Cornwell Dispenses Advice, Respect in Return as Commencement Speaker
Former Wooster president addressed Class of 2017 before 455 seniors received their degrees
WOOSTER, Ohio – While no batons were formally passed – just diplomas – The College of Wooster’s 2017 Commencement felt a bit like a transition on Monday, with Sarah Bolton, who completed her first academic year as the institution’s president, presenting an honorary degree to Grant H. Cornwell, the previous occupant of that position on a full-time basis (2007-15). Cornwell also served as the Commencement speaker.
Before 455 seniors received their degrees under a cloudless, picturesque sky, Bolton set the stage by lending praise to the Class of 2017, a group that will always be personally extra special, having helped ease her own transition. “Folks ask me regularly what it’s been like to join the Wooster community, and here’s the truth. You have taken my breath away with the power, the beauty, the intellect, the insight, and determination and creativity of your work, over and over again,” she said.
Bolton thanked the senior class for its “deep engagement and hard work to help Wooster be an even better place,” and assured all that “you are now poised … in the finest way, armed with knowledge and wisdom, with curiosity about the world and tools to understand it from a wide range of viewpoint. That is a potent mixture, one that prepares you to make a powerful, positive impact on the world.”
Cornwell, the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, echoed similar sentiments during his address, which marked a return to “a college (he) respects so deeply and loves so much.”
After playfully looking back at his own tenure with a top-10 list of the things he misses most, Cornwell, now the president of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., framed the majority of his speech around politics. Broadly defining it as “the public negotiation as to how we should live together,” he stated that it’s “embedded in the very mission of Wooster when we say this is a community of ‘Independent Minds, Working Together.’”
Cornwell implored the graduates “to work together to advance knowledge, to solve problems, to figure out how we should live,” and he also warned of resentment, “the “most caustic or toxic motivation for change.” Instead, “try to be a counterforce, working for change, motivated by compassion, a love for human dignity, a respect for human rights, and a disposition of gentleness towards others of the Earth,” he pleaded.
Cornwell closed with a strong sense of optimism for the latest class to walk through the Kauke Arch as Wooster alumni, saying the education and experiences they received will translate to a “generation of problem solvers,” and their “comfortable sophistication with diversity” has “prepared (them) for leadership in this world.”
Several others played vital roles during the ceremony, most notable Helen Siegel and Scott Wagner who spoke on behalf of their classmates. Siegel used her geology major as a metaphor, asking the group to look back to four years ago when they were just “a collection of sand grains brought together,” and now after “contemplating the ripples we’ve made on campus,” they’re “leaving Wooster to make new currents.”
Wagner paid tribute to the benefits of a Wooster education. “It boils down to one simple word – community. The Wooster community is second-to-none,” and he later reflected that “we can clearly talk about our research for hours, but we can also talk about the issues that really matter. We will stand up for those issues to improve our community.”
Siegel also was one of four students recognized individually. She and Louisa Dallett were the co-winners of the Jonas O. Notestein Prize, awarded to the student(s) with the highest academic standing in the class. They both finished with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, while Mackenzie Adkins and Brenda Khor were honored with the Dan F. Lockhart Outstanding Senior Award, given to the seniors who have made outstanding contributions to the life of the College via high academic achievement, participation in extracurricular activities, and demonstrated leadership in campus affairs.