Valedictory Address - Marika Olynyk

Spring Convocation 2008

Good afternoon everyone. I’m supposedly here to speak on behalf of the graduating class, but I’m not sure that I’m able to do that. We’ve all had different experiences in life and here at the University of Winnipeg, and different stories to tell, so my fellow graduates will have to forgive me if I end up speaking to them instead of for them. Hopefully I’ll be able to express some thoughts and feelings that other graduates share.

I’d like to start with a quick story that I suspect many of you will be able to relate to. The mother of a friend of mine was at a party, chatting with a friend of hers. This man asked her what her son was studying in university. She answered that he was taking a history degree, to which the man asked “Oh, what’s he going to do with that?”. My friend’s mom looked at the man and replied “Become a better person.”

So ideally, that is what we able to do with our university education. As basic as it sounds, I don’t think that it’s necessarily the easiest thing to do. I believe that we have a challenge ahead of us, and that is the challenge of reconciling our university education with our personal growth as individuals and our social growth as members of society. I say that this is a challenge because our formal education has been for the most part, highly specialized and segregated from other forms of knowledge. Becoming better people means that we must take the knowledge that we have gained outside of the classroom and use it to make sense of this formal education, so that it doesn’t stand in isolation and so that it means something to rest of society.

There’s a passage in a JD Salinger novel which I think provides an interesting and useful way to consider the challenge before us. In the book, there’s a character who has spent 4 years at college, and she rails on about how everyone at her college was focused on gaining knowledge simply for the sake of gaining knowledge. She’s angry that there was never any mention of the idea that the goal of attaining knowledge should be to attain wisdom.

I think that wisdom’s almost become an old-fashioned word, and you don’t hear it used very often. But I know that I’ve had a few experiences: a few classes and a few professors and some personal relationships, here at the University of Winnipeg which have helped me attain some sort of wisdom, although I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. I sincerely hope that the rest of my fellow graduates have had similar experiences, and I think that most have, so perhaps we have proved Salinger wrong. What do I mean by wisdom? Vine Deloria, an author and professor, once wrote that: knowledge is knowing how to make a living, but wisdom is knowing how to live a life. We will hopefully learn how to live our lives beyond simply making a living, and therefore use our education to become better people.

The last thought I’d like to share with you is that sometimes the world is not a pretty place. There are lot of challenges out there and we are a generation that is going to face many difficult decisions. Yes, our economy is growing, but we need to ask important questions about who is benefiting. And while many more people are now aware of the environmental problems facing the world, we need to consider whether we are taking action fast enough and whether we are making the best choices in how to address these problems. I believe that most people in our society are severely alienated from the decisions that shape their lives and in our culture, it’s often easy to slip into habits and patterns which are well-worn and comfortable. But I think that now that we’ve had this educational opportunity which so few people in the world have had, and now that we have this extensive knowledge and specialized abilities, we are faced with the responsibility to rise to the challenge of working to create a more compassionate, more peaceful, and more sane world. We are human beings first and foremost, and we must strive to act as such at all points in our lives. Our learning experience does not end here; we will continue to gain new knowledge and to transform it into wisdom. And we must remember to act on this wisdom. As someone once said, “Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit.” I believe that our university education has given us the beginnings of an ability to think wisely in today’s world; it’s up to us to act. Thank you.