SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 28, 2013

Column: A letter to the graduating class of 2013

Nicole Douglass
The Salem News

---- — I am what is called a non-traditional student. My roles as wife and mother made me a phantom on campus; I might have trudged along to the same classes, but I was not truly part of the Class of 2013 in many meaningful ways. I don’t know many of you. I never lived in the dorms with you, or shared supper with you. I’ve never taken a fitness class with you; or gone to a bar with you. I’ve been on campus past three o’clock only three times in as many years. I’m older than the average college student. I am unable to remind you of the good times we all had at that one party, or how awesome it was when the Vikings won that game, but I can tell you a little about society as I’ve experienced it and encourage you to change the community we all share.

The world has counted you out. They’ve accused you of being heartless, selfish, and socially unaware. They question your ability to succeed. As I’m sure you’ve heard, yours is one of the first generations predicted to do less well than your parents. To many of the world’s most powerful people and companies, you are little more than a consumer, and in some cases, a product. Not much is expected of you. As long as you continue to buy the next new iProduct, log on to the next social network, and buy the latest pair of fashionable sheepskin boots, the world will continue to spin exactly as it has for most of your lives. Some of you have earned this distinction. You’ve made it through your university years fueled by Starbucks and SparkNotes. Many of you, like me, have not imagined a single, original thought, not only in all your years at school, but in all your years combined. Instead, you’ve accepted the conclusions handed to you by your parents, professors, and peers, no matter how wrong you might think they are.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. For as many boastful conversations I’ve overheard before classes about the latest and greatest summary website are students who without ceremony, but with care, place a single canned good into a hurricane relief donation box. For as many students as I have seen send texts in class are students who initiate a fundraiser and donate to help a single father of eight make it through the holiday season. For as many students as I have seen suck their teeth at the thought of another 100-page reading assignment are students who stay late and come early to tutor those who struggle. I have seen so much good in you, so much potential. The world has counted you out. But the world has got it wrong.

David Orr, an ecological literacy advocate, once wrote “the plain fact is that the planet does not need more ‘successful’ people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.” As you leave the university’s hallways and smart classroom with your degrees, you will begin to define success for your generation. How quickly you line up for the next new iToy or Smart Thing, how much you spend on your first home, your wedding, your children, will determine how right my generation, and your parents’ generation was about your worth. You do not have to be an accounting, a list of items on a Best Buy receipt. You can leave here today and tell the world by deed and by word what it means to live well, to love with conviction, to heal with compassion, and to make peace where once there was war.

My generation will leave to you great burdens that situational apathy will not cure. The cost of more than a decade of war, of the unrelenting push for more energy, more technology, more material wealth, has ripped apart the connections that once made us whole. The local coffee shop is now a chain, the market a food conglomerate, the novelty shop a collection of broken spirits from factories thousands of miles and oceans away. These realities have created the perception that we have never been more focused on me-ness at the expense of all others as we are today. But like the student who comes early and stays late to help others, you can choose a different path.

Changing the definition of success won’t be easy, but it will be fun. So many opportunities await you. You need to start by destroying the traditional markers of success prior generations use to judge you. How many square feet satisfy your definition of success? How many figures should your salary be? Do high-end cars really mean you’ve done well? Only you can answer these questions. Start by replacing them; how much is experience worth to you? Learn to play the piano, to paint, to dance. Instead of setting down your brand new smart phone to work more hours, use an older model and use your saved time to take an ice skating lesson, volunteer anywhere, go to a crowded place and eat vanilla pudding out of a mayonnaise jar. You can plant trees, write long letters, stick your hands deep into April mud, January snow; eat escargot, and travel, travel, travel. See anything and everything you can without the glow of a touch screen. And love, love your family, your friends, and those you do not yet know.

Take what you’ve learned at school and share it with everyone you meet. Tell stories, all kinds of stories. And while you’re busy doing all of this, the world will become bigger and smaller at the same time. Walk more, drive less, eat better, buy local, hug children, pet cats, play games, tell jokes, and you will change everything. You will create a world in which a social network is more than a computer application; it will be an actual set of connections between human beings. You will create a world in which laughter is not medicine; it will be a genuine expression of enjoyment. You will create a world in which the value of human life is not determined by net worth; it will become an essence which no man or god could ever price.

I have no doubt you can prove the world wrong. Before you begin the job search, or move on to graduate school, or do whatever it is you plan to do after graduation, I ask you to complete one final task: go out into your communities and do something you’ve never done before. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you are visible. Pick up a bouquet of carnations and hand them out on the street. Call a local charity and offer them your time, your expertise. Make something for a friend. Relish their smiling face. Take a long walk with your dog, without your cell phone. Sing karaoke. And let the world see from the first that you are not what they’ve expected. Live well in your places and success, deep and full of sensation, will be your legacy.

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Nicole Douglass graduated May 18 from Salem State University, where she majored in professional writing and minored in political science.