The Road Ahead: What is Commencing?

Remarks by Dr. Judith Berling
GTU Commencement, Thursday, May 12, 2016

I want to join my voice in warmly congratulating you graduates on making it to this joyous day, and congratulating as well the spouses, partners, families, and friends who supported them along the way.  Well done, all of you!!

Over the many years that I spoke at doctoral student orientation, I would joke that I had been at the GTU a long time, and I hoped that they would graduate faster than I had.  Well, at 29 years I have finally made it:  in one sense I am commencing with you today.  But my masters/Ph.D. commencement actually took place before many of you were born, in 1975, so I have been “commencing” for a long time.  Having been “at it’ for 41 years, I want to reflect with you on what begins today (for, as you know, a “commencement” is a beginning, not an ending.)

You have worked hard in your degree program to develop specialized knowledge and demanding intellectual skills, and many if not most of you both embarked upon and slogged through the long road of graduate study with a specific career goal in mind.  Some of you will immediately find a position that meets your career goal and some of you already have --  that is a great blessing.  But in today’s world, others may find the road ahead less predictable that you had thought.  Lest you convince yourself that this is brand new, let me confess a strange anomaly about my professional life.   The career goal that I had clearly in mind through my graduate work was teaching at a small liberal arts college.  In a successful and rewarding career of more than four decades, teaching in a small liberal arts colleges is the one thing I have never done.  In fact, when I earned my degree, if you had told me that I would spend 29 years teaching in a consortium of theological and religious schools and 9 years as dean of that consortium, I would have laughed in your face – I could not yet imagine it.   And yet: I am deeply convinced that my work at the GTU was the best possible fit for my specific gifts and deepest values.

So: my message to you graduates is that you may not today be able to imagine where this graduate education is leading you.

I vividly remember the story of one GTU graduate who had worked on the contributions of various religions to the UN Declarations on Human Rights.  He had a family to support, and for two years could find nothing but adjunct work that did not pay a liveable wage. He was deeply discouraged.  Then one day a notice came across my desk that the International Association for Religious Freedom was looking for a Director.  I nominated him, and he got a position far better suited  to his gifts than anything he had ever imagined.

I have a very deep conviction that nothing we learn is ever wasted: but for this principle to hold, we must have a broad understanding of what it is we have learned.  The structure of graduate programs seeks to convince us is that we learn the “specialized stuff”:  languages, theorists, texts, research  and interpretive methodologies.  While I have used the specialized knowledge of my graduate training in many parts of my professional life, I gradually came to realize that I learned much more than that, and that this “broader” learning was  at least as important, in some ways more so.

Most obviously, you have all learned intellectual virtues:  attentiveness, discipline, analysis, perseverance, framing an argument and/or project. These are now part of your toolbox, and can be used in many ways. Beyond the obvious, there is the “implicit curriculum” of the GTU:  you have been exposed to and learned to negotiate many kinds of human and intellectual diversity (cultural, religious, denominational, methodological), because of the students and faculty you have encountered here.  You have been exposed to multiple disciplines and to interdisciplinary approaches, which provide you with the ability to think flexibly and imaginatively, and to be open to approaches needed to solve complex problems and answer complex questions.

Moreover, although your final push to complete program requirements (esp. those theses and dissertations) may have felt like closure --you were, after all,  using everything you had learned to get to the finish line -- in fact, the content you learned, the skills you developed, and even the implicit learning from the ethos of the GTU have planted seeds, which will continue to sprout and grow as you move into the next phases of your lives.  And sometimes the plants that grow from them may surprise you and move you in new directions.

You go out from here today not only glowing with accomplishment, but also brimming with potential. I wish each of you every success and fulfillment, and pray that you will remain open-minded and open to discernment about the twists and turns of the road ahead.  Don’t restrict yourself to your long-held expectations or your current sense of your gifts and potential.  My wish for you is that you will be called to something you have not yet imagined, but that calls on your distinctive gifts and your values in ways that will fill your life with purpose and give you the opportunity to contribute your very best to academy, religious community, or society.  Blessings!