As the members of Hope College’s graduating Class of 2019 prepared to cross the stage during Commencement on Sunday, May 5, featured speaker Dr. Kristen Gray reflected on ways that their lessons had prepared them to travel from the campus community to living in the larger neighborhood of the global village.
“Whether you experienced the arts, natural and applied sciences, social sciences and the humanities as part of your major, or for your core education, the culmination of a liberal arts education at Hope is intended to inspire and prepare you for lives of leadership and service in our global society,” said Gray, who is the associate dean for health and counseling and directs the Counseling and Psychological Services office at the college. “In other words, we have been educating you to be neighbors.”
A total of 713 graduating seniors participated in the ceremony, held at 3 p.m. at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium. The class consisted of students from across the United States and around the world.
Also during the event, the graduating class named Dr. Chuck Green, professor of psychology, as recipient of the 55th “Hope Outstanding Professor Educator” (H.O.P.E.) Award. The award is normally a surprise until its announcement. However, because Green was unable to attend the event due to a family wedding, he was informed earlier in the week and expressed thanks via a prerecorded video message played on the large screen at the stadium.
Through her address, titled “Neighbors,” Gray explored in turn how each of the four academic divisions provided crucial and distinct insight regarding how to live well with others.
“Studying the arts makes you a more empathetic neighbor,” she said — a neighbor who can “sing, strum, soar, syncopate, percuss, tap, pirouette, sweat, hip-hop, paint, sketch, sculpt, carve, film, photograph, see — really see, visualize, imagine, embody, transform, design, build, express, write, revise, rise up, fall down, rise up, see the world, push past your fear, reach out to tell the stories that need to be told.”
“The natural and applied sciences, in their exploration of the physical world, educate neighbors who are scientifically literate,” she said. “The sciences allow you to be a more critical consumer of science reports, to understand the impact of single-use plastics and live more environmentally sustainable lives, to give thanks to the people who spent untold hours in a lab to develop the life-saving medication your loved one needs, to be a neighbor who understands.”
“The social sciences, by examining behavior across time, by individuals and groups and institutions, allow for insight into the world. By gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for all the variety as well as commonalities of human lives, we might just be able to live together in more peaceful and harmonious ways,” Gray said. “A person who has studied in the social sciences can recognize that opinion-based editorials are not investigative journalism, correlation is not always causation, translation differs from interpretation, and research is not the same as Google.”
“The humanities, with the word human tucked right in there, give us ways to grasp and grapple with what it means to be human,” she said. “Humanities allow you to think philosophically about religion, and religiously about philosophy; reflect historically about politics, while questioning the politics of our history; challenge English translations for colonialist leanings; and debate the dreaded Oxford comma. Rather than memorizing ‘correct’ answers, the humanities nurture neighbors who ask life-changing questions.”
The students’ academic work, Gray said, was complemented by meaningful lessons learned during their time outside the classroom, whether through worship, the residence hall, campus activities, campus activism, service, athletics, relationships, engagement with the Holland community, or off-campus study both in the U.S. and abroad.
“If you were curious and interested you could make friends with people with different backgrounds and different experiences and world views and religious beliefs and political thoughts,” she said.
“You met people in their neighborhoods. You learned that your neighborhood is so much greater than any backyard; your neighborhood is the world.”
The students, she noted, also served as examples themselves. “Just as the liberal arts and Hope have offered you lessons on becoming good neighbors, you have had lessons of your own to teach Hope about what it means to be responsible to and for your neighbors,” she said.
The Commencement ceremony was preceded by the college’s Baccalaureate services, which were held in Dimnent Memorial Chapel and featured the address “The Running Father” by Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, who is the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Theology.
Bouma-Prediger based his text on Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the prodigal son who demands his inheritance early, squanders it and finds his father overjoyed when he returns home. To emphasize the significance of the father’s response, and what it would have conveyed to a biblical audience about the depth of God’s love, Bouma-Prediger provided additional cultural context by reimagining the scriptural passage as a first-person narration by one of the father’s workers.
When the younger son — who Bouma-Prediger dubbed “Jacob” — returned, the narrator explained, “There was our master, Jacob’s father, running — in fact, racing — toward Jacob as fast as his aged legs could carry him. Now in our town, no man of his age runs anywhere. It is undignified. And among my people, the head of the household goes out to no one. People come to him.”
Similarly, when the older son, “Levi,” complained about the extravagant celebration that followed, and forced the father to come outside to discuss it, the narrator noted, “For this flagrant public rebellion a son would normally be promptly punished.” Instead, he continued, “This father now further humbled himself by publicly pleading with his petulant son. This father, already enduring the shame of a public dispute, entreated his older son to be reconciled.”
“I will never forget the compassionate father and his two lost sons. I will never forget the depth of this father’s love nor the breadth of his mercy,” the narrator said. “As long as I live, I will never forget the running father.”
God’s boundless love, Bouma-Prediger said, is also always with the graduates.
“Never forget that when you are lost, God loves you more than you can ever fathom and longs to embrace you with that love.”