Even in the 147th year, there is room for firsts.
It was 30 minutes before Hope College’s Commencement on Sunday, May 6, was scheduled to begin at Holland Municipal Stadium. Family and friends were in the stands, the graduates were lining up and making ready to process to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and… the skies rumbled.
Change of plan. Hope postponed the 3 p.m. ceremony to 4 p.m., and moved the event a few blocks north to the DeVos Fieldhouse, the previously arranged rain location. Graduates, audience, diplomas, all were in place and ready to go in the new site just one hour later than originally scheduled, a tribute, President James Bultman noted as the ceremony began, to all involved.
“I would first of all like to thank all of you—parents and friends, graduates, faculty and staff—for your cooperation and your patience,” Bultman said to the approximately 4,000 in attendance. “I would also like to thank our facilities team for this contingency and also for implementing it so speedily.”
College records don’t indicate whether or not the ceremony has ever before been moved on the very cusp of beginning, but certainly it’s never happened that way in living memory. Most years, whether or not to move inside is obvious early in the day, and the announcement is made during the morning’s Baccalaureate services.
If at all possible, Hope holds the ceremony outside because the stadium can accommodate a larger audience than the fieldhouse, and so the college had taken a chance that the morning’s cloudy skies wouldn’t lead to an afternoon storm. As it happened, the thunder and rainfall that prompted the change in venue didn’t last long—by 5 p.m. it was succeeded even by a bit of sun.
This year was only the fourth time that Hope has held Commencement inside since the college started holding the event at the stadium in 1983
The last time that the ceremony was held inside was in 2004, at Zeeland East High School in the pre-fieldhouse era.
Approximately 690 graduating seniors participated in this year’s ceremony, the college’s 147th. The class consisted of students from throughout the United States as well as from overseas, including from Armenia, Brazil, China, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Palestine, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.
In addition to celebrating the Class of 2012, the college presented honorary degrees during the ceremony to Joel Bouwens and Martie Bultman. Bouwens, of Holland, chaired the college’s Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2011. Bultman, who didn’t know in advance that she was receiving the recognition, has been an active member of the campus community as the wife of President James Bultman.
Also, the graduating class presented the 48th “Hope Outstanding Professor Educator” (H.O.P.E.) Award to Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown, associate professor of psychology. The award, first given in 1965, is presented to the professor the class feels epitomizes the best qualities of the Hope College educator.
The commencement address was delivered by Dr. Heather Sellers, professor of English, who presented “And your homework is…” She asked the graduates as they commenced their post-Hope lives to complete the same assignment with which she noted that she ends every class: “Stay up late. Keep the music loud. Make interesting choices.”
Each step offered a way to approach life with deeper meaning.
“Stay up late tonight, and every night; let your light shine,” Sellers said. “Turn up the volume of your music, the music only you hear, so we can hear and be transformed. Make interesting choices. I hope your interesting choices are: heartfelt, affectionate, spirit-driven and ignited by hope. Hope is the ultimate interesting choice.”
Sellers reflected, in offering her advice, on her experience with face blindness, the rare neurological condition she discussed in her award-winning 2010 memoir “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness.”
“Face blindness enforces humility,” she said. “It’s like graduate school for getting over yourself. However, even a mild case is socially devastating, and I’ve got it bad: I can’t recognize my best friend on the street; I’ve walked past my own mother. Television and movies are overwhelmingly confusing. Dating? Yikes.”
Since being diagnosed in 2005 and subsequently revealing the condition, though, she has found others understanding and helpful. She also noted that she has learned from her students how to live with the condition by observing how they handle challenges of their own.
“Students, you’ve helped me shape and know my own story more clearly by bravely sharing your stories,” she said. “What I’ve learned by working with you closely in the intimacy of writing workshops, is no matter how it looks from the outside, we all have something broken in us. This brokenness can separate us, or it can be the vehicle by which we connect with grace and authenticity.”
She outlined ways that each of the three homework steps can support such authenticity.
Staying up late, she noted, supports Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to be watchful in their faith. Correspondingly, she asked the graduates “to be radically awake. Present. The Kingdom of God doesn’t have a bedtime; why would you?”
“Stay up late, or, the way I do it, get up really early, but design a life that requires your presence mightily, all day, all night,” Sellers said. “Keep your eyes open, and your heart opens. Your chance to transform yourself and those around you knows no bounds.”
In keeping the music loud, she said, the graduates should “Harness the loud, boisterous, honest, possibly annoying part of you and use it for the power of goodness and transformation.”
“Often we aren’t scared of being loud when we are young, but as we get older we quiet,” Sellers said. “Keeping audible the music of our soul takes a lot of energy, and a particular kind of close listening.”
The key to making interesting choices with value, she said, is to make “choices based on creativity and integrity, not just cleverness.”
“Interesting choices are genuine. They rely on trust,” she said. “I’m calling for us to make choices that are way more than good choices. And I call for an interesting-ness that is motivated by depth, lit by grace, and bound by purity of action.”
During the college’s Baccalaureate services in Dimnent Memorial Chapel earlier in the day, the Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson, who is the Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel at Hope, delivered the sermon “So… now what?” It was a natural question, he noted, at a time of transition such as graduation.
He framed his discussion as a response to a “letter” to him from a dean of the chapel at the fictional “Despondent University” in the Pacific Northwest that asked him, if given the chance to speak during graduation, to ask the students to live for more than themselves.
Johnson grounded his answer in Matthew 6:24-33, from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus instructs not to be anxious about worldly concerns but instead to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness and to trust God to attend to the rest.
“Bend your will not just to your own perspective, but towards a will whose perspective is larger and more consequential than your own,” Johnson said. “Pursue a vision that will give your life a steady direction and sustaining purpose. Strive to participate in a reality that will electrify your life with a significance charged by God’s vision of reality.”
“‘Seek first the Kingdom of God’ is Jesus’ answer whispered into the ear of all who are ready to commence into an undefined future,” he said. “Its truth is so fundamental that to ignore it, is to put our soul into peril. The truth is not about money. Nor is it about clothes. Nor is it about food. It’s not about what you will do with your degree. It’s not about us at all. It’s more elemental. It is a truth about God. A truth about what God has done, is doing, and is still yet to do. A truth that invites all who hear Jesus not to do more, but to be more.”