Speaker urges Beloit College graduates to pursue their own dreams

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Monday, May 12, 2008
— “No one comes to the college graduation to hear the speaker. I am simply the last obstacle between you and your degrees.”

True enough, but delivering the last lecture of a college career is nothing to be sneezed at, and Dana Gioia got down to more serious business after making the obligatory joke at Beloit College’s commencement Sunday.

Gioia is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet.

His message to the approximately 300 grads was an uncomplicated bit of advice: Seek the thing you must do, and do it, no matter what others may say.

Gioia said he had little sympathy for those who say they can’t afford to pursue their dreams, and he offered himself as an example.

He wanted to be a poet since he was a college sophomore, he said, but he spent 15 years as a business executive with General Foods.

But he never stopped writing. He wrote every night, he said, and every weekend for 15 years.

He did not know what he was doing, he said, just where he wanted to go.

While still working for General Foods, he published and essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” which spurred international debate and made him a name for himself.

But he kept his eyes on his own personal prize, Gioia said. He rejected $1 million to join a business partnership because he knew it wasn’t for him. He said “no” the first time he was offered chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts because of a commitment to a dying father.

Gioia also used famed American poet Robert Frost as an example: Frost was a failure as a farmer, failed to get a college degree but became one of the best writers in the English language, ever.

Why? Because he followed a course he set for himself, making poetry his goal and not compromising in reaching it.

Frost, of course, wrote “The Road Not Taken,” about choosing the less obvious course in life and how doing so in the end “made all the difference.”

Gioia took Frost’s road a step further, telling the grads to define their own roads, whether or not others think it’s the way to go.

Gioia assured them that doing so would be hard work, but it would be work that produces joy.

“From now on, you must define your own life,” he exhorted the grads. “What life will you lead to be what you want?”

No one else knows what a graduate should do—not parents, not professors and not friends, “even your closest friends who are texting you right now,” Gioia said.

Some may have known since they were children, Gioia said, and some may take years to discover it.

But once they know it, graduates should assign themselves the tasks needed to reach their goals. They should not settle for letting others tell them what they should do.

“May all of you gain joy from the hard work of your self-assigned task,” he said.

Beloit College graduates display their individuality at commencement

Many of Beloit College’s 2008 graduates didn’t appear to need much urging to go their own ways, seek their own dreams and be mavericks while they did it.

While it is impossible to know what was in the hearts and minds of those graduates Sunday, things they wore atop their heads and on their feet said a lot.

Following are two lists of some of those outward signs.

Headgear, most mounted on mortarboards:

-- A white Frisbee, symbolic of what might well be the two most popular sports on campus, Ultimate Frisbee and Frisbee golf, or frolf.

-- A plastic tiara.

-- A straw hat with irises and peacock feathers on a woman who graduated summa cum laude.

-- No mortarboard, but a black tri-corner, suggesting a pirate’s hat.

-- A mortarboard whose top was a faithful Styrofoam replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

-- A light bulb mounted on a wire that made it stick straight up.

-- The words “I” and “Mom,” separated by a heart.

-- The Latin words, “vene, vidi, vici,” words said to have been uttered by Julius Cesar: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”


-- At least eight pair of bare feet walked across the stage as their owners accepted their diplomas. Several barefooted women, however, did paint their toenails.

-- Flipflops on perhaps 20 students, including on the feet of the student speaker, Christopher Lowry of Oconomowoc.

-- A stunning pair of bejeweled, spike-heeled shoes that will go well at the student’s next formal ball.

-- A pair of wingtips, which never, apparently, go out of style.

-- A couple pairs of sneakers that looked as though they wouldn’t last the week before disintegrating. What corners of the earth have those shoes seen? Hard to say from a campus that sends more than 40 percent of its undergrads overseas to study for at least a semester.

Last updated: 9:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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