutions that have collectively provided more than $1.6 billion in merit scholarships. In 2010, President Obama named Posse as one of 10 nonprofits that would share his Nobel Prize.
Connecticut College’s partnership with Posse began in 2008 with the first group of students selected from Chicago, and expanded in 2020 with the introduction of a second Posse from New York City. By May, a total of 95 Posse scholars will have graduated from the College since 2012.
During the Commencement ceremony, the College will confer on Bial an honorary degree—a doctor of humane letters honoris causa—an award that reflects her lifelong commitment to fostering campus environments where students thrive, reach their potential, and contribute to others’ flourishing.