Monday, May 26, 2014
WALLA WALLA — With soon-to-be graduates, parents, faculty and alumni splayed out on the South Memorial Lawn on Sunday at Whitman College before her, commencement speaker Sally Jewell urged the Class of 2014 to “make your strand count.”
Jewell, the former CEO of Northwest outdoors equipment retailer Recreational Equipment, Incorporated (better known as REI) and current U.S. secretary of interior, was tasked with delivering Whitman College’s commencement speech a year after comedian Eric Idle’s riotous talk.
Instead of pursuing comedy, however, Jewell chose a more traditional route, urging the approximately 390 graduates to stay involved in their communities.
“Once you leave Whitman, stay involved, stay engaged,” she said. “Be part of your community, whatever community means to you. It might be a little harder to volunteer, or it might require more effort to find a compost club, but I guarantee it’s going to lead to some of your most rewarding experiences and take you places you never expect.”
Jewell, who was given an honorary doctorate of science from Whitman, spoke on a variety of topics, including climate change and the Affordable Care Act, while relating her personal journey to service in the community.
Jewell had planned to become a dental hygienist out of high school and studied dentistry at the University of Washington before switching to engineering and ultimately working with oil companies.
From there, she entered commercial banking with a focus on natural resources before joining REI, first as a board member, then as CEO.
“Being part of your community will not only have a positive affect on those around you, but it will also open up your life in ways you can’t even anticipate,” Jewell said. “So be open, be open to those unanticipated twists and turns in your journey.”
While at REI, Jewell helped formulate a company policy that gave some level of health insurance to all employees, regardless of full- or part-time status, and it was that initiative, she said, that may have led eventually to becoming secretary of interior. And it was her connection to her community, she said, that helped her understand the need for health care.
“Working for years as a volunteer and a board member of the YWCA in Seattle helped me understand the challenge of many working Americans when it came to making ends meet,” Jewell said, “and one of the things that would tank them almost every time was a lack of health insurance, and what would happen if anything happened to them.”
After REI passed its policy, Jewell met with President Barack Obama as part of the run-up to passing the ACA.
“So, this meeting with the president on health care was a step in the journey that led me to the job I hold today as a member of his cabinet,” she said. “And maybe it was a small step in the journey to the passage of the Affordable Care Act that ensured that all Americans have access to high quality health care.”
Jewell, renowned for her environmental activism and enthusiasm for the outdoors, also talked about environmental and tribal rights activist Billy Frank Jr., who died on May 5.
She quoted him: “‘I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars. The water, the tides, the floods. The owls, the hawk flying, the river running. The wind talking. They’re measurements; they tell us how healthy things are, how healthy we are. Because we and they are the same.’”
With that, she urged the graduating class to fight against climate change and said doing so will be a team effort.
“So when it comes to complex and cross cutting issues like climate change, your generation — you — are going to be the leaders and thinkers that make the difference,” she said. “... I encourage you all, find your extraordinary, make your strand count, and with your Whitman education, I’m optimistic you will. And by the way, don’t forget to have some fun along the way.”
Jewell’s wasn’t the only talk at the Whitman College commencement. Senior speaker Rosemary Hanson dove enthusiastically into the poetic, hilarious end of the pool, delivering a six-minute speech that lightheartedly touched on the economic ennui the graduates will face and the sadness of parting with their classmates, ultimately earning a standing ovation from the massed seniors.
“But here we are, suddenly, at the final cathedral,” Hanson said, comparing the college journey to a pilgrimage. “The 12th labor is over, the eighth semester done, we’ve beaten the final gym leader and, badge in hand, our next step is uncertain. The problem with pilgrimage, is that now we must return to the real world. And I’m sorry to say, Carl Sagan, I’ve waded a little way out and the water is not inviting. Beset by Millennial ridicule, economic pessimism and a general postmodern angst, we’ve ridden off into the sunset only to find ourselves alone, in the desert, in the dark.”
“So I want to say something inspirational about the future,” Hanson said jokingly.
“We’ve been handed a dysfunctional world, and now it’s ours to rebuild — fairer, greener and full of coffee shops. The future is more uncertain than it’s ever been, for as we stare into the void, I say bring it on, boo-yah, let’s go!”
“But...” Hanson said with a long pause. “The truth is as idealistic as I am, I’m also realist. And I’m here to break some bad news: we’re going to get old. We might even get boring. Some of us might hop on a bandwagon of a new world order, headed off in the wrong direction. And others of us will accidentally become ‘The Man.’”
Hanson, an anthropology major with a minor in Japanese, ended on a more upbeat note.
“It’s from here that our paths diverge — some forever and some for longer than we might want,” Hanson said. “But as we walk out of this dim place of worship, into the squinting sunlight — accomplished and exhausted and desperately needing a shower, we’re not the same as when we started. The journey was not wasted. We are older, we are wiser. We have learned to walk this road together, and when we separate, our feet remember the rhythm of this, our first odyssey.”