2010 Baccalaureate address

‘Of friendship and friendliness’

President Hansen at Baccalaureate. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

As always, it is a privilege to be invited to speak at your Baccalaureate ceremony, and in keeping with the student-centered nature of the occasion, once again I have developed my remarks by asking a few seniors to respond to a “big question.”

This year I inquired about the role of friendship and friendliness in a Bates education: This is a place distinguished by its “friendly” atmosphere, where, as one of the parents here today put it three or four years ago, students quickly experience “that glue of belonging.”

On the face of it, nothing may seem less complicated or contested than the wonder and joy of college friends. But I worry that the nature and value of “friendship” today may be more fuzzy than it is warm. While the global face of higher education is transforming itself around us, at residential colleges some old assumptions are taken for granted — we still plunge perfect young strangers into the most intimate proximity and assume that they’ll bond and learn together.

I worry that the nature and value of “friendship” today may be more fuzzy than it is warm.

Asking how this works and why it matters is more important now than ever before. In the current economic crisis, we are increasingly called on to justify the luxury of a traditional residential four-year college experience; moreover, with the rise of Facebook and other social networking sites, many wonder if friendship as we know it is changing forever.

Unanimously, the members of the Class of 2010 whom I asked told me that real-life friendship — face-to-face, unmediated, with peers and across generations and roles — is a priceless, distinctive, and essential part of a Bates education, influencing mind and heart both inside and outside the classroom, and undiminished in value by the addition of 400 to 800 virtual friends. This is not news.

They also told me two less obvious things about friendship that are worth sharing.

At Baccalaureate, the seniors process through an arch festooned with cards carrying blessings from family and friends. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

First, while the notion of permanency is assumed in our ready clichés about “lifelong friendships,” the meaning and function of friendship at Bates is not consistent, simple or static; it is developmental and evolving. Here’s how one graduating senior describes her journey: Friendship began in year one as a “raw and uncluttered” engagement. Group excursions to Commons and spontaneous “sleepovers” with eight to 10 students in one room quickly helped to surmount differences on a floor where 17 languages were spoken by citizens of nine countries.

In year two, life in a theme house offered a very different type of friendship — a bond more “cluttered,” we might say, by responsibility, and challenged and strengthened by the need to set goals, take action, resolve conflicts “diplomatically” and “motivate each member of the community to contribute.”

With virtually no shared language to begin with, our student drew on those fundamental skills developed in close quarters at Bates.

In year three, study abroad altered the nature and value of friendship yet again. Residing in the small spaces afforded by a host family with virtually no shared language to begin with, our student drew on those fundamental skills developed in close quarters at Bates. Without words, she had learned “how to simply be with other human beings — how to smile and show gratitude, be humble, be curious and open-minded.”

Finally in year four, back on campus, senior thesis work gave rise to yet another new, more specifically intellectual form of camaraderie. Uniting the senior class “in a common experience, rooted in hard work and creativity,” senior thesis is about individual growth but “it is also a collective process that is emblematic of the value of friendliness at Bates — we all want to see each other succeed.”

The second thing I learned from the Class of 2010 that may often be overlooked is the importance of acquaintances, or “semi-friends,” at Bates.

The prospect of losing contact with day-to-day Bates acquaintances might be the hardest part about graduation, President Hansen said. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

As one of you wrote, “These are the people you’ve never had a deep conversation with but maybe you’ve said “Hi” to them for four years since you went on AESOP together…or maybe it’s the person in your anthro class whose comments were so insightful…. At a school like Bates, there are so many people that we know half-way,” who “bring a sense of community, group identity and solidarity. You don’t, after all, have to be friends with everyone. But this group of acquaintances contributes to the vast network of Batesies that, in sum, make Bates what it is.”

When it comes to Bates friendships and semi-friendships, you can take it with you.

The prospect of losing contact with these semi-friends may seem like the saddest part of graduating tomorrow. “I will stay in touch with my closest friends, but I will lose that group of acquaintances who surround me and create that strong sense of community — those people who contribute in smaller, more diffused ways to my Bates experience and, on the whole, make Bates what it is.”

I learned so much from what members of the Class of 2010 have told me about friendship at Bates, but on this final point I must disagree. I suggest that you graduate into an even larger pool of “semi-friends” — the more than 20,000 alums who are waiting to welcome you into their ranks as you venture forth into the lives that lie ahead. Again and again, throughout the years ahead, when they see your T-shirt or read your resume, these strangers will offer community, and like your friends here today they want nothing more than to see you succeed.

The glue of belonging at Bates and to Bates is a powerful adhesive, resistant to solvents, flexible and durable. When it comes to Bates friendships and semi-friendships, you can take it with you. Your closest friends are yours for life even as the nature of their friendship will continue to evolve. The universal “friending” skills developed here, moreover, will continue to support the learning that is not a luxury, and there is no substitute for knowing “how to simply be with other human being,” “how to smile and show gratitude,” and how “to be humble, be curious and be open-minded.”