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Class of 2012 Commencement
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Tribeca Films producer Jane Rosenthal offered the class of 2012 some lessons in finding their own voices and overcoming life’s skeptics as she addressed the 229th Commencement at Washington College on Sunday, May 20. A large crowd gathered on the Campus Lawn to celebrate the 325 undergraduates receiving their bachelor’s degrees, and nine successful candidates for the master’s degree.
The college bestowed honorary degrees on Rosenthal and two other special guests: Raghavan Seetharaman, the Group CEO of Qatar-based Doha Bank, and James C. Rees, the president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. In addition, Harris L. Whitbeck ’87, an award-winning CNN correspondent and television producer, received the 2012 Alumni Citation.
In her address to the graduates, Jane Rosenthal recalled the dark days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when she decided—despite many naysayers—that she could help her community heal by launching a new film festival, the now wildly successful Tribeca Film Festival. “People said, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Do you have the money?’ ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
She had heard similar comments more than a decade earlier when she left a successful career as a Hollywood executive and moved to New York to start Tribeca Films with actor Robert DeNiro. But in the wake of 9/11 she felt strongly that “New York needed movies more than ever—the sense of community and hope that movies can bring. So Robert DeNiro and I, along with my husband Craig, decided to forge ahead, because we cared.”
“It’s only if you care deeply about things that matter that you will be brave enough to do what you know is right for you. So how will you deal with the naysayers in your lives?” she asked the graduates. “Learn how to simply say, ‘Thank you for your opinion’—NEXT! … And if there is something in life you truly care about and know you must try—a career, a relationship, a social issue, a movie, a film festival—learn how to say ‘No is not an option.’”
Rosenthal also advised the young graduates to make wisdom a lifelong pursuit. “Cultivate every part of yourself—your left brain and your right brain, your empathy and your sense of justice, your people skills and your hard skills, and your daydreaming skills. Because each of these will serve you in unexpected ways along your journey.” Don’t let today’s smart devices and social media be a substitute for real life, she added. “Make time for meandering conversations and true intimacy. It’s only by unplugging that we truly connect with ourselves.”
President Reiss addressed similar themes in his opening remarks, urging the graduates to preserve space in their fast-paced lives to ponder, reflect and rest. “You have been taught at Washington College to be deliberate and reflective in your approach. Why stop that habit just as you enter the workforce? … It is only in moments of reflection that we can sort through the blizzard of data and find nuggets of meaning,” he continued. “Technology will take your generation places we can’t imagine. But technology is not the destination. You, your mind, your clarity of thought and patient listening to the inner voice that speaks to what is right and wrong—what we call moral courage—this is and will always remain the destination.”
Alumni Citation recipient Harris Whitbeck has won major awards for his coverage of natural disasters and wars around the globe. More recently he launched a television production company in his native Guatemala to target social problems and showcase creative solutions and inspirational stories. In accepting the Citation for Excellence from the Alumni Association, Whitbeck, who also hosts The Amazing Race Latinoamerica, credited Washington College for teaching him to be aware, to be open, to listen—skills that helped him on his personal and professional journey. “So graduates, remember that you are taking away tools that will help you think,” he advised. “The next 25 years are going to fly by for you. So live them with integrity, but also with intensity. And have fun.”
As recipient of an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, Mount Vernon executive James C. Rees was lauded for three decades of stellar service and leadership at America’s most visited historic home. Through his fundraising, vision and educational efforts, he has elevated Mount Vernon into a living monument whose buildings and grounds interpret the nation’s first president through a vivid 18th century lens. Rees collaborated with Washington College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute to create the George Washington Book Prize, a $50,000 award that recognizes the best work on the Revolutionary era. In accepting his degree Rees pictured George Washington “somewhere looking down, saying one of the smartest things he ever did was help start this college.” President Reiss gave Rees a framed copy of the honorary degree Washington College presented to George Washington in 1789, along with General Washington’s response.
The man who transformed Doha Bank into the fastest growing bank in the Middle East shared stories from his youth to give the graduates a glimpse of the grit, pluck and determination that fueled his rise from a financially strapped family in India to the top echelon of international finance. Raghavan Seetharaman, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Washington College, stressed the importance of not just knowledge and skills, but also hard work, determination and teamwork. He recalled how, as a young man who already knew the value of a good education but whose family could not afford the tuition at the best high school in his area, he accepted a special challenge from the school’s headmaster: free tuition, room and board if he came in first in all his examinations. He not only met that goal but also worked in a supermarket after class to help support his family. The kinds of commitment and compassion we show to our families should carry over to the commitment and care we give to society, he told the audience: “We need to leave a better world and also to leave better citizens.”
The student elected to speak on behalf of the student body was Ian Edward Holstrom, an economics major from New Hope, Pa., who led the Honor Board for three of his years on campus. Yes, the campus is beautiful, he noted, but it is people that make Washington College distinctive: “the students you talk to for hours, the passionate faculty that make you wish you had started taking drama classes earlier in college, or the adviser who welcomes you into his office just to talk about cars. It’s the staff members who never forget your name,” he added, “and the community members that are just so excited to have you in town.”
The Class of 2012 will leave a part of themselves on campus, Holstrom assured his classmates, and their alma mater will always travel with them. “In fact, that new, funny feeling in all our hearts today? That’s just Washington College settling in, getting ready to come along for the ride.”