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“Our Strength is More Than We Thought”

Transcript of the address by W. Jay Barth ’87, Ph.D., delivered to the Hendrix College Class of 2020

May 23, 2020

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As a student for four years and a faculty member for 26 more, I’ve sat through nearly 30 commencement speeches here at Hendrix. Several have been thought-provoking, a handful have been truly inspirational, a couple have been genuinely funny…however, more than a few have lacked any of those traits and, indeed, were ones that would have been nice to fast-forward through and get on with the real purpose of the day: diploma distribution.

With the flick of a wrist, you actually have that power to fast-forward through this speech. So, my primary goal of this commencement speech: keeping you from doing something that Netflix has trained you to do so adeptly.

It would be a privilege to be asked to be a commencement speaker for a graduation at this place I’ve come to love—in any year. But, it’s a distinct honor to do so for this class of Hendrix graduates at this truly exceptional moment.

Some in the Class of 2020 I know only from “hello” or two on a sidewalk, others of you I got to know as you proposed exciting Odyssey projects during your first three years when I was Odyssey director. A number of you, however, were part of some of the most meaningful teaching moments of my life—in classes I’d come to love over the years that I knew I was teaching for the last time when my early retirement became clear, and in new classes that allowed me to continue to reinvent myself at the end of a career. This included the most impactful classroom experience, one in which the classroom wasn’t my safe space of Mills B but a prison visitor’s center. That work with a group of y’all as we went weekly in the fall semester to the Wrightsville Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections reshaped how I see so many things about teaching and learning…and relationships…and the society in which we live.

Then, of course, there is this moment: the “mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world” created by a global pandemic that means we are not together at Hendrix but are spread across the map for this virtual event and only increases the pressure on a graduation speaker to “get it right” for a group of graduates who haven’t had much of anything feel right for the last two months. I’ll give it my best shot.


A week back, I was reading an awesome piece in the New York Times on the masterful singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. As someone who cares so much about trying create a South with more opportunities but knows we are restrained in that progress because of our collective original sin, I feel simpatico with Isbell, a talent who also has written some of the greatest songs of the generation on love and life.

In the piece on Isbell’s new album, the writer David Peisner gets both Isbell and his equally talented wife Amanda Shires to open up about their relationship and the ways in which making his new album pushed it to the breaking point. Shires sums up where they are with their marriage after the period of tension: “I’d like to say we’re stronger because of it, but we’re not. We just know that our strength is more than we thought.”

Through getting to this point, you—the members of the Class of 2020—also have shown that your strength is more than you thought.

Let’s just think about some of what has happened in this society and in the world since your last graduations—from high school in 2016.

  • Attacks on concert halls in Manchester, churches in Sri Lanka, a maternity ward in Kabul this week all with links to the cloud of terrorism that has been everpresent since you were toddlers on 9/11;
  • The flurry of mass shootings—from the Pulse Nightclub to Las Vegas to Parkland to the Tree of Life Synagogue to El Paso—that have made enjoying the simple liberties of America—learning, worshiping, dancing, shopping—feel suddenly risky; 
  • Across the globe and here in America, the rise of nationalism that has made policy jolts like Brexit possible and has made those of you from other nations feel more precarious than should be the case; 
  • The rambunctious 2016 campaign that dominated your first semester here, with a stunning outcome that some of you celebrated, many more of you mourned and that left more than a few of you feeling genuinely threatened;
  • In the aftermath of President Trump’s inauguration came dramatic policy shifts—on in-migration from predominantly Muslim nations, on family separations at the border, and on transgender military service…in response were protests at levels not seen since the 1960s;
  • For three years, investigations dominated American politics leading to an impeachment and an even more deeply divided country; 
  • Everywhere on the globe increasingly tangible expressions of the risk created by climate change like the flurry of hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—in 2017…
  • And then of course there is COVID-19 with its still-developing global health, economic, and social ramifications.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL STUFF… But, it’s been the norm through your college years.

But, arguably just as unsettling for you, were the chaotic events in the Hendrix community over the past four years. 

  • You lived in a construction zone with the destruction and emptying of longstanding buildings, the disruptions to early morning sleep and the constantly changing traffic patterns across campus that accompanied it;
  • You saw academic programs disappear and new ones arrive with ramifications for your own academic plans;
  • “Time’s Up, Hendrix” forced uncomfortable conversations at the personal level and necessary policy change on campus;
  • You lived in a community beset by the economic challenges facing all of higher education and vibrated by sudden leadership changes in your senior year;
  • From the death of Dr. Tim Maxwell to a flurry of faculty and staff retirements and departures, there were personnel shifts that would have been noticed on a large campus and were much more impactful on this small one.
  • And then of course there is COVID-19. It body-snatched you away from this campus and denied you the closure that comes in those last couple of months on campus—quiet walks with the azaleas in full bloom, Friday afternoon frisbee golf outings, and ceremonies, including a REAL commencement. As I was also looking forward to my final spring as a member of the teaching faculty on this campus, believe me: I share your pain.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL STUFF… But, it’s been the norm through your college life.

Yet, you’ve gotten from August 2016 to May 2020 successfully… adapting… adjusting… not just surviving, but thriving. 

So, why were you stronger than you thought you were?

My answers: how you learned to reinvent yourselves and how you lived in community.

What the Hendrix experience does so well—inside and outside the classroom—is to give students the courage to reinvent themselves. The overriding emotion I always feel during graduations—live or virtual—is joy at recognizing the personal transformations that have occurred in so many students, across your four years. And, of course, I’ve seen it in y’all. 

Many of these transformations are fundamentally academic in nature. (The enthusiastic learner who arrives with a writing style so overly flowery that her good ideas are lost leaves with a crisp writing style that maintains her personality as a writer. The smart kid who arrives with a vague interest in education comes to see his skill and love for the analysis of education policy through courses and a senior thesis.) 

Reinventions are not brought about just by what happens inside the classroom or through course-related work like undergraduate research or internships, however. As I saw so clearly in my work with the Odyssey program, students’ work outside the classroom—in student organizations and on playing fields—or away from campus are just as often the sources for change. (The young man who arrives wandering spiritually finds his ministerial vocation through work with a faith-based health care provider. The woman with a passion for social justice develops leadership skills by organizing a rally on overincarceration.) 

And, perhaps most important, Hendrix has been a safe zone for some of the most challenging of reinventions—about one’s spiritual beliefs, one’s political values, or one’s self-presentation to the world around them. Watching students transform over a four-year period—leaving happier and more whole—is, indeed, the greatest gift of being a professor at a small liberal arts college. 

Hendrix is unique in their commitment to thinking about the “whole student” and in the preparation of students for a lifetime of growth ahead intellectually and personally—a lifetime of reinvention to engage with the ever more complex worlds of which they are a part. Yes, Hendrix is a “college that changes lives.” But, more importantly, Hendrix has prepared you for lives of change.

Second is how you lived: rather than going it solo and doing whatever you have to do to protect yourself and your selfish interests, you have lived in a dramatically different way…and in a way that serves a model for what all of us are going to have to do to make it successfully through the inevitably challenging times that will be the decades of the middle part of the 21st century when you will become the leaders.

You have survived through depending upon other folks and through being there for others to depend upon you…through taking the chances necessary to trust others and have others trust you...through learning from others and through being there for others to learn from you.

This is not to downplay the individual initiative and personal fortitude that you showed in making it to this point. It’s also not to downplay the Prozac and Celexa that may have helped. But, I would challenge even the most ardent individualists among you to contend that the assistance of others—likely many others—your classmates, faculty, and staff—didn’t help you along in crucially important ways. 

I must say that all of you were incredibly lucky to be in the perpetual tornado you’ve gone through with the other folks in this class. For, in this graduating class are some of the kindest, most generous, most caring individuals that I’ve known. There are dern good people in this class of 2020…good-hearted, honest folks with great senses of humor—ranging from the crude to the sweet from the snarky to the goofy—that express individuality but show the fun-lovingness as a group…. Folks who were open to others with different worldviews with which they, on first blush, disagreed with vehemently, but came to say “there’s at least a grain of truth to that view.” Such good, yet such smart, people are exactly the kind of folks that you can depend upon and learn from…. You’ve been very lucky.

You may say, of course we had to deal with each other and be nice to each other because you’ve been stacked together like sardines for four years on a small campus in Conway, Arkansas…. And, you’re right… 

But, there’s a lesson here that goes beyond your experiences at this place during this time.

I think the key lesson is that we have to purposely open ourselves up to the kind of interactions that you’ve had here…to seek them out when they’re not thrust upon you. We’ll not only survive if we avoid our natural instinct to go into our cocoons in times of stress—like this society and world are in right now—we’ll also have happier lives enlivened by the gifts and knowledge that others have to share. Our society will be healthier…and, ultimately, our democracy will be healthier. Interacting openly with others helps us learn about the needs of our larger society, helps us trust each other, and makes us all better citizens—looking out for the community as a whole rather than what’s in our own narrow interest.

We all know that at least for the near future, gaining access to community will be more challenging, but we’ve all connected with others in real community on a variety of multimedia platforms in recent weeks. It can happen and COVID-19, while all-consuming at this moment, is not a permanent fixture in your lives. 


You are leaving this place as graduates. I am also leaving this place at a very different stage of my life.

You know, I’m startled when I see my name with ’87—my graduation year from Hendrix—behind it…first, what it means in terms of age…second, that I don’t really think of this place in the 1980s as my alma mater. As you classicists know, alma mater literally means “sweet mother.” This place did the “mater” part great for me back then. It prepared me academically and personally in some wonderful ways…it did help “mother” me. 

But, the “alma” part didn’t totally happen then. I came to recognize I felt out of place much of that time because of my own confusion and closetedness in an era of suffocating social norms. I can remember that feeling of loneliness most clearly when I think back to weekend dances in Hulen Hall, one of those buildings that disappeared while you were here. I’d be there and I’d just feel totally off kilter socially. Later, of course, I later figured out I was really wanting to dance with folks I just couldn’t dance with in the mid-1980s. But, back then, I’d mope back to Hardin Hall feeling bad about myself and personally disempowered.

But, now I exit this place with you with Hendrix as my “alma mater” in the fullest sense. It’s first because I was able to reinvent myself continuously across the last quarter century—as a teacher, in my work with the most amazing set of faculty and staff colleagues on the work to make this College a more relevant institution, and as a public servant. Indeed, I reinvented myself to the point that it was time to leave Hendrix much earlier than I ever would have thought to try to create educational opportunities in a community I care so deeply about. 

And, it’s also because I was part of a community—this second time around—that, while certainly imperfect, was open, loving, and full of bright, curious, empathetic students like you and genuinely caring faculty and staff. I do love this place because of the good people who are here and the way that this community does make them better….as it’s made all of you better.

My challenges to you as you leave this place: Keep yourselves open to reinvention and keep yourselves committed to building community in ways both conventional and creative. For that is what taking a part of this place into the troubled world around you requires.

I wish you only the best! It’s what you deserve. Congratulations!