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SUNY Potsdam President, Kristin Esterberg

SUNY Potsdam Commencement Speech
May 23, 2020

Good morning. And welcome to the virtual Commencement ceremony for the historic SUNY Potsdam Class of 2020.

Let me start by acknowledging that this is not the Commencement ceremony that any of us had hoped for. We know that today’s virtual ceremony is not a replacement for being able to celebrate together in person. More than anything, I wish you were here with me today in the quad, with your family, your friends, your faculty and staff all cheering you on and celebrating your accomplishments.

But even though we cannot be together in person, we must not let this day go unmarked. We still need to find ways to celebrate and honor you and your accomplishments. You are finishing your studies under the most difficult of circumstances. Many of you have had unfathomable losses over the last few months. And yet, you persisted.

So what I want to focus on today is not our collective losses, though they are significant. What I want to focus on instead is your epic-ness. Your awesomeness, in the true meaning of that word—inspiring awe. You are historic. For even amid adversity, you have found ways to carry on. Often in unspeakably challenging circumstances.

You are finishing your degrees at one of the most difficult times in recent history. You are also making history today for another reason—you are the 200th graduating class of SUNY Potsdam.

And so one of the things I want to express to you today is that SUNY Potsdam will always be here for you. Know that Potsdam will always be your home.

In these difficult and uncertain times, it is more important than ever that we use our Potsdam ideals, and you put what you have learned throughout your time here—the ability to think critically, and to think creatively—and to put those abilities to solve our world’s most urgent problems. As we reflect on the last two months and the months ahead, I believe your SUNY Potsdam education will serve you well.

The last few months have underscored the need for us to trust in science and the scientific method. We need scientists to develop vaccines. Medical cures. To model the spread of disease. To develop public health measures to protect us. Whether you are graduating with a degree in the sciences or not, I hope you have developed through your time at Potsdam an appreciation of the scientific method and the critical role that scientists play in our society.

Our need for the social sciences and an understanding of each other has never been greater. For us to understand why humans behave the way they do. Why it is sometimes hard for people to do the right things. What we can do to help people cope. Now, more than ever, we need to understand and appreciate the extraordinary diversity of human cultures and experiences. This is a global pandemic, though we experience it locally.

The last few months have underscored the importance of the creative arts to our human existence. Music, dance, the visual arts, theatre, film, literature. As our physical worlds have grown smaller, we rely even more on the arts to express our joys, our rage, our sorrows, even our boredom. The arts help us connect, and express our fundamental human condition. They are as necessary as water, or breath.

Over these last months, our need for the humanities is also highlighted. The need to think ethically, to consider: What is the nature of a just society? In times of scarcity, how should we share? What do we owe to our fellow human beings, both those living now and those of future generations? And how can we avoid a terrible repetition of the worst in our past?

And finally, the critical importance of education. The ability for individuals to learn the difference between truth and fiction. To think creatively and solve what may seem like impossible problems. And to continue the quest for knowledge, despite the most challenging circumstances in our nation and in our recent history.

You, our SUNY Potsdam graduates, have that capacity: to save lives by your actions, to solve intractable problems, to develop innovative strategies, and to help secure the future for other generations. As you head into your future, I hope you will hold onto the ideals of the Potsdam Pledge, and use it as a guide

For over 200 years, the SUNY Potsdam community has remained strong, and together, we have always risen to the challenge. Today is no exception. 

So to you, the historic Class of 2020, I wish you the very best. You are entering into uncharted territory. But I have great faith in you, because you have shown what you are made of. You are as sturdy as Potsdam sandstone, and as creative as those who first used that durable stone to create magnificent structures. You are magnificent, and you are historic.

We are so proud of you. Congratulations.