President’s 39th Commencement Remarks

June 03, 2019

On behalf of our Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Students and our honored guests, I welcome you to the 39th Commencement Exercises of William James College.

This is a day to celebrate. This is a day to give thanks. And this is a day to learn a bit about leadership and mental health. It is, also, the day that the daughter of two of our staff is getting married on the Cape at 3:30, so I will work diligently to get us out by 1:15!

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it, till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.

Then, it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

William James College educates “People of Kindness.” Whether our graduates appear in a board room, a class room, an emergency room, a consulting room or a jail cell; they bring their learning, of course, but they carry kindness. They will meet the sorrow of parent who is at a loss about what to do with a child who won’t eat; they will meet the couple who is in doubt about their marriage; they will meet the teacher who cannot reach her anxious student; they will meet the defiant youngster, the person in recovery, the returning Veteran, the family in their grief, the organization at a loss and the young person for whom the jail cell door just closed behind. They will meet each of these, in their sadness, in their worry, and in their shame, with kindness.

This is not a typical Commencement. William James is not a typical college. Most Commencements praise individual achievement and encourage graduates to pursue worldly accomplishment. Today we graduate professionals who will serve.

‘Education changes Lives’, people say at a Commencement. Which is good, parents and partners will say, because it costs a lot. Unfortunately, though, we too often talk these days about education as if it is a commodity that needs a measurable return on investment. The greatest return our graduates’ investment in a William James education will not come to them, but it will be realized in the change that they will make in the life of another person. This is what they all came her to go to school for; it is what our professors teach. These graduates will become the friends and the shadows of those who have experienced loss, whose future has dissolved, and they will bring them kindness. And our country desperately needs this.

One in five of our children and adults have a diagnosable mental illness: 20%. Ten percent of us will develop a substance use disorder in our lifetime. Depression is the leading cause of disability and behavioral health disorders comprise four of the top ten causes of disability in the world. Most of our imprisoned children have a diagnosable mental illness, and more than a third have learning disabilities. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and 90% of mental health professionals in the United States are non-Latino Caucasian.

Last year, a BCBS survey found, 25% of Massachusetts residents sought mental health care for themselves or a family member and half of these could not find a therapist. Even with health insurance, they couldn’t get an appointment at all, or not for many months. The cost to our country of untreated behavioral health is more than the total costs of cancer, diabetes, asthma and COPD combined.

An organization without compassionate leadership cannot succeed. Employees cite effective managers as the second most important contributor to workplace satisfaction. Principals who create cultures of empowerment, support and respect for teachers retain them, and those who fail to do that, fail. Peter Drucker famously said: culture eats strategy for breakfast. A successful organizational culture is facilitated by leaders who set optimistic goals, communicate clearly, motivate others and provide the resources and the respect for workers to achieve these goals. Today, we graduate men and women who will lead in business, in mental health, and in education. Our Honorary Degree Recipients are excellent examples of leaders; servant leaders. Even though they have been called “Doctor”, “Captain” and, even, “Czar”, they lead by doing, not by commanding. These roll up their sleeves and they lead from the middle.

Back to our poem, when a business loses its vision or productivity, when students lose their edge, when an individual loses her health, or freedom, or a loved one: one of our graduates has the chance to be there.

Let me tell you about a few:

Marie Berthonia Antoine is a graduate of our Leadership PsyD program with a concentration in Global Mental Health. Bertonia’s doctoral project explored why young adults are leaving their church and what changes religious institutions must make to reengage them. Berthonia is a mother of 3 young adults who came back to school after raising her family. One of her professors told me that, following a community discussion of suicide, a man cried as he thanked Berthonia for the respectful and compassionate way that she listened to him speak about his suicidal urges.

Alex Hohl is a Marine, a corporal who twice deployed to Afghanistan. He graduates today with his master’s in counseling and a concentration in Military Veterans Psychology. Alex will tell you that his journey after his discharge was complicated and his relationship with academics was not exactly passionate. However, his dedication to service is exemplary. Alex meets others in need with intelligence, empathy and compassion, because he has been there. One of his professors said that: “Alex was born to be a mental health counselor.” Today he follows his father Jeffery who graduated from our Counseling program in 2014.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Palmer becomes a School Psychologist today. A member of our Black Mental Health Academy, Gabby is passionate about culturally-responsive practice and ensuring equity in schools. While our student, she developed a professional training program for teachers on diversity and inclusion. She authored an article for Psychology Today on “The Role of Zero Tolerance Policies in the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”  

William James College is fortunate to have a number of student leaders. Sagar Lad is among the most generous and talented. He brought his enthusiasm and energy as a co-chair of the student government, created the first Psi Chi group at the college, and is one of those people who can be counted upon to help with whatever needs to be done to improve our learning community. Today Sag will receive his doctorate in Clinical Psychology with a specialty in neuropsychology.

Brendon McCue is receiving his doctorate in Clinical Psychology today. He comes from a family with a tradition of service as first responders and in the military. Brendon is an Air Force Veteran who deployed to Afghanistan, Qatar and Jordan. Brendon’s final project was described as “an exceptional empirical study” on the effectiveness of the Law Enforcement, Active Duty, and Emergency Responder Program at McLean Hospital. Brendon leaves William James to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center to work with other Veterans and their families.

Jenny D ’Olympia graduates with her doctorate in Clinical Psychology, finally! Jenny was an Air Force intelligence officer who deployed three times. One tour to Afghanistan served as her honeymoon along with her, similarly deployed husband. Combining remarkable curiosity and vulnerability with an impressive amount of strength, Jenny has been as much a teacher in our learning community as a student. She has already worked 17 years with Veterans and their families and she is a special advocate for the health and well-being of women Veterans.

Because, like Tina Turner said, she NEVER/EVER does anything nice and easy, Jenny give birth to two of her three children while a doctoral student, making the production of a dissertation seem like a piece of cake. I’m happy to say that Jenny will be staying on with us in a professional capacity following graduation as the coordinator for Military Veterans Psychology programs. 

These are a very few examples of the talent and commitment to service that sit before you today. Please recognize their hard work and welcome them into their new professional lives with your applause.

This is the “Lambert Pie.” Not our Dr. Stacey Lambert, but Dr. Michael Lambert who, with many colleagues, studies therapeutic outcome. Research finds that, it is critical to bring evidence-based interventions to one’s work. However, the chart shows that, it is the character of the professional and the quality of the relationships that she creates that contribute the most to a successful outcome in interventions for patients and for organizations. People matter.

The research on Attachment and Developmental psychology tells us that: the deep bond that a parent creates with a child is the key to the young person’s capacity to regulate emotions, feel secure about exploring the world, and to form relationships. Intelligence is highly correlated with parental IQ, but qualities of character like compassion, generosity, and empathy are forged in the crucible of hundreds of thousands of parent/child interactions across many years. In marriage, this capacity deepens.  

Your graduate is smart, but his and her desire and capacity to improve the world for others began in your kitchen and in your living room, on the ball field and during summer vacations as you lovingly invested in them. You are among the main reasons that they are sitting before us.  Let me ask our graduates to rise and turn to thank your family for their many gifts.

Today we highlight the contributions of two members of our faculty and staff. Our VP of Academic Affairs, Dr. Stanley Berman has been a faculty member and administrator here for 32 years. He has been a major architect of the growth and development of William James College. Stan will leave his administrative position after today’s ceremony and he will be getting a promotion to the faculty to continue the work that he loves. Dr. Randi Dorn is retiring as the Director of Training in Field Education. She has, also worked here for 24 years. In addition to overseeing the practical training of our Clinical Interns, Randi was a lead developer of our APA Consortium Internship which allows our clinical students to complete their education at William James, rather than relocating to another city for a year. Randi will retire to a private practice and spend more time on Martha’s Vineyard.  

Today is a day to thank our faculty and staff for their work and, for their passionate investment in our graduates. Many students who begin advanced degrees, fail to complete their work. The average graduation rate is 50% and, for psychology degrees, it is not much better at 60%. William James College graduates 89% of those who begin with us. This is not because we are easy graders, but it is because those who do the grading are practicing professionals whose careers are spent helping organizations and people to get unstuck when they experience challenge. Our faculty’s work begins when other programs are considering discharging their students in trouble. 

I’d like to ask Stan, Randi and all of our Faculty and Staff to rise for your applause.

Endnote

People know that a Commencement Ceremony is not an end, but it is a beginning. We have been graced by the many qualities of character that you, as students, have brought to William James College. In return, we have offered you excellent professional skills. As you leave, we invite you to invest generously in others so that one day you will sit where our honoree degree recipients sit today!