50th Anniversary Celebration Keynote Address
Posted on Thursday January 3rd 2013
In 1947, President Truman commissioned a study of the nation’s higher education landscape. That commission made two things clear: 1) for our nation to thrive in a post-WW environment colleges within the community providing access for all needed to be created and 2) they were to be fueled by the GI Bill supporting the thousands.
And so with the efforts of Governors Foster Furcolo and John Volpe, and local supporters Mayers, McGuane, Mahar, Kostanski, Slavin, Cummings, Bednarski, Lorenz, Cohn, Ruggeri, Porter, Reid, Sitterly and many others, Greenfield Community College was founded in 1962. Today there are fifteen community colleges in Massachusetts.
Since that day in 1962, approximately 200,000 students have walked through GCC’s doors. Most were the first in their family to attend college, 60% have been women, they were 27 years of age on average and are still graduating at a rate that has been at the top of the state for as long as that data has been kept. They have been transferring to colleges and universities such as UMass, Smith, Mt Holyoke, RISD, Mass Art and Amherst College or working at the jobs of their choice.
Forty-five percent (45%) of GCC graduates over the past five years have transferred and 70% of those who graduated in one of our career programs are employed or continuing their education within a year of graduation. GCC graduates have become nurses and doctors; bankers and entrepreneurs; police officers and fire fighters: photovoltaic installers and the designers of tomorrow’s green technologies; artists and web designers; teachers, lawyers and community leaders. Thousands of lives have changed for the better, countless generations of families have grown stronger and so too our community.
GCC opened its doors on Federal Street, waited for the train to pass on Arch Street, and then settled into the clay and hills here atop Lake Hitchcock. Now 50 years later, we sit together in the Cohn Family Dining Commons in a LEED gold certified building committed to the very same values that were the founding blocks of GCC; access and excellence. Removing the 44 steps out our front door emphasized our commitment to access. Elevating the Nahman-Watson Library to its “magical tree house” status speaks to the college’s long standing commitment to excellence. Committing 20% of our food purchases from local farms points to our understanding that sustainability is as much about local banking as it is about our work with Sandri and the alternative energies industry. No other college in the Commonwealth has had its entire campus—every roof, classroom, lab and office—refurbished.
But as you all know, colleges are not about buildings – colleges, in the final analysis, are about people. And that is where this college has been richest.
Learning is best served when the focus is on the learner. That is why small is beautiful when it comes to learning. Small classes in a small college provide the time and space for richer and deeper engagement. When students get to know their teachers and get to know other students, magic can happen. For fifty years the faculty and staff of GCC have understood that privilege and those opportunities. As a result, GCC faculty and staff see our students’ potential, often before the student does, and together they work to achieve it. The courage to teach and to learn, to open oneself up to the unknown seeking something not yet clearly defined in the pursuit of one’s dreams has been the core experience here for 50 years.
Turner, Stinchfield, Yacubian, Dean, Nahman, Watson, Roberts, Rosnick, Lowe, Shippee, the Markwells, Sackin, Little, Vourous, Wiley, Cavanaugh, Sweeny, Keir, Risky, Sloan, Hyde, Carter, LaRose, Hillier, Sutton, Delhenty, the Letsons, Ellis, Rubenzhal, Cohen, Holloway, McLoughlin, Pfeil, Smith, Rainford, Pride, Evans, Stein, Krol, Bross, Hayes, Oberacker, Hoyt, Patrick, McGowan, Wilson, Parrill, Johnson, Weis, Longe and Truehart, Howland, Chown, Hopie, Webster, Buell, Simmons, Goodman, Reno, Cole, Clark, Craig, Winter, Finnegen, Boisvert, Hentz, Steeper, Buchanan, Carpenter, Sherter, McClellan, Hannon, Young, Welsh, Peck, Galbraith, Soulos Kelly and Carey.
Those are the names. Poet Phillip Shultz captures their passion:
Monday mornings Grandma rose an hour early to make rye,
onion & challah, but it was pumpernickel she broke her hands for,
pumpernickel that demanded cornmeal, ripe caraway, mashed potatoes
& several Old Testament stories about patience & fortitude & for
which she cursed in five languages if it didn’t pop out fat
as an apple-cheeked peasant bride. But bread, after all,
is only bread & who has time to fuss all day & end up
with a dead heart if it flops? Why bother? I’ll tell you why.
For the moment when the steam curls off the black crust like a strip
of pure sunlight & the hard oily flesh breaks open like a poem
pulling out of its own stubborn complexity a single glistening truth
& who can help but wonder at the mystery of the human heart when you
hold a slice up to the light in all its absurd splendor & I tell you
we must risk everything for the raw recipe of our passion.
Ask our 50 distinguished alumni, ask any one of the thousands of students, faculty or staff over the past 50 years if their experiences were not born of that raw recipe of passion, just for the moment when the steam and the sunlight find those moments of glistening truth—and a good paying job!
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” He added, “When the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” With those words Jefferson places education as the foundation of democracy.
He felt so strongly about the importance of education to the sustainability of democracy that in his State of the Union address in 1806 he said, “Education is here placed among the articles of public care.”
About 35 years later, then—Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann wrote, “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
Those are the same ideals, values and principles that this college was committed to when it opened its doors and 50 years later are at the core of the current national debate on the purpose of higher education.
From Katrina to Sandy, nature has taken its toll on our cities and towns – and the people who live in them. Many in this room and in our community know firsthand the fears and frustrations of roads and bridges closed by Tropical Storm Irene. Far too many know similar fears and frustrations as the doors to opportunity are closing every day. It is as if a banner with the words “Do Not Enter” is placed across the entry at Ellis Island.
The pathway to the American Dream in our community does pass through the doors of Greenfield Community College. There are many right now who are talking the talk about the American Dream. Few however, walk the walk that you do. And make no mistake about it; there is a direct link between our comprehensive mission, our General Education core and that American Dream!
The Task Force on General Education at Harvard University states “a Harvard education is a liberal education—that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization. It heightens students’ awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit. A liberal education is also a preparation for the rest of life. The subjects that undergraduates study and, as importantly, the skills and habits of mind they acquire in the process, shape the lives they will lead after they leave the academy…”
The root of the word liberal—as in the liberal arts—comes from the Latin liber—free. The Liberal arts/Gen Ed core of our comprehensive mission here at GCC, therefore – is to free.
Our students deserve no less access to that freedom and no less a preparation for the demands of an engaged life as the students at Harvard right down Route 2. The road between GCC and Harvard, between their purpose and ours, between our dreams for our students and theirs—must never be washed away, no matter how heavy the rains.
As you know, I am not an historian, not a scholar of the tenants of democracy nor am I an expert in the pedagogical arts and sciences; I am simply the son of an immigrant, the first to attend college in my family and a poster child for community colleges and the American Dream. If not for you, and the work of this college, that dream and those possibilities will die with my generation. We must never let that happen here at GCC!
Thank you all, for all that you do!