Sharing their own words in the form of haiku, Commencement speaker Ellen Tanis Awad encouraged the members of the Hope College Class of 2009 to approach their futures with a sense of joy and confident in their growth as undergraduates.
"As you look ahead, think about how you will choose to be in each moment," she said. "You have the ability to choose how you will greet each day and each person or situation you encounter."
Awad, who is director of student life and associate director of the Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope, presented "Haiku of the Day: 2009 Hope College Commencement Address" on Sunday, May 3, at Holland Municipal Stadium.
The college held all of its Alumni Weekend events and graduation activities as scheduled during the May 1-3 weekend following some initial uncertainty. Hope had voluntarily sent 10 samples from students who had flu-like symptoms to the Ottawa County Health Department for further testing, and on Friday, May 1, learned that nine had been identified as "probable" for H1N1, the strain commonly referred to as the "swine flu." The results of further testing by the federal Centers for Disease Control were not available prior to the weekend.
The health department did not recommend the cancellation of any college activities and instead emphasized good hygiene for illness prevention. Shortly before reading the graduates' names so that they could march across the stage to be congratulated by the president, Provost James Boelkins was prompted by the situation to quip, "President Bultman reminded me that he will be shaking hands with graduates today, but we ask for no kissing."
More than 700 graduating seniors participated in the ceremony, the college's 144th. The class consisted of students from throughout the United States as well as Ethiopia, France, Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine, Peru, Romania, the Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.
In her address before the presentation of the graduates, Awad explained that she had initially started writing haiku - three-line poems with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern--as a way of refocusing her frustration when raking leaves that had blown into her treeless yard.
"As I raked and festered with frustration that day, I was struck by the words of the 118th Psalm: 'This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it,'" she said.
"So, as I raked, I composed a poem about the leaves. Choosing to refocus my mind alleviated my anger toward the multitude of rogue leaves in my yard, and that day started a new hobby for me of composing haiku poetry," Awad said. "It has become a way for me to change my perspective on a situation as well as to celebrate loved ones on special occasions. To rejoice and be glad in each moment God gives us."
It was in the spirit of celebration that she drew upon reflections from the seniors in composing two of three haiku for the ceremony. "transforming journey/ challenging, full of learning/ exponential growth," she recited, followed by, "best years of my life/defining, spirit filling/prepared to move on."
In analyzing the brief phrases, she cited a variety of the experiences that had shaped the graduates' lives - academic work, co-curricular activities, service to others and participation in campus spiritual life - and how together they comprised an education completed.
"You are not the same kid you were at Play Fair [in which students learn about campus activities]. You have mastered the scramble system [in the dining hall]," Awad said. "Your first college roommate may now be one of your closest friends. You have moved from figuring out what liberal arts means in your First-Year Seminar to being able to articulate your philosophy of life in your Senior Sem."
"Your journey here at Hope has transformed and defined you," she said. "You have become the person you are today as a result. You are a young adult prepared for the next part of your journey."
Awad's third and final haiku derived from the words of priest, theologian and author Henri Nouwen in "Bread for the Journey": "let your center speak/courageous, deeply rooted/keeping hope alive."
She recalled a Hope senior at her church being recognized for serving and working with middle school youth during the past four years. "While at Hope, she had let the choices she made in life represent her center or the core of who she is. Her decisions came from her heart - her authentic self," she said.
"She was courageous," Awad said. "Actually, I think anyone who dedicates any kind of time to youth going through puberty is pretty brave, but her courageousness allowed her passion and choices to guide her in a life that is deeply rooted, not superficial. She let her center speak through a life deeply rooted in faith, calling, leadership and service."
Awad called upon all of the graduates to reflect the same values whatever the circumstance, even in times of frustration.
"It seems to me that 'raking leaves' is really what makes up about 90 percent of life," she said. "And, each day, you have the choice to rejoice in the day the Lord has made while you rake through the paperwork on your desk, clean up the muckiness of a strained relationship, or bring order to the chaos of your wind-blown schedule."
"Here's what I want you to remember: rake leaves with authenticity," Awad said. "Authenticity grows out of all that you are. It is living into your faith daily, not just for an hour on Sundays. It is through being a reliable friend each day, not just when it fits in your schedule. It is through acting on your convictions when faced with adversity. It is through living an authentic life - in each and every moment - that you will be able to keep hope alive."
The graduation activities began in the morning with the college's Baccalaureate service in Dimnent Memorial Chapel, during which Dr. William Brownson, president emeritus of Words of Hope, delivered the sermon "Aiming for the Best." He built his message around II Corinthians 5:6-15, which discusses aiming to please Christ in keeping with the selfless love that Christ demonstrated through dying on the cross.
He recommended that instead of seeking worldly goals, such as wealth, fame or success, the graduates follow the example of those who instead chose to live committed to their faith. He cited people like William Wilberforce, the British Parliamentarian who fought against the slave trade; Eric Liddell, the Olympic champion portrayed in "Chariots of Fire" who set aside fame to serve in China as a missionary; Mother Teresa, who worked with the poor in Calcutta; and William Borden, a 1909 Yale graduate, heir to the Borden Company fortune who left his privileged existence to become a missionary.
"Each one of these incandescent careers was sparked and moved by devotion to Jesus Christ in response to His love," Brownson said. "And what moves me about it as I read of them and think of them is not only the self giving, but also the joyful abandon that there was in doing it - and the love. What a powerful love!"
Brownson noted that the graduates had also seen examples of commitment to Christ and service demonstrated during their Hope experience by the college's faculty and staff as well as by their fellow students. He asked them to live in the same spirit of aiming for the best.
"Let the love of Jesus Christ draw you to a life of self-giving service to others and to Him," he said. "Live near to Him in prayer and in the Scriptures. Seek out a fellowship of caring hearts where you can be accountable. Pray for the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. Trust in Jesus Christ to live out in you His life of self-giving love."