Historically, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert closes commencement on a Saturday in May with a challenge to the freshly minted crop of graduates. It’s called a charge for the class of that particular year. Saturday in front of the Alamance Building on campus he issued his final one for Elon grads. See the video here. He announced in January that he plans to retire after 18 years at the helm at the end of this calendar year.
This was noted but a couple of times Saturday morning at Elon’s 127th commencement. Lambert himself never mentioned it once. There is no question he will be missed as head of the university he helped grow into national prominence. The good news is he will remain active with the university after a short sabbatical, emerging as president emeritus.
As I said, Lambert gave his final charge without fanfare, but I had wondered what he might advise the Class of 2017 on this occasion in his own and Elon’s history. For me, the takeaway line was this one: “When you look back on your careers in 40 years, it will matter more to you what you did for others than what you did for yourself.” That statement resonates for me because 36 years ago I was the age of this class. As I sit here typing today I can verify that what he’s saying is a fact.
The overarching theme for Lambert had to do with education, a topic that has been in the news here in Alamance County over the past few weeks as county leaders and Alamance-Burlington Board of Education members joust over the importance of committing to improving education in this community. Elon has a stake in education not just here but around the world. And he told the Class of 2017 to make it a priority.
A portion of his remarks follow.
But today, I have an extraordinary request to make of you as citizens and future leaders in your communities. I want you to care about the education that all children receive, not just your future kids, but kids you will never meet. I want you to understand that your future, and the future of our country, are bound up with the future of all children.
It will come as no surprise that, as a university president, I believe with every ounce of conviction in my body in the immense power of education to transform not only the lives of individuals but of entire families, communities, and nations. And with the perspective of time, and as a father and grandfather and a person of faith, I have come to believe this is the most important thing to care about.
Our faith traditions teach us about extending mercy and justice.
It is merciful to shelter the homeless and feed the hungry and visit those in prison. But it is just for us to ensure that every four-year-old is ready for kindergarten and that every third grader is an independent reader. And it is wise to understand that our homeless shelters and soup kitchens and prisons would be less full in the future if more children would have a solid start in life. To have enough to eat. To be read to. To be loved and safe.
I want you to understand on this day when we celebrate your education, that it is access to education that separates those who will experience comfort and prosperity from those who will slip into poverty or hold no hope for emerging from poverty.
I want you to understand that in this 21st century knowledge economy, some form of education beyond high school will be essential to compete in the world for almost everyone. You should be champions for others in this regard and help remove barriers, large and small, in order to keep children in school.
I look out at you today and see people who are heading to work as scientists, accountants, as future physicians and lawyers, as financiers on Wall Street, as public policy strategists, as teachers, journalists, broadcasters, and much more. I ask you to think deeply about how you can use your expertise and your time and your resources to make a difference in the lives of children.
Become a tutor. Become a mentor or a coach. Become the significant adult who offers the encouraging word that makes all the difference to a young person. Vote to fund schools and support teachers. Support youth programs in your community. Run for school board someday.
When you look back on your careers in 40 years, it will matter more to you what you did for others than what you did for yourself. And if you invest in education and in children, I promise their success will give you more satisfaction and fulfillment than you can imagine.
As you accept Elon’s traditional gift of an oak tree sapling today, I hope you will plant it and watch it grow over the years. May its growth remind you of how far you have come since receiving your Elon acorn, and how much potential you have, as among the most well educated people on the earth, to be a champion for a child’s brighter future.
It’s only coincidence that just last week I contacted professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr, who heads Elon’s Center for Access and Success. I wanted to get dates for the summer camp her office operates through the It Takes a Village Project to see if I might volunteer. Kids from the Burlington-area come on campus at Lindner Hall in the Academic Village and participate in a host of activities built to engage their minds and spirits. The students are those often considered at-risk. It’s an outstanding program that works throughout the year with specific schools. In the summer, it utilizes on-campus facilities. I definitely want to take part this year if possible.
The challenge issued Saturday by Leo Lambert to the Elon Class of 2017 is both noteworthy and achievable. It’s a goal we all should try and meet not only in Alamance County but every community. We grow together through knowledge, discussion, research and thought. We disintegrate together through ignorance. We see evidence of this all around us.