WATERVILLE — Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to the nearly 500 graduating seniors at Colby College today, delivered a message on the needs of respect, dignity and humanity, and the need for those graduates to stay engaged.
Biden, a former U.S. Senator from Delaware who served 36 in his seat, told the crowd on the Miller Library Quad that the United States is respected around the world not because of how it exercises its power, but rather the example it sets.
He said there is a temptation to disengage from politics and current events that have left the world in disarray, which is why he said it’s more important than ever to return to the basic principals and treat every person with the dignity they deserve. Biden told graduating seniors at Colby College to resist the impulse to throw up their hands after an election that played to society’s “baser instincts.”
“It’s time for America to get up. It’s time to regain our sense of unity and purpose. It’s time for us to restart realizing who in God’s name we are,” he said.
In a ceremony that lasted over two hours on a bright and sunny spring day, the crowd cheered multiple times for Biden, who recounted tales of triumph and tragedy throughout his career, all the while keeping his remarks aimed at inspiring the crowd. He spoke of how after he was first elected to the Senate, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, and his two sons were injured. He spoke of not wanting to stay in the senate, how “everything had changed.” But he said it was in doing the work that he learned valuable lessons on humanity, and learned that while it’s appropriate to question a person’s judgment, it’s not appropriate to question their motives. He said to stand up to indignities, you have to be committed, and how that doesn’t start by questioning a person’s motives
“An injury to rights of any person diminishes all of our humanity,” he said.
Biden told a story of how his father instilled that value in him from early on, that “Every man, woman and child needs to be treated (with) respect and deserves to be treated with dignity.”
“You have a responsibility,” Biden said. “All of us have to do better when it comes to building the bonds of empathy.”
Part of that, Biden said, is staying personal. He said in his time in office, he met with every major world leader, and staying personal and treating people with respect is how relationships are fostered.
“That allows you to get things done in a complex world,” Biden said.
Biden was introduced by Colby President David Greene, who praised Biden’s record of public service and the work he continues to do now, calling his level of humanity “inspiring.”
“His career in public service is truly remarkable,” Green said.
Biden said there is an incredible amount of pressure put on today’s graduates to go be successful in the world. But he said “defending dignity” requires more than just assuring individual success. He implored people to reach beyond themselves and make sure others don’t get held back.
“I don’t believe there is anything we cannot overcome,” he said.
Biden’s speech was largely apolitical, with most comments on politics being about the importance of these graduates to remain engaged and involved. He did not mention President Donald Trump specifically by name, but did say that the 2016 presidential election gave way to the “coarsest rhetoric,” and said he had believed America was past the days of politicians using “hate speech.”
“This past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities in our country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to the coarsest rhetoric and stoking of our darkest emotions,” he said.
Biden also spoke about the genuine need to end sexual violence, especially on campuses, and he was committed to help end it. He said everyone needs to stand up against “the indignity of sexual assault,” and to stand up against “locker room talk,” which is associated as distasteful or crude comments aimed at women. Biden told the graduates, “It doesn’t go on like someone said it does.” Trump made the phrase common place when, during his campaign, was recorded talking about forcibly kissing and groping women and later referred to the comments as “locker room talk.”
Biden praised Colby for committing to build a culture of consent for everyone on campus, and urged the crowd to carry that conviction with them on into life beyond college.
“My father used to say that the greatest sin was the abuse of power, and the cardinal of all sins was a man raising his hand to a woman or a child,” Biden said.
In addition to Biden, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, senior class president Muheballah Esmat made remarks to his peers. Esmat, an art history major who worked as a Mellon Research assistant at the college’s Museum of Art, said growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, he never could have dreamed he would one day graduate from an elite U.S. college. He called his experience “unbelievable.”
“Sometimes things are so far beyond reach and comprehension so we don’t even dream them,” he said.
Esmat’s message was similar in tone to Biden’s, in that it centered around being personal and valuing the people around you. He told a story of when he was young, his family would bring food down to the local mosques. Esmat said the man once told him “In life we are blessed by strangers,” which Esmat said he had learned to be true at Colby. He said everyone on the lawn had come here as a stranger, and now they were part of a community.
“Colby brought us together in the hopes of being well rounded, deep thinking, clear communicators,” Esmat said.
Again speaking of the values his parents taught him, Biden said his mother told him when he was young that “you’re defined by your courage, you’re redeemed by your loyalty.” Biden also spoke of the values the students had learned in their time at Colby. He spoke of a weekly meeting group students would hold on Sunday nights, and how it was a telling trait of a community: getting together and telling their stories.
“The problem that’s going on in Congress is we don’t tell stories anymore,” Biden said. He said while that may “sound silly,” it was true. “We don’t know each other anymore.”
And because people don’t know each other, Biden said they come to dislike each other because they can’t see the humanity in the person. And by not seeing the humanity, Biden said it can lead to populism and blaming groups of people for problems in your own life. But Biden said he believes this to be temporary. “I assure you it’s temporary. I assure you it’s transitory. The American people will not sustain this attitude,” he said.
“Now is the time for engaged leadership,” Biden said.
The 47th vice president said life can’t be lived in a bubble and people can’t be reduced to stereotypes. “Life can’t be lived in a self-referential, self-reinforcing, self-righteous echo chamber we build for ourselves online. Living on screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it easy to reduce others to stereotypes, to write another human being off as a bad person,” he said. He said everyone is a “whole person, flawed, struggling to make it in the world, just like you.”
In addition to Biden receiving his honorary degree, political analyst and former Colby College graduate Amy Walter also received an honorary doctorate, as did Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Yoshihiro Takishita, founding president of the Association for the Preservation of Traditional Research.
The speech seemed to resonate with students. After they had received their diplomas, Green even said this was the first graduation he had seen where “getting the diploma was an afterthought.”
Baturay Aydemir, who received a degree in biology/neuroscience and chemistry, said what resonated with him from Biden’s speech was how inspiring it was. A native of Kayseri, Turkey, Aydemir, who received the first diploma as he was the class valedictorian, said the speech already had him thinking about how he could use this degree to help with the conflict in Syria. Aydemir, who will be studying at the Harvard Medical School this fall, said Biden’s message of working together and being personal is applicable to work in a hospital, and in any kind of profession.
“It really is team work,” he said.
Fen Bowen, who studied environmental policy, said Biden’s speech inspired him to be more active and engage with and embrace people and their unique perspectives. He said one part that resonated with him was about not knowing a person’s motive. He said this is a way to find out who people are.
“No one is active for absolutely no reason,” he said.
Biden spoke of when he graduated from college, the U.S. was still engulfed with the Vietnam War. The year he graduated, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There was a sense of hopelessness in the country, but Biden said he never doubted his generation could “rewrite history.” He said he was proud of that generation, and that the class graduating in 2017 was even better equipped to tackle problems facing the country. He said while they were graduating into a world of anxiety and uncertainty, there was no reason their generation couldn’t achieve more than his had.
“I hope you remember the ethos at Colby that sought to instill your sense of obligation,” Biden said. “A culture of mutual accountability, and caring. In other words, be a Mule, that’s what it’s all about.”
Before leaving Waterville, Biden did take the time to stop for an ice cream cone. Biden, a famous fan of ice cream who will soon have a flavor named after him by Cornell Dairy, stopped in at the North Street Dairy Cone Sunday afternoon. After meeting with other patrons, Biden bought his cone with two scoops of ice cream. He also treated a few other patrons in line.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Colin Ellis — 861-9253