At Baccalaureate, Class of 2019 Urged to Appreciate Failure and Welcome the Unknown

"Your generation is shaping the discussion and the agenda on issues of vital, profound importance for our entire world,” said Mary Bonauto. “Our entire world needs the embracing, care—for all people, for all nations, and for our planet." (Photo by Gabe Souza)
By Kardelen Koldas '15
May 25, 2019

Civil rights attorney Mary L. Bonauto drew on her professional successes and failures to inspire Colby’s 2019 graduates to embrace the opportunities they encounter in life. “Wherever you’re headed next, I really hope you do remember that you have so much practice already in taking on new challenges and new experiences,” she said. “I hope you really engage in and live your authentic lives.”

Bonauto, who successfully litigated several landmark cases—including the U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted the right to same-sex marriage nationwide—delivered the Baccalaureate Address on Saturday, May 25, in Lorimer Chapel.

She told members of the Class of 2019 that they should expect to grow and change—like they did at Colby—throughout their lives, and that they can always rewrite their stories. “Sometimes your passions will find you and you’re allowed to change your paths,” she said.

Along the way, failure will be an inevitable part of succeeding, she said, daring them to “lose-forward.” She cited her efforts to steward a marriage law in Maine that was overturned by voters in 2009, but then won via referendum in 2012. How did that change happen? “One simple, essential ingredient is constructive engagement,” she said. “If you want people to stand in your shoes, you have to be willing to stand in theirs.” She told graduates to leave their comfort zones, remain optimistic, and welcome dialogue with people of differing viewpoints.

“Your generation is shaping the discussion and the agenda on issues of vital, profound importance for our entire world,” she said. “Our entire world needs the embracing, care—for all people, for all nations, and for our planet.”

Prior to Bonauto’s remarks, President David A. Greene lauded the Class of 2019—the first class he had responsibility for recruiting and enrolling. He credited Steve Saunders, James M. Gillespie Professor of Music, for stepping in and when the College needed a dean of admissions and financial aid, becoming an expert, and enrolling what was the most competitive class in Colby’s history.

“You would not be here today were it not for Professor Saunders’s impeccable judgement and ability to appreciate your exceptional potential,” Greene said to the students. “In your work life, there is going to be a moment or even many moments when you are asked to do something truly extraordinary, something outside your area of expertise and of real importance, and all that you will have to draw on that moment is your ability to learn quickly; to analyze deeply, creatively, and critically; to strategically marshal resources to solve problems; and to persist and adapt in the face of vexing challenges.”

In those times, Greene said, remember Saunders—a gifted teacher and renowned scholar turned admissions dean. “I want you to call on the super power of your Colby education.”

Greene also recalled the 2017 Baccalaureate Address by Amy Walter ’91, who challenged the students “to focus on who they want to be instead of what they want to do.” He reminded the graduates to think of their beliefs, values, and commitments, as much as they think of their career paths after Colby. “There is no career or financial success that compensates for the emptiness of a life without meaning and purpose,” he said.

Baccalaureate brought seniors and faculty together for a final, private moment in Lorimer Chapel, where they first convened in 2015 at the start of the students’ academic careers. The ceremony included readings by students and the Leslie Brainerd Arey Professor of Biosciences, Herb Wilson, who is retiring from the College. Julia Warnock ’19, who has delighted many audiences during her time at Colby, performed for her last time as a Colby student, and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine A. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, delivered a powerful benediction to conclude the event.

Seniors and their families will gather on Miller Lawn Sunday, May 26, for the College’s 198th commencement. Bonauto will receive an honorary doctorate degree along with education philanthropists Joan Loring Alfond and William L. Alfond ’72, chairman of Ariel Investments John W. Rogers Jr., and renowned television writer David E. Kelley, who will deliver the Commencement Address.