As he addressed nearly 500 graduates gathered at Hull Plaza for the sunny 224th Union College commencement on Sunday, outgoing President Stephen C. Ainlay said he felt a commonality with them.
“We are commencing together,” he said in his final address to the college. “You were more efficient than I was. You finished in four years while it took me 12 years.”
On a more somber note, Ainlay, who announced his plan last August to retire from the position that he has held for over a decade, said that he, like the gathered students, had questions about what the future holds.
“I know that I will miss being part of this place. And like many, if not all of you, I have questions about what comes next, what the world beyond Union holds by way of both challenges and opportunities,” Ainlay said.
Ainlay was selected to be the commencement speaker by the college Board of Trustees, and he and his wife, Judith Ainlay, both received honorary doctorate of letters degrees.
He became president of the college in 2006. Prior to joining Union, Ainlay, a sociologist by training, spent more than 20 years as a professor and administrator at the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
A native of Goshen, Indiana, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Goshen College and his master’s and doctorate from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
During his tenure at the college, Ainlay helped the college attract record numbers of applicants and diversify its student body. This past year saw the largest pool of applicants in the college’s history.
Under Ainlay’s guidance, the college also led a campaign to raise $258 million. That campaign enabled Union to build or renovate 14 major structures on campus.
During the ceremony, Ainlay lauded the graduates for making what he characterized as a tangible impact on not only the college environment, but on the surrounding community during their time at school.
Venturing out beyond the gates of Union and into the city of Schenectady to lend a helping hand to various charitable organizations and community groups, he added, represented in the graduates what he called a “remarkable capacity to build community.”
Whatever the future brings for students, Ainlay added, he expressed his hope that they would not only lean on each for support, but continue to lean on the college.
“Lean on this experience, this place and your classmates, when life inevitably disorients you. Lean on this experience, this place, and your classmates when you need re-centering or reminding of just who you are and what you bring to the table,” he said.
Gianluca Avanzato, the student speaker during commencement, also touched on themes of cooperation and support, but cautioned that the graduates needed to be prepared to enter a world that will only improve if they’re willing to approach all people with open arms and an open mind.
“The day is short, the work is great, the reward is much, and the Master is urgent,” Avanzato, an Oneonta native and political science major, said during his speech, reading the quotation written in Hebrew around the dome of the Nott Memorial on the college campus that students walk by hundreds of times each year.
Pulling in examples of the real world of 2018 into his speech, Avanzato said that it was considered radical in modern times to not be constantly looking at a phone, and instead paying attention to the world.
In order to make the world a better place, he continued, the graduates would need to be engaged, spontaneous, but also willing to surround themselves with a community that can provide help and support if needed.
“Each person contains a universe, but if we only remain inside our own universe, we’ll get lost, isolated,” he said.
At the end, Avanzato echoed Ainlay’s point that the future after the graduation ceremony might be foggy for now, and full of questions. But, he added, the questions should be the first step toward a lifetime of meaningful work that will change the world.
“I wish I could leave you with some firm conclusion, some final words of wisdom, but words and truths quickly become stagnant and stale and outdated. This world demands constant reinvention. This is our work— sacred, unending,” he said.
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