SCHENECTADY — Matthew Wu's favorite Union College memory isn’t one about his fellow graduates, who earned their diplomas Sunday, but instead of an elderly couple who many years ago walked the campus together.
That couple, who Wu visited as a volunteer in hospice care, left him with a life lesson, and the crux of his commencement speech: As he visited the woman — he called her Ella in his speech — he spent a lot of time speaking with her husband who never left her side. Wu celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary with them.
One thing in particular stuck with Wu about those visits, he said in the Schaffer Library plaza. The man, who he called Rick, told him that Ella had “loved lots and loved always.”
“[She] loved lots, loved always and loved her community,” Wu said, arguing that was what the Union family is all about. “Do not let us take our own Union community for granted, where we learned to love lots and love always.”
Keynote speaker John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University, calling it the most important advice he had, told the graduates to find a life partner who was intellectually curious and smart.
“Beauty fades but the need for conversation will not,” he said.
He also placed the students within the context of their privilege — the privilege of being “born smart.” By sitting in front of him Sunday morning as soon-to-be Union alumni, the students proved they were that much, he said. But that carried a weight of responsibility too, he said — the responsibility to not settle for “mere success” but to also strive for greatness.
“You’re smart. You can fail and come back,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of it, go for it.”
He also counseled the graduates that the gravest sins are not the acts they commit but the ones they do not, suggesting deeds not carried out or opportunities missed are far worse than actions messed up.
“If you fail to embrace someone you can embrace, if you pass on helping someone whose life you can make better ... with your enormous talents beware of sins of omission,” Sexton said.
Union President Stephen Ainlay carried a similar message, tinged with the deep history that engulfs any commencement ceremony well beyond its 200th running — Sunday marked Union’s 233rd year. He hearkened back to words delivered to the college’s first graduates.
“As you leave this place, do so ready for a useful life,” he said.
But before leaving the graduates with that simple-sounding, yet monumental task, he reminded them of the strengths they shared. He highlighted the scholarly research they conducted with faculty and the constructive dialogues they shared with one another. He recalled the selectivity and diversity of their class and tallied the awards and scholarships they have won.
Sunday’s 475 graduates hail from 24 states and 14 countries; 208 earned a bachelor of arts, while 267 earned a bachelor of science. Three students were named Fulbright student teachers, and 193 graduates finished with honors.
And, as Wu reminded his classmates, they were the last remaining students on hand for Union’s 2014 men’s hockey national championship. The class also helped push the college into updating its motto: now “under the laws of Minerva” Union graduates become both “brothers and sisters.”
“You proved yourself to be anything but fragile members of what some critics call the ‘orchid generation,’” Ainlay said. “You demonstrated a willingness to consider difficult matters and modeled intellectual tenacity and resiliency.”