What a commencement should be - thoughts from Bloomfield College
Thursday morning found me participating in a second commencement, this time at Bloomfield College located a few miles from downtown Newark, NJ. (Check out their website at www.bloomfield.edu) Like most of the other schools I've visited, Bloomfield has strong Presbyterian roots. This school was started initially as a seminary for German speaking immigrants, and over the last century it has morphed into an amazing liberal arts college. What makes Bloomfield almost entirely uniqe among our Presbyterian related colleges and universities is its high level of commitment to diversity.
As I sat on the stage, under a tent in the small quad at Bloomfield, I felt like I had been transported from "Presbyterian land" into another world. I'd say fewer than twenty percent of the student body was European American. Most of the students were African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, African, and even a smattering from eastern Europe. Most are the first generation in their families to go to college, and many are participating in a creative, non-traditional, weekend oriented academic program that allows non-traditional students to work on a degree while continuing to work to support their families.
The graduation ceremony was barely controlled bedlam. While the students were listening and thoughtful when each of the speakers spoke, the place erupted in between speakers and the din never dropped throughout the hour of hooding each one of the 227 graduates. Students were yelling to one another, screaming (supportively) for each graduate that crossed the stage, and standing on their chairs in order to wave and yell their gratitude to their families. There was laughter, and more than once a group of students would break into song, or yell in unison "we love you, Dr. so and so" to one of their professors.
These students know they have something to celebrate, and their deep appreciation and profound sense of community put a lump in my throat. Bloomfield College's mission statement says that the institution is committed to preparing a generation of students who know how to be leaders in a multicultural and global world, and it was clear that they are doing it. Many of these students speak English as a second language, and many more grew up speaking English as a first language but maintaining the language of their immigrant parents.
I was proud to be offered an honorary degree from this institution, because folks here are living the commitments that every one of our Presbyterian Colleges should be striving for (and many are). Presbyterians were known one hundred years ago for being on the frontier, where they founded institutions of higher learning in the places where no one else wanted to do so. In today's world, that frontier is going to be discovered wherever we are at work creating a new generation of leaders who know how to live their faith in a way that boldly stands against all of the hatred and violence and mistrust and inequity that currently characterizes our relationships around the world.
So there you go, two honorary degrees last week (you can just call me Dr. Dr.) from two Presbyterian institutions that are working hard to propel a new generation of leaders with border-crossing skills into the world. Pretty different contexts - from Hastings College in the plains of small town Nebraska, to Bloomfield College on the edges of Newark and the New York Metro region, these and many others of our Presbyterian schools are preparing students to stand against the ego-centrism and nationalism of the dominant culture and to prepare students to live as God calls them to live in the world.
Kind of a hopeful week.