The Colgate Scene
July 2005

Service and action

Commencement speaker Marian Wright Edelman accepts her hood from University Marshall George Hudson as she receives her honorary degree from President Rebecca Chopp. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

When she was a little girl, Marian Wright Edelman said during her Colgate commencement address, she couldn't play in public playgrounds or sit at drugstore lunch counters. So her father, a black Baptist minister, built a playground and canteen behind his church. There were no black homes for the aged in her small rural town; her parents began one across the street from their house.

"Whenever he and my mom saw a need, they tried to respond," she said. Having grown up to live by that example, Edelman, the founder and president of the Children's Defense

Fund, encouraged the Class of 2005 to follow suit.

Edelman told the class that they were graduating into "an ethically polluted nation in a world where instant sex without responsibility, instant gratification without effort, instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving, and hoarding rather than sharing are the frequent messages and signals of our mass media, popular culture, and political life."

She called upon graduates to "wander off the beaten career path and help redefine success in 21st century America . . . asking not, `how much can I get?' but `how much can I do without and share?' Asking not `how can I find myself?' but asking more `how can I lose myself in service and action for others?'"

Edelman touched on a wide range of social issues that face today's children, and provided the graduates with eight lessons that she imparted to her own children.

"My generation learned that to accomplish anything, we had to get off the dime" -- but in a world that is reinventing itself at an unpredictable pace both technologically and politically, she said, "Your generation has to learn to get off the paradigm, over and over again, and to be flexible, quick, and smart about it."

"If we believe in it, if we have faith in it, if we dream of it, if we struggle for it, and if we refuse to give up," Edelman concluded, "we can make America a place where truly no child is left behind."

President Rebecca Chopp's charge to the class at the ceremony's opening served as a prologue to Edelman's message. Highlighting their commitment to service and civic engagement as students, Chopp noted that their four years at Colgate were bracketed by the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, and the disaster of the December 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia -- with the United States entering a war, difficult economic times, and tumultuous changes throughout the world along the way.

"As a part of this community, you supported one another, grieved together, and helped each other through that difficult time. And you helped others . . . you worked to raise thousands of dollars and assembled thousands of toiletry kits for the rescuers and displaced. Four years later, you rallied to help tsunami victims -- still guided by that `do something' spirit."

As their special mission, to be carried forth as a part of their legacy, Chopp said: "Colgate graduates of 2005, armed with the finest education from the finest faculty -- do what is right; love the world; want to, need to, do something to make this world a better place; do something in the spirit that is Colgate."

The full text of the day's speeches, as well as video clips and other commencement coverage, can be found at

Eight lessons from Marian Wright Edelman

  • Don't feel entitled to anything you haven't sweated or struggled for.
  • Set thoughtful goals.
  • Assign yourself. Don't wait around for someone to direct what you do.
  • I hope you will never work just for money.
  • Don't be afraid of taking risks, of criticism, or of failure.
  • Take parenting, family, and community life seriously.
  • Listen for the genuine in yourself.
  • Never think life isn't worth living or that you can't make a difference.
Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Fast facts Next: Let's get ready! >>