Standing alone on the Lawn, but wearing full academic regalia, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan addressed the Class of 2020 during Saturday’s virtual celebration and degree conferral, marking the culmination of this phase of their academic careers.
His remarks centered on one question: What will you carry with you, as you leave UVA, as you re-enter the world after months of isolation, as you begin the rest of your lives?
“My hope is that… because of your time at UVA, you are in a better position to know what you should carry with you, and what you should leave behind; that you are in a better position to answer not only the age-old question of ‘What is the good life?,’ but the more specific question of ‘What is my good life?’”
Read Ryan’s full remarks below:
Take What You Can Carry, and Leave the Rest
May 16, 2020
Congratulations to the Class of 2020. Before we begin, I would like to ask you to do one thing: if you are watching this with your family and friends, please take a moment to thank them for their support. No one makes it to graduation alone, and I hope you’ll take this opportunity to thank those who helped you along the way. I’m serious, and I am happy to wait a few seconds. [Sips from coffee mug.]
Now if this were a normal year, and I were giving a traditional graduation speech, I’d begin by recounting all that you’ve experienced during your time here – like electrifying national championships, for example, or the terrifying Unite the Right rally, or the surely bewildering exodus from Grounds this past March. I’d rhapsodize about the Blue Ridge Mountains and Bodo’s bagels; faculty and friendships; Madison House and Mad Bowl; the Range and the Rotunda. We’d probably share a laugh about streaking the Lawn and a knowing exchange about the complexity of Jefferson. I’d give a nod to your collective futures and the uncertain world awaiting you, while expressing my confidence – which is sincere – that you will figure it out and make the world a better place along the way.
But this is no normal year, and this is not a normal ceremony. I’ve been told I have about six to seven minutes for this speech so as not to bore you to tears and cause you to turn this whole thing off. Which is why I need to dispense with the traditional messages of graduation and focus on a more pressing topic: coffee. Or at least the idea of coffee.
In the summer of 1991, my now-wife, then-girlfriend Katie – a fellow Wahoo, by the way – Katie and I went on a three-day camping trip in Alaska with Katie’s sister and her sister’s boyfriend, a Norwegian guy named Inge who was a bush pilot. Inge flew us to a remote cabin in Alaska, miles from any trace of civilization. The first afternoon and evening were glorious, and all was well until the next morning when we awoke, and I discovered “we” had forgotten to bring coffee. I won’t say whose fault it was, because it’s just not that important to rehash the fact that Katie assured me she had packed the coffee before we left. What matters is that for the next three days, Katie and I experienced caffeine withdrawal. Which is, in a word, unpleasant.
When we returned to civilization, Katie and I made quite different resolutions. She resolved never to become addicted to caffeine again. I resolved never again to be further than 100 yards from coffee. You might think the moral of this story is that Katie is a stronger and better person than I am; that’s true, by that’s not my point.
My point is that I have kept my resolution, and coffee has continued to play a crucial role in my life. It is the main character in my morning ritual, where I make a cup of coffee, greet our two dogs, sit next to the window, take a look at the newspaper, and watch the birds at our feeder, while our dogs gently but persistently nudge me to take them out. Once I’ve finished my coffee, I’m awake enough to go on a run, which in turn makes me ready to face the day ahead.
I tell you this story because deprivation has a way of helping you focus on what’s important. You have all been deprived of a great deal over these last couple of months – as have we all. We’ve had to do without much of what makes up our normal lives. My guess is that this has helped you think about what’s important to you – what you can live without, and what you can’t. And my hope is that as you prepare to reenter the world at some point, and to start the next chapter of your lives, you’re thinking hard about what you want to bring with you.
You might even think about a line from a Bruce Springsteen song, which I am wont to do. The song is called “The Land of Hope and Dreams,” and it’s about a couple who for unstated reasons quickly leave their home to board a train, in search of a better life. The character in the song says to his partner: “We’ll take what we can carry, and we’ll leave the rest.”
Many of you have already been faced with a similar challenge, as we asked you to quickly vacate your dorms and apartments. What did you carry, I wonder? What did you leave behind, and did you miss any of it? More generally: What have you discovered or rediscovered during this time of isolation that you want to carry with you when the world reopens and your life restarts? And what, in particular, do you want to carry with you from UVA?
Now, if I had 15 more minutes or so, I might offer some suggestions about what you should carry with you, especially from UVA. I might suggest that you carry forward the values of this place, like trust, honor, integrity and civility. That you bring with you the willingness and capacity to build bridges. That you carry forward qualities that are the hallmarks of a great and good education: skepticism, so you don’t believe everything you read – even when you wrote it; or empathy, so you can see the world through the eyes of others; or passion, so you have something, other than coffee, that makes you excited to get up in the morning; or vulnerability, because when you drill down, that’s at the heart of all true friendships.
If we had more time, I might also tell you that there’s one other thing about my coffee ritual that I failed to mention. I pour my coffee every morning into a cup that says “I heart Dad,” [shows mug], which roughly translates to “I love Dad.” My daughter Phebe gave it to me a couple of years ago. And as corny as it might sound, when I look at that mug, I remind myself that there are people in this world whom I love deeply and those who love me in return, and I remind myself to be grateful for both. This gratitude, I would tell you, is what I try to carry forward every day, and I’m pretty sure I could leave the rest behind. And so you would get that it’s not really about the coffee after all. The coffee is just a conduit.
But there’s not time for all of that and besides, I shouldn’t answer the question of what you should carry with you and what you should leave behind. It’s far better that you answer it for yourself. My only hope is that, because of your time here, you have the proclivity to ask the question, repeatedly if need be, and that you have the ability to answer it. That because of your time at UVA you are in a better position to know what you should carry with you and what you should leave behind. That you are in a better position, in other words, to answer not just the age-old question of “What is the good life?,” but the more specific question of “What is my good life?” Because at the end of the day, our basic business at UVA is to help people live their very best lives. And I’m pretty sure that if you know what to carry with you and what to leave behind, you will do just that.
Congratulations again, and best of luck.