Full Text: Commencement Address by Joshua Wagner ’19

Josh Wagner '19, the Class of 2019 Commencement Speaker (File photo)

Josh Wagner ’19, the Class of 2019 Commencement Speaker (File photo)

Speech by Joshua Wagner ’19 as prepared for delivery:

Good morning!  I am honored to welcome you — the family, friends, faculty, administrators, and staff — who have come to celebrate the graduation of the class of 2019.

As President Riggs so kindly introduced, I am Joshua Wagner, a chemistry and mathematics double major from the class of 2019.  Despite temptations to lock myself away in a lab or in a chalk filled room, like you, I have tried to embrace the liberal arts style of education and take my studies out into the world.  I spent a semester abroad in Cairo, Egypt where I gained an appreciation of Arab culture, Middle Eastern politics, and Islamic architecture.  On Immersion Projects to Namibia and Nicaragua I investigated indigenous, environmental, and cultural issues surrounding land and animal conservation.  Throughout my travels, I stayed with host families, talked with community leaders, and sampled an eclectic array of cuisine.  These experiences were formative for a liberal arts education and make great dinner conversation; however, today I plan to thrill you with a small lecture on physical chemistry.

I would like to take a moment to talk about ‘random walks’, a topic pertinent to chemistry, mathematics, and graduation.  A ‘random walk’ is a simple model for random motion.  Each step in a ‘random walk’ is in a completely arbitrary direction.  It is by far one of the least efficient ways to travel.  The first ‘random walk’ was documented by botanist Robert Brown who observed fragments of pollen grains twitching about in water.  Each fragment was being randomly pushed around by intermolecular solvent interactions.  The particles had no agency in choosing their own motion.  I’m here to tell you that our progression through Pennsylvania Hall today was not a ‘random walk.’  We did not arrive here by chance. Our graduation is the culmination of years of challenging studies and personal development.

With that in mind, let’s think back.

On Wednesday, August 26th 2015 – 702 first-year Gettysburgians gathered here – at the steps of Pennsylvania Hall.  We came from 29 states and 16 countries and represented the most diverse class in the history of the college.  We came from varied backgrounds, and we each brought a unique and valuable perspective to share, yet despite our varied experiences, we all decided to come to the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

As a mathematics major, I can tell you that it is very unlikely that we would gather here four years ago.  There are seven and a half billion people in the world, only a few of which are members of the class of 2019.  Using some back-of-the-envelope calculations – I can tell you that it would be more likely to win the Powerball lottery 50 times in a row than to randomly assemble this graduating class from around the world.  With those odds, we can speculate that we did not arrive here on a ‘random walk.’ So why did we come to Gettysburg College?

We came to Gettysburg College because it is a catalyst for meaningful discussions.  At times over the last four years, our campus has served as a microcosm for the debates and discussions that have swept this country.  We rallied behind marginalized members of our community, we stood up for science, we campaigned for issues we were passionate about, we voted, we volunteered, we got involved in our communities.  Throughout, we asked the difficult questions.  What is the balance between free-speech and a welcoming and inclusive environment?  What are our responsibilities as citizens privileged with a higher education?  What impact do we want to make on the world? Will dining staff notice if I take more than two Servo Cookies?

Joking aside, we did not come here just to learn how to pipette, paint, code, write, give proofs, or make citations.  We certainly didn’t come here to pull all-nighters, cry in the library, or listen to off-tune karaoke at Midnight Madness.  Instead, we came to Gettysburg College because we wanted to apply our knowledge and skills to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Four years later, we can reflect on whether we were successful in this endeavor.  Are we leaders?

We have had plenty of opportunities to practice leadership.  Students at Gettysburg College wear many hats: we are an amalgamation of presidents, vice-presidents, secretaries, treasurers, editors, lab assistants, researchers, captains, tutors, coaches, program coordinators, teaching assistants, and peer learning associates.  Through these experiences, we have learned to organize and to lead in various capacities in the more than 100 organizations found on campus.  If nothing else, we certainly leave Gettysburg with longer, more detailed resumes.

We should be proud of all our accomplishments.  Every course passed, award won, job offered, graduate admission, and team victory is a testament to the collective determination of the class of 2019.  As the most diverse graduating class in the history of the college, we faced a variety of unique challenges.  Each of us at one point over the last four years considered leaving, giving up, going home.  Yet we continued, chipping away at the unfinished work before us.

I said earlier that you were more likely to win the lottery 50 times than to gather such an extraordinary group of people together — the odds that we would do so again four years later are astronomical.  Chance has nothing to do with why we are graduating today, and our walk here was in no way random.  We came to Gettysburg College with ambitions and broad ideas of who we wanted to be and what we wanted to accomplish.  While here, those goals were realized, and we depart as an energetic cohort ready to release our collective energy on the world.

As you leave, I ask that you not lose this sense of purpose.  There will be points in your career when what is easy will not align with what is right – and what sounds agreeable will not always be true.  Do not give into each impulse from the world around you.  Do not drift about like pollen in water, move deliberately and make compassionate fact-based decisions.  And when you feel tempted, just remember that the Honor Code always applies.

I hope that you can forgive the moralizations of a future physical chemist, and I thank you for humoring my unexpected, but not random, chemical lecture.  More importantly, thank you for the interactions that we have shared since August 26th 2015.  It has been a privilege to study and learn from such a driven and extraordinary group of Gettysburgians.

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Author: Joshua Wagner

Josh Wagner '19 is a chemistry and mathematics double major who enjoys bike rides on the battlefield and waving around a red pen as the Gettysburgian's Managing Opinions Editor. When not editing for the Gettysburgian, he can usually be found working in the College Life Office, helping students with calculus as a PLA, or studying in the library.

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