Breakthrough: a Song for Graduation


Traverse City commencement, 2011

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences


Thank you, Gayle, and thank you graduates. Thank you so much for the privilege of addressing you on this special occasion.

The Broadway musical “Merrily We Roll Along” has a song called “Our Time”[1] with this lyric:

Something is stirring/Shifting ground …It's just begun.
Edges are blurring/All around, And yesterday is done.

Feel the flow, Hear what's happening:  We're what's happening.
We're the movers and we're the shapers. We're the names in tomorrow's papers.
Someday has finally come.

It's our time, breathe it in:
Worlds to change and worlds to win.
Our turn coming due, Breakthrough.

Breakthrough—a beautiful word.  A word that peals like a bell with achievements against the odds, obstacles overcome, new possibilities on the horizon.  The breakthrough we’re celebrating here is, of course, you.  Through your hard work and persistence, you’ve scored a breakthrough for yourself that opens a whole world of new possibilities to fully employ, and stretch, your talents, support your family and make the world better.   But for all it does for you, I want you to remember, it is also a breakthrough for others.  Let me offer a few words of praise for the former accomplishment;   but I don’t want you leaving this room tonight  without taking some pride in the latter.

Recently I had the chance to hear from Professor Kurt Bullock, my colleague in English, about his experiences with the graduating students here on the Traverse City campus.  Though all students on all campuses face challenges when they come to college, Kurt pointed out that a very high proportion of the students here are the first ones in their families to come to college   and many are balancing their family, work, community and school commitments.  How many of the graduates here today are in the first generation of college graduates for their families?     I raise my hand because I am too, as are others on this platform.  GVSU is especially a “breakthrough institution” because we serve an extraordinarily high percentage of First Gen graduates like you.

So at Grand Valley, and maybe even more here at our Traverse City campus, the faculty and staff have developed an appreciation for what you were brave enough and determined enough to attempt.  Your presence here today demonstrates that you have succeeded in one of the great ventures of your lives.  I know that every step of the way, the faculty were rooting for you, even as they were setting the bar high.  I hope you could feel that they understood the late nights, the long hours, the enormous sacrifices, and the simple, stubborn, irrepressible aspiration for a better life that brought you here—because they had that aspiration for you. Henry David Thoreau said, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”     Your education has been the breakthrough allowing you to imagine—and to go for—so much more today than you could on the day of your first class.  Maybe the change has felt gradual, sometimes perhaps imperceptible, but your professors, whom you make very proud, have witnessed your breakthroughs—and that’s why they’re here to celebrate them with you today.  Could I ask you for a round of applause for your faculty?

There are some great stories here among these graduates. A student who conquered the fear of public speaking, to make possible a career in teaching, no doubt to be an inspiring one.  Students who had a rocky start but were transformed by their education into learners who will always be able to teach themselves.  Students who grasped the opportunity for an education with the one hand they had free, and they held on tenaciously even though at points it came hard to them while they had to raise children and work jobs and pay bills with the same number of hours in a day that the more fortunate few could devote to full time study. GREAT stories: we celebrate every    single  one. You’ve changed the game; after you, nothing can ever be the same.  For sure, breakthrough.   But not just for you.

When leaders and futurists say that we need to create an economy increasingly dependent on an educated workforce, what they are really talking about is you.  But they are talking not only about  what the education you’ve undertaken is going to mean to yourself,  but to your family, and to your community.  And what they sometimes forget to say is something about  who that education allows you to be, and become. You’ve undertaken a process of growth that not only gave you access to facts and figures, but more importantly developed your abilities to learn about anything, to reason your way through any situation, to test your own and your society’s assumptions, to think critically, to write compellingly and to speak persuasively.  In any work you undertake, in any service you render, these skills will always be useful to you;   and they will always make your internal life more interesting,  more spacious, more powerful—and just more fun. 

Given that special capacity, you should use this education to be adventurous.     Continue to explore parts of the world you don’t yet know through travel, books, films, art, food, and a widely inclusive circle of friends, embracing both what you already know and what you’d love to find out next. I certainly hope that whatever your journeys, many of you will, as I did, come home again to Michigan where you will enrich us, inspire us,     and just as importantly for our collective future, demonstrate the great value of your education.  From now on, you will determine that value: you will make your own assignments, set out your own tests, do your own evaluation.  You will do all of that; what you may discover in retrospect is, you always did.

In my own teaching, I’m inspired by students who are first generation, whether they’re new to the experience, or coming back to college after interruptions, or transitioning from another job, or from the military, to college life, or in any other way facing life head on. That’s the “posture of breakthrough”.  But the people around them may not fully understand what they have done, and I have a story about that.   

Now, I was the first person in my line going back to Adam to graduate from college.  At my graduation party, just for fun, I wore the cap and gown.  My uncle, who was pretty proud of me because a stint in the military effectively prevented him from going to college, stole a line from Alex Karras describing Oakland Raider Otis Sistrunk on Monday Night Football,  and introduced me as “My nephew from The University of Mars.”    He was kidding—I think—but apparently there was some appeal to life in a larger universe.  I remember a 12 year old cousin saying, “I dunno  a single thing about college.  But hey, if Fred can do it, I can do it.”  And he was right, he did go to college and graduate, followed by a flock of grand nieces and nephews—and yes, they went to GVSU.  Graduates, your breakthrough, your example makes it more possible for your family, your children and grandchildren, your friends to dream bigger dreams.  From tonight on, you are living encouragement.  And let me say to the families, if your mom or elder brother or uncle or friend—or your spouse, or even your child—is graduating today, nothing will bring a brighter smile to your graduate’s face than your saying, “hey, if you can do it, maybe I can do it too.”

And to those families and loved ones who helped make this possible, I also want to recognize you.  I know that you have been brave too. My own dad was a firefighter and when he sent me off to school, he admitted some uneasiness that he couldn’t provide me with the inside scoop on college life that some other parents could.  But you know what? The inside scoop didn’t turn out to be so important.   Like our graduates tonight I figured that out, mostly, with the help of my teachers.  The inside scoop wasn’t nearly as important as the constant support, the buoyant and unfailing confidence in the face of struggle, that I always felt from my family, and that I know your graduate has felt from you. 

So whether or not you knew a single thing about college when it all started,  can I get the family and friends  who supported these graduates to please stand up to be recognized?    Everyone in this room who supplied moral or material support  has a hand in the accomplishments we celebrate.  It is a community celebration today.    You might not even know that you contributed;  but even the humble act of paying your state taxes has helped make it possible for Grand Valley State University  to provide these graduates resources necessary to do what they've done, some against big odds, some     beyond what anyone in their family could have imagined before.  And their breakthrough is a breakthrough for all of us in a very material way: Grand Valley students tend to   stay in the state, dig their roots deeper, and make all of us better.  So let me share today’s congratulations with all those who have built our state--and have opened new doors for so many—in supporting the graduates we celebrate. I can tell you that they look for little more today than the pride in your eyes. 

And from here on, graduates, remember that the “posture of breakthrough”  is facing life head on,  going confidently in the direction of your dreams.  So let’s make it your graduation song:   “Feel the flow. Something’s happening.  You’re what’s happening.” In this room could be the CEO of the company that brings Michigan back, a congresswoman, the first astronaut on Mars, a school principal, someone who helps to ease the ravages of Alzheimer's, or even someone crazy enough, and lucky enough, to be a college professor, or a deanYou’re the names in tomorrow’s papers.    And all of you will be family members and voters—please don’t forget to let your education inform and enrich that too.   

Worlds to change, and worlds to win.   Your Someday has finally come, and we are so proud of our newest alumni.  You graduates are, for Grand Valley, for all of us here, OUR breakthrough.


[1] Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth, From the play "Merrily We Roll Along"
by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.