Lehigh University
Lehigh University
President Alice P. Gast

Speeches & Writings

Commencement Address

May 23, 2011
Alice P. Gast

It is my honor and privilege to join with our distinguished honorees and congratulate the graduates of 2011. You came to Lehigh University with high expectations for yourselves…and you have accomplished much. You have left an imprint on Lehigh, and on the world, through your achievements.

You graduate from Lehigh with high aspirations to make a difference, and I have no doubt that you will change the world.

Of course, you did not come all this way without the tremendous love and support of family and friends, some of whom are here to celebrate with you today. I would like to give you the opportunity to show your appreciation for all they have done to help you succeed. So, graduates, please rise and show your thanks with a rousing ovation to your family and friends here with us today.

You likely have mixed emotions about this momentous day. You are proud of your accomplishments, and also nostalgic about the wonderful times you had at Lehigh, and the great friends you have made along the way. You are no doubt both excited and a bit apprehensive about what comes next.

That this is a universal feeling came home to me recently, when I received a letter written to an eldest daughter by a newly widowed father on May 12, 1953. He says:

“Sweetheart, I know just how you feel about leaving college. I felt that way myself. It seemed like the end of an era. I had many, many wonderful memories of the years I spent in college and wouldn’t exchange them even now for anything else, including all the money in the world…..Unfortunately, my parents didn’t understand why that meant so much to me. It has left me more convinced than ever that every child should leave home and, if possible, and they have the ability, to go to college and live in that atmosphere for four years, on their own, by themselves, making their own friends, building their own sense of values into their character.”

That widower was my father, Joseph H. Gast, who was the only one in his family to go away from home and experience that atmosphere for four years. He sent five daughters to college to live in that atmosphere. His legacy lives on at Lehigh, in a scholarship in his and my mother’s name.

You have had the opportunity to come to Lehigh, on your own, by yourself, making your own friends and building your own sense of values into your character. I know that you have been intellectually challenged in your time here…you all know the true meaning of the words “academic rigor.” I know that you have matured and developed in many dimensions. I know that you have built your own set of values. I know that your proud parents, relatives, and friends see a very different person from the one they dropped off at South Mountain four years ago.

You have seen astounding change in those four years:

When you started at Lehigh you probably had a lot fewer Facebook friends – there were fewer than 30 million active users in May of 2007. Today there are over 600 million. It was unthinkable that mass demonstrations or revolutions would be planned on Facebook.

Not many of us had heard of Twitter in 2007; now we can follow major news media, the State Department, President Obama, Lehigh Athletics, or Lehigh’s own professor Jeremy Littau.

We have witnessed worldwide disasters epic in scale – the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and unprecedented uprisings in the Middle East.

Back in 2007, not many of us knew much about Ponzi schemes. Now Madoff is a household name. We also were blissfully less informed about mortgage backed securities and CDOs.

When you entered Lehigh, the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached its peak of over 14,000; during your time here it suffered the largest decline since the Great Depression, and has now since recovered to 12,500.

And Lehigh has changed, for the better, during your time. We reopened the beautiful Linderman library in time for you to get a lot of studying done. And the STEPS building became a new hub of activity and meeting place.

We celebrated 100 years of the College of Business and Economics and 100 years of wrestling, and, of course, we won three Patriot League basketball championships, and, our football team beat Lafayette the past three years in a row.

In tumultuous times like these, as my father knew all too well, the knowledge you have gained at this university will serve you well, but it is your values that will guide you. On this momentous day, I am inspired by you, our new Lehigh University graduates. Your values and your character come through in your many and varied accomplishments:

One of you published scholarly work and became an external reviewer for the international undergraduate philosophy journal; one of you studied neuroscience while playing the French horn in the wind ensemble; another worked on developing technologies to clean up sites contaminated with oil and heavy metals, making polluted ground useable again; one classmate designed and built an inexpensive composting toilet. And, there is one very inspiring student, who, after a debilitating injury, earned her doctorate after 19 years of hard work and incredible determination.

You are creative: several of your classmates created original pieces of music, and some of these are being professionally recorded; some of you worked on a team to build a Chinese Bridge; others of you won awards for your design of the Greenway in Bethlehem Project. And one of you was drafted by the NFL—but not before winning the Southside photo contest.

You have displayed your values and your commitment to others by creating the “unity initiative.” And by tirelessly leading a homework club for South Bethlehem kids.

You had the most successful Relay for Life event ever held at Lehigh, raising almost $75,000 to support the fight against cancer.

You spent thousands of hours helping others in ways your Lehigh education made possible: from designing a Habitat house in South Bethlehem to completing a water purification plant in a poor village in Honduras.

Celebrate these and many other personal and collective accomplishments today.

And what about tomorrow? We all know that today is not the end of an era, it is the closing of one chapter in your lives and the beginning of another. How will you be guided by your values and your Lehigh experiences throughout your life in a complex world full of challenges?

You can look behind me on the stage and see distinguished members of the Lehigh University class of 1961...and you will be inspired by their successes, and by their strong bonds with each other and with Lehigh University. Over these past 50 years, they have combined their strong sense of values and their intellect and their hard work to improve the world.

You know about their values because they have had annual seminars with you, provided scholarships to you, and shared their experiences with you. They have also supported a fund for the teaching of ethical decision making.

You also see on this stage your professors who lead by example, and have accomplished much throughout your time here.

And you can look up on this stage and see people who have set their goals very high. Our honorees hold lofty aspirations and, by applying their intellect, their values, and their hard work, they have achieved greatly.

We know from our alumni and our esteemed honorees and our heroes that success requires high aspirations, strong values, intellect, hard work and perseverance.

Your trajectory will be just as great. I am confident of this because I know that you hold very high expectations for yourself. Likewise, we hold very high expectations for you.

Celebrate and enjoy this great day. I know that soon you will be hard at work again. You set your goals high and you continually strive to exceed them. You will use your character, your intellect, and your values to make the world a better place.

And no matter how far your life takes you from Lehigh, I know you will look back on your time here with wonderful memories.

I wish you a life of fulfillment.