Commencement Address

Commencement Address by Maxyne D. Schneider, SSJ, Ph.D

Bishop McDonnell, President Sr. Mary Reap, other distinguished platform guests, members of the Elms community, family and friends of the graduates and most especially, you, the graduates.

It is an honor to be here in this capacity this morning, representing the Sisters of St. Joseph as partners with the Diocese of Springfield in the founding of the College of our Lady of the Elms 85 years ago. The Elms has been a part of my life in a number of ways both personally and indirectly, giving me many hats to wear and some very different perspectives. Let me put on the first hat today, that of a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

It was my predecessor, Reverend Mother John Berchmans, then in the position that today we call the President of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who worked with Bishop Thomas O'Leary to establish a four-year college. The historical record is vague on exactly whose idea it was, so it is very safe to understand it as a partnership from the beginning. Let me tell you that the college that today becomes your alma mater was established with extraordinary care for excellence: in its service to those who most needed it, in its standing for Catholic principles, in the rigor of its curriculum and even in its smallest details. Mother Berchmans' diary shows that in the two years preceding the 1928  founding hardly a day passed without some task related to the Elms. She traveled to virtually every Catholic College and to some other private colleges in the Northeast and into the Midwest to observe curriculum, buildings, uniforms -- Yes, I did say uniforms! -- faculty, laboratories and even kitchen furnishings. Though the Sisters of St. Joseph had little money, she sent sisters to Universities across the Northeast and Midwest for advanced degrees in preparation for their becoming a faculty appropriate to the needs of a four-year institution of higher learning. Our history says that Mother Berchmans' approach to the monumental task of founding the college was "creative, intelligent and unremitting." The Elms was to be in every respect a place of excellence.

As I continue to wear my hat of Sister of St. Joseph I can tell you that, collectively this college contains the legacy of our labor, our care and our material resources. One hundred fifty-five of us have given a total of over 1700 years of service during the past 85 years. For over 30 years at the beginning it was predominantly our sisters who were the college faculty, teaching days as well as nights and summers. It was those same sisters who were the housekeepers and the switchboard operators. They were in these days well before RA's also the "dorm mothers."Our elder sisters on staff were often known for being the understanding, safe listening ears for students going through challenging times. I was privileged to know in their latter years some of the sisters who were here at the founding of the college and I have known many, many who followed.

In the early years our sisters received room and board, but no pay because the College was part of the same corporation as the Sisters of St. Joseph. After 1957 a stipend, the same amount for the President as for the faculty or staff, was typically under $50 per sister per month up until the early 1960's and only a little over $3000 per year by the late 1970's. Because this never allowed us to save anything for our retirement years, we sisters still embody the fiscal consequences of our work to create and foster this college. I say all this so that you know that we have invested our lives in this institution and that it has been well worth the investment, because you are worth the investment!

Let me put on another hat, that of Elms student. I attended the College as a young sister, literally wearing another hat, as those were the days of the old religious habit. I was a chemistry major and worked in the same 1928-state-of-the-art labs that are just now to be replaced with our 2013 building. I must tell you that I made a mark on this institution as a student, not in the way that so many of you have with your leadership in student government, your service in Dorothy Day and spring service trips or your outstanding athletic achievements. No, my mark was different. I do believe that the ceiling in the organic chemistry lab still bears the stain of the methyl orange dye that I synthesized and mistakenly shot to the ceiling in an orange geyser when I connected the water pump in reverse. My hat and the rest of me also bore the bright orange evidence of my misdeed. Not an auspicious beginning to my chemistry career!

More seriously, with many of you I share the fact that along with my three siblings I was in the first-generation of my family to attend college. With you I celebrate that opportunity all over again, along with what it meant to my parents as no doubt your graduation means to your family.

It was when I became a faculty member that I had my most rewarding and longest term Elms experience. I loved wearing that hat from the early 70's to early 80's. When I look out at you, the graduates here today, I see in my mind's eye my former students. I think of my traditional-age student, now a doctor of chemistry herself, who worked 40 hours at an outside job and carried a full chemistry major with all of its lab hours. Out here today are some of you with similar stories. I loved the good chemistry - literal and otherwise - that was shared with my students, and I know that you yourselves have known a similar experience.

In my mind's retrospective eye I see the nursing students in my chemistry classes who already had their RN -- and jobs and families - all to be somehow balanced with demanding studies. You are here today, too, and you with similar stories are in other fields besides. You have had the intense desire to further yourself and your family and the perseverance to balance many competing demands. How I loved working with your counterparts, the so-called non-traditional students! It meant that in addition to teaching I could learn as they shared the fruits of their life experience.

Some of you today are also pioneers in our new Elms partnerships with our regional community colleges. You have brought your enterprising spirit to enrich the Elms community even as you have responded to a new opportunity for your life and a new avenue for the College's mission. And some of you here today are to receive graduate credentials. I'd love to know you all personally.

A few weeks ago President Sr. Mary Reap and your Student Government President, Katherine Himmelman, arranged for me to meet some of you for breakfast and conversation. What I learned was that, even though some particulars are different now, the strong community of friendship and collaboration still predominates. I heard of the same intense pride in the quality of the academic programs you have pursued. I heard the same mixture of eagerness to finish and reluctance to leave. I believe that I would still love being a faculty member here.

When for four years I wore the hat of Academic Dean, Dr. Breau's job in the days when it was simpler by far, I had the pleasure of interacting with faculty and with students from all the disciplines, not just my own. While I would prefer to know each of you personally, my past experience gives me a vicarious sense of your own pride of scholarship in the humanities or your outstanding science research. And, I can sense again the milestones you have reached as you have done student teaching, clinical rotations and fieldwork in the service professions or your internships and projects in business and legal studies. I know the way in which the strength of Catholic social teaching has permeated the curricular and extracurricular life of the campus. I know, too, the atmosphere of respect for those of different faith traditions and different cultures. When I spoke with your student representatives I heard echoes of what I knew so well personally: pride in their new identities in their respective disciplines and eagerness to be of service. This, I suspect, is an enduring Elms theme of 85 years and one safe into the future.

My final hat is now that of a Trustee of the College. I can tell you without hesitation that this college is still cared for intensely. I see it from up close. It is being managed superbly by our current President, Sr. Mary Reap, who misses no occasion to pay tribute to the role that the Sisters of St. Joseph have played in the life of the College. She, after all, led the college founded by her own religious congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Scranton, PA. There, too, the lifeblood of her community became embodied in their college.

Here, as no doubt there, the work is accomplished, not just by the President, but only with the help of able administrators, faculty and staff. With this Trustee's hat that I now wear I take pride as I see the Elms' newest endeavors, partnering with regional community colleges for the completion of the bachelor's degree, adding new majors that will fill our region with creative and principled learners in the way that our long-standing majors have. This has brought the Elms from Chicopee to the Berkshires, Holyoke, and Springfield and soon well beyond.

Today is a celebration of 85 years of Elms history. It is a proud day for the Diocese and the Sisters of St. Joseph as co-founders. Mostly, however, today is about you, the graduates, so in the words of the poet Mary Oliver let me ask,

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Will you fill this valley and beyond as your Elms predecessors have done and are doing with your personal gifts now well developed with your Elms learning? I suspect so, and in so doing you will wear many hats yourselves. Go with pride in what you have accomplished here; go with pride in the knowledge, values and sense of service you have acquired here; go with pride in your alma mater; and go with the understanding that those who have known and supported you here will share your pride. And so, on behalf of all the Sisters of St. Joseph I wish you God's richest blessings. All of us tip our hats to you today, the great and unique Class of 2013. We're proud of you!