Dean’s Commencement Address

Congratulations to everyone. You’ve got your diplomas, I know, but please humor me for one last opportunity to wish you well and do good things. One last chance for some words of wisdom to a class I happen to know MUCH better than you may think.

Sure, I’ve had some of you in class, as advisees, or worked with you on theses or internships. But so have my colleagues. However, I know you better than you think – at least the 20-somethings who just crossed the stage – because I have a son your age.

I remember when many of you were born at the beginning of the 90s like it was just yesterday. When Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a hit and you entered the world alongside grunge music.

I remember watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls win the first 3 of 6 NBA championships with you bouncing on my knee. I remember the Power Rangers backpack, then the Pokémon cards, and of course the Harry Potter books.

I won’t lie, the middle school years were awkward, and coming out of high school during the biggest economic downturn the world has known since the 1930s made me (and many of your parents) wonder if college was in the cards.

Since landing at UVM you’ve witnessed the Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street, and this month graduate into a world that’s just crossed a planetary milestone of 400 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere. You’ve always known a country at war, and a nation in denial about our climate crisis.

So, I’ve watched you grow as a parent, mature as a teacher, and now stand proud as your Dean trying to leave you today with some words of wisdom to live by.

Well, as much as we’ve told you otherwise in your classes, the story of this century, of humanity, of all life on earth … isn’t written yet. But time is not on our side. The parts per million clock won’t slow down because we wish it so.

The famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” Graduating from this fine land grant university, from this School of Environment and Natural Resources, with an education grounded in the realities of the physical world … you have the responsibility to ask the right questions, even if they lead to answers that no one wants to hear.

This diploma in your hand isn’t just a reward for a job well done, it’s a responsibility to rewrite our story.

You are now 1 in 15 on this planet with a college education. But within this 6 or 7% of the world’s population, you, the Rubenstein School’s Class of 2013, are a small minority who understand the gravity of our environmental and social challenges, and yet hold that magic combination of hard-won knowledge and eternal optimism.

We look forward to watching your careers and lives evolve. And we know you’ll ask the right questions and champion the brave answers that will bring a new age of restoration, resilience, and love for one another and all life on earth.

Congratulations. We wish you all the very best.

Jon Erickson
Interim Dean
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

Published by Jon Erickson

Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy University of Vermont

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