2018 Commencement address

Read Dr. Margee M. Ensign's 2018 Commencement address.

Note: Dr. Margee M. Ensign, president of Dickinson College, and a member of New College’s 1973 cohort, was the keynote speaker at New College of Florida’s 2018 Commencement. Her address follows:

It’s a great honor to be with you today. It really is. This is my college, and today I am flooded with memories and gratitude for all that New College has given me, the way it has helped to shape my life.

As I reflect on my experiences here, I am reminded not just of friends, of course, but also of the extraordinary teachers I learned from here. One who comes to mind is Dr. Margaret Bates.

We all knew her affectionately as Peggy Bates. As a new student, I had heard that Peggy was tough. But nobody prepared me for what she told me during my first tutorial with her. She called me in to her office — after I had confidently turned in my first paper — and said — the words are seared into my memory — “You don’t write very clearly, which makes me think you don’t think very clearly.”

I felt like fainting. I came to New College truly believing that I was at least a decent writer already. This news was horrible. My New College friends counseled me to flee Peggy and to find a new advisor immediately, but I knew that I had to stay with her, and to learn everything I could from her. And I did. I have now written four quite passable books and countless articles and op-eds. Thank you Dr. Bates.

Peggy modeled more than good writing and clear thinking, important as that was. She also modeled dedication, curiosity, and courage. A woman who walked with a cane and a brace on her leg because she had polio when she was a child, Peggy traveled, alone, through what was then called Tanganyika. She hitchhiked.

Her courage, her fine intellect, her deep passion for Africa, and of course her very high expectations for her students, all this has inspired me since that first tutorial here at New College.

There are so many others as well, among them Tyler Ester, a physicist, and John Morrill, a biologist, who allowed me to study the biological effects of malnutrition and starvation. This led to my thesis in global food and population problems, and a lifelong interest in that topic. It was only a little more than a year ago that I was putting that knowledge to work as we confronted starvation among the displaced people of north east Nigeria. I knew we had to move very quickly to get them food. Many of the women and children had walked days to get to our town of Yola.

The threads of NC have been deeply woven into my life. When confronted by the Boko Haram insurgency and the enormous violence that ensued, I reflected back on my New College education and how passionate I had been about Peace Studies. I really did believe, as a 20-year-old, that it was possible to build a peaceful world. Well, now I had to figure out how to do that in a small corner of that world.

The knowledge and the confidence that I gained here guided me, and we did successfully keep the terrorists out of our town with our massive effort at peace building, bringing the Muslim and Christian communities together, and educating vulnerable youth.

Perhaps more important for you seniors is what I learned about your generation of students—and what you are capable of.

When 300,000 internally displaced people flooded our small city (doubling its size), 300,000 people — mostly women and children — without food, without clothing, with no schools for the children, it was the AUN students who stepped up first, long before any official Nigerian or outside agencies finally made their, belated, appearance. My students said—we will distribute food after school and evenings and weekends. We will find clothing. We will educate the thousands of young people who are now displaced from homes and schools. Our computer science students wrote apps in the local languages, our multimedia students and faculty wrote and delivered radio programs to help these displaced children read and learn mathematics.

I vividly remember one student—son of a wealthy business man, a young man who planned to follow in his Dad’s footsteps — arriving at my development class just after having tutored young street children in our “Feed and Read” program.

How, he demanded, how is it possible that a 12-year-old in my country has never even seen a book. Cannot begin to read or write? 12 years old!

My student realized that it was his responsibility -— not to follow in his father’s footsteps and run an oil company — but to improve education in Nigeria.

You may have heard about the young high school students from Chibok who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Thousands more were later kidnapped in the region, but the world focused first on these young women. One of my female security guards told me that her sister and a handful of others had managed to escape, so we drove north into the occupied area and extracted those whose families agreed that they should come south to AUN and safety.

When we first brought the students from Chibok to campus, I realized that these special students were not only traumatized, but that their education had not even remotely prepared them for college. Again, it was my students -— and a great faculty — who said: We will help. We will tutor, we will empower and march with them and protest that the Nigerian government is doing nothing to rescue their sisters and fellow students.

And slowly these “Chibok students” overcame many of their fears, becoming confident, committed young women. They learned to question. They learned — as I had had to learn here at New College — they learned to think more clearly. They learned to search for the truth. Always—to search for the truth.

After seven years in Nigeria, I returned to a country and world that is tolerating, even relying, not on truth, not on facts, but rather on “alternate facts.” On opinion, on prejudice, on lies. I returned to a country where, it seems to me, we are getting close to what George Orwell warned us about when he said: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.”

New College is a revolutionary place where truth is vigorously sought and treasured, freedom of speech and of inquiry cherished. Never, never underestimate its value. For this is the sort of place, you the sort of people, upon which our futures must be built. You, like my Dickinson and Nigerian students, you are the hope.

So, New College graduates, what lies ahead for you? What are your commitments? How will you use your unique and wonderful New College education?

It is far too easy to focus only on the problems. That is all we see, hear and read about.

But please leave here remembering that we have made more progress in improving human life in the last 60 years -– at least as measured by life expectancy — more progress that we had in the previous 600. We have witnessed a quite astonishing growth in global prosperity. If progress is to continue and the planet to be protected, we will need your talent, your ambition, your creativity, your skills, and your commitment. An easy cynicism is of no value.

At New College — such an unusual place — you have taken on personal responsibility for your education: developing the contract, designing a major, writing a thesis, realizing that “in the final analysis education is our individual responsibility.” That was true when I was a student here, and it is still true today. It takes courage to come to New College.

So stoke that courage, and apply your hard-won knowledge as you face the challenges of a planet that is heating, and a politics in the U.S. — and in many other countries, too — that would divide us and turn us upon each other. You can make this a better world.

You can do it.

Before I left AUN I asked some of the Chibok students to tell me what their new education means to them. This is what Grace said:

“Education gives me the wings to fly, the power to fight and the voice to speak.”

May the New College class of 2018 spread its wings, feel its power and raise its voice.

The world awaits you.

Thank you President O’Shea and New College for your kind invitation to return home; thank you New College faculty and friends for changing my life; and thank you Peggy Bates.