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Message from Commencement Speaker Heath Tarbert, C'98

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Dear Mount Class of 2020:

I want to express my heartfelt congratulations as you graduate from the Mount and begin the next step of your journey through life. You deserve to be filled with pride at this achievement.

No one can graduate from the Mount without some sense of our university’s formidable history and religious identity. The Mount’s motto, spes nostra, which means “our hope,” has for over 200 years epitomized the school’s mission of developing graduates “empowered for leadership in the Church, the professions, and the world.” We can count among our founders, faculty, residents, and former students many leaders—including CEOs, legislators, generals, and admirals, as well as over 50 bishops and archbishops, a Chief Justice of the United States, and the first American Saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. As a graduate of the Class of 1998, I was truly honored when asked to be your commencement speaker.

For the last 211 years, we’ve celebrated our annual commencement together as a community. We’ve done so through good times and bad— even through the darkest days of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. But this year at the Mount is different. Across the globe, we’re facing the most challenging health and economic crisis in modern times. That crisis prevents us from being together to give you a proper send-off.

The necessary effort to save lives through social distancing hasn’t been without sacrifice. With all the challenges the pandemic presents, the impact on college students is often overlooked. Yet I know this crisis has been tough on you. Apart from any direct impact COVID-19 has had on loved ones and friends, nearly all of you lost the chance to live on campus for your final semester. You missed out on the campus events that traditionally bring closure to the close-knit community you’ve been a part of for four years. You likely left campus abruptly—without saying goodbye to the roommates, classmates, professors, and good friends who’ve meant so much to you. Many of you are looking for a job at a time when the unemployment rate is the highest it has been since the Great Depression. To say that none of this has been easy would be a gross understatement.

Some of this uncertainty is familiar to me from 22 years ago, when I graduated from the Mount. To be sure, there was no global pandemic back then. But there were plenty of fears, insecurities, and other feelings that all graduating seniors face: What was I going to do with the rest of my life? Was I making the right decision to pursue graduate school? I would later learn—only in the years and decades after I graduated—that my Mount education, like yours, equipped me well for tackling the puzzle of how to live.

As the head of a federal agency, a husband, and a father, I’m continuing to learn new lessons with every passing day. That said, I thought I’d share with you three lessons I took from the Mount. These lessons came as much from the dorm room as the classroom, and they’ve been with me ever since. They’re fundamentally about power, passion, and purpose.

1. You’ll always have the power to decide—use it.

Most of us at some point feel powerless with respect to the world around us. I certainly did when I arrived on campus as a freshman, and some of you may be feeling the same way now. Back in the 1990s, our freshman seminar book was entitled Choices, and it underscored that the power to choose is at the very heart of what it means to be an adult. During the seminar, we also read excerpts of Dr. Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A survivor of the Holocaust, Dr. Frankel emphasized what he saw as the fundamental truth of our human existence:

“[E]verything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way . . . . Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom, which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance . . . .”

Dr. Frankel was reiterating a truth recognized long ago by the Stoics and early Christians: we can’t always change the world around us, but we can always choose our response to whatever we face.

Life is hard and sometimes downright unfair. You may lose your job, get passed up for promotions, have friends let you down, or see loved ones pass away too young. But you can choose to find meaning in these events or even use them to make you stronger. This is often easier said than done. Yet even in the midst of life’s difficulties and uncertainties, I urge you to remember that you always have a choice in how to deal with whatever you face. You’re never powerless.

2. Listen to your head, but follow your heart—pursue your passion.

Now that you’re graduating, you’re probably getting well-meaning advice on how to live your life from all quarters. (I realize I’m doing a bit of that myself right now!) My suggestion is that you should consider all advice, but don’t you dare take it just because it comes with good intentions. You’re the only one walking down the path of your life, and your destination is ultimately your responsibility.

In my senior year, I had a tough decision to make. Growing up in a Baltimore rowhouse, I was the first in my family to attend a four-year residential college. I’d be leaving the Mount with an accounting degree and the prospect of an excellent salary as an auditor with a Big Four accounting firm. But I had a problem. I knew my true passion wasn’t auditing, but law and public policy.

My heart-felt vocation dictated law school as the next step, but that would involve a great deal of student debt and questionable employment prospects. My well-meaning family wasn’t sold on that risk, nor were my friends, who’d be getting apartments and new cars while I’d be spending three more years in the library. The next several years were indeed difficult ones, but it made the next twenty better because I was following my heart.

Each of you is unique. And I believe God has a plan for all of us. The Mount does too: it stresses in all its academic programs—from accounting to education to theology—the importance of discerning one’s vocation as opposed to simply a “career.” Perhaps the French novelist Honoré de Balzac put it best when he warned: “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a person’s entire existence.”

Reason must play a role in how you live your life, of course, but your vocation comes more from your heart than your head. You’ll know it when you find it. If you haven’t yet, don’t stop looking. Most importantly, you have to be willing to walk away from the crowd and so-called conventional wisdom when it would lead you off course. In the end, you’ll be glad you did.

3. A life of true significance must serve a larger purpose—look beyond yourself.

Every year on Ash Wednesday, we remind ourselves that “we come from dust and to dust we shall return.” Human life on this earth is finite. That’s both humbling and motivating. To make our lives truly meaningful, we must focus on something greater than ourselves.

One of the more profound spiritual experiences I had as a student at the Mount was when Mother Teresa visited campus. More than anyone else, she—now Saint Teresa of Calcutta—lived a life dedicated to a purpose beyond herself. Very few can aspire to a life like Mother Teresa’s. Yet she had something very thoughtful to say on this point:

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love . . . . If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

You don’t have to change the world to be influential. Some of you may take on global leadership roles, while for others your purpose may be based on your role as a parent, spouse, son, daughter, or supportive friend. Most of us will probably find our significance somewhere in between—from our professions as well as from our personal experiences. What makes a fulfilling life isn’t how big, but how meaningful, your impact is.

It will come as no surprise to you that life is full of challenges, both on personal and societal levels. The COVID-19 pandemic arguably makes your challenges more acute as you start your careers during a period of intense uncertainty. The good news is that your time at the Mount has instilled in you a bedrock of values that provide the tools you’ll need to face and overcome adversity.

You shouldn’t forget what Saint John Henry Newman said about adversity: “If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.” A life without hardship may be comfortable, but it won’t focus you on the power to decide, the importance of following your passions, and the need to pursue something bigger than yourself. In rising to meet our misfortunes, we often learn life’s lessons quicker and find the right path sooner.

For the first time in recent decades, the senior class at the Mount has been forced to do less partying and more pondering in its final semester. It may not seem like it today, but I think ultimately that’s a good thing. I’m willing to bet that when you’re in my shoes 22 years from now, members of the class of 2020 will stand out for leading lives filled not only with success, but also with true significance. Because I’m receiving an honorary degree this week, I’ll consider myself an honorary member of your class, and will strive to live these ideals in my own life.

Once again, it’s truly an honor to address the Class of 2020, even if it must be in writing at this time. Congratulations on earning your degree! May God bless you and Mary Our Mother pray for you always.

Sincerely,

Heath P. Tarbert
Mount Class of ‘98 & ‘20