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Comments to the Class of 2020 (2.0): Pushing through interruption

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College
May 23, 2021

Members of the Wonderful Class of 2020. It is so good to see you today as we come out of this COVID crisis. You are looking great. And thank you for returning this weekend to reconnect and celebrate. By traveling to back to Augustana today, or by watching this ceremony remotely, you’ve affirmed the importance of your years at Augustana. I am honored to have shared those years with you.

It was a little over 14 months ago that we told you: “Don’t worry, we’ll add a week to spring break to try to work this out.”  

Then days later, we said it would be longer than a few weeks, but "maybe we can return for the final week or two of classes and commencement."

And then, "We can’t do a live commencement, but we will do a virtual degree conferral — and by the way, we’ll do the live commencement Homecoming weekend."

But, as we learned together, COVID really doesn’t have any respect for optimists. And we all know the rest of the story.

It is a true blessing to be with you today live. Thanks to the TaxSlayer Center and its dedicated staff for permitting this to happen.

Adversity and interruptions

I’ve struggled a bit with this commencement talk. Here is the first draft of my commencement speech. Its theme was "Adversity Builds Character." Have you heard that before as it relates to COVID? I see heads nodding yes.

But exactly how does being hit by a bus build character? You were hit by the COVID-19 bus, full force. It flattened what is for many the highlight of their time at college — the last weeks and months of your senior year.

I don’t know that loss builds character, at least in the short run. Let’s be honest with each other. Having to give up the last weeks and months of your senior year stinks. While many of you found silver linings, it still stinks. Your lives were interrupted and they were interrupted at a bad time.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., someone found a half-finished sermon in his papers. The sermon told a story about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was composing a poem titled “Kubla Khan.”  He was not quite finished with the poem when he was interrupted by someone who knocked on his door. When Coleridge returned from the interruption, his inspiration was gone and the poem was never finished.

In reflecting on this unfinished masterpiece, Dr. King wrote: “The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions, the door that slams shut, the plan that gets side-tracked . . . or some lovely poem that didn’t get written because someone knocked at the door.”

How you responded

In some ways, your senior year was like a poem not quite completed. Athletic competitions, musical and theater performance that did not happen. Celebration of Learning presentations not given to a live audience. Year-end parties and gatherings missed. And hugs and words of encouragement not given. It was a senior year ending with interruptions.

It’s OK to lament these losses, but it is also important to reflect on — and celebrate — how this community responded to these challenges. For many, last spring will be remembered for the unexpected gift of forging stronger relationships, and of spending precious times together when we were all in need of support. You drew closer to family and friends. With the hustle and bustle of the last months of your senior year largely gone, you had more time to reflect, to take stock and think about your purpose in life.

In the end, the Class of 2020 achieved some of the highest job placement rates and graduate school acceptance rates in the history of Augustana College. You weathered the storm and prospered — on the job and in graduate school in formats unimaginable 18 months ago. I speak for your faculty is saying that we are awed by your responses to the interruption of the pandemic. You are resilient. You are incredible.

50 years from now

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned during my 18 years at Augustana have come from our 50th anniversary classes. I attend their reunions, and we often give each member of that class a chance to reflect on the 50 years since their graduation, and what their Augustana education has meant for them. A common thread is that they thought they knew what their calling in life would be when they graduated from Augustana, only to be proved wrong by the many unexpected twists and turns of life.

What these alumni in their 70s thought was their purpose in life and their sense of calling evolved because of the unexpected. Job changes, loss of loved ones, career opportunities and disappointments, health issues, new relationships, broken relationships, unexpected opportunities, and surprising roadblocks. Parents and grandparents, do you know what I am talking about?

And most graduates from 50 years ago comment that the skills they gained at Augustana helped them navigate their winding and sometimes rocky path. They treasured their time at Augustana because in those years they developed the life skills and values that sustained them through each twist and turn.

It’s my confident hope that 50 years from now you will look back on this time with gratitude for the ways in which these years and the faculty who accompanied you through them helped you develop your critical thinking skills, your faith and philosophy of life, your sustaining relationships, and your sense of calling.

Well, Class of 2020, you will have a distinct advantage over all other 50th reunion classes — you have shown your resilience during the worst crisis in generations. May our Augustana experience, punctuated by the COVID-19 crisis, help you push through interruptions and gain strength to face life’s twist and turns.

Oh, by the way, that unfished poem that Dr. King was referring to — the one that Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn’t finish because of the knock on the door. Well, that poem, Kubla Khan, was later published in its unfinished form. It went on to inspire generations of future poets.

A story just beginning

Students, though your time at Augustana was interrupted and your Augustana story was not finished in the way you expected, your story, like Coleridge’s poem, is still a tremendous one. And your story is just beginning.

Like Coleridge’s poem, may your story be great. May that story be guided by your years at your Augustana home, now your alma mater. And may your critical thinking skills, your faith and life philosophy and your extraordinary grit and determination push you through every interruption.

You are one of the most special classes in the 161-year history of Augustana. I look forward to watching, from the sidelines, your future work to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. May God bless and keep the Augustana College Class of 2020.