Congratulations to the Class of 2021


On April 28, I addressed the Class of 2021 in a virtual Class Day ceremony, where I touched upon the theme of Beginner’s Mind. Students and families viewed the ceremony from campus at socially distanced watch gatherings and remotely from locations around the world. What follows is an excerpt from my speech.

The word “global” appears to have its first use in the 17th century, and had only limited use until the mid-20th century. In 1960, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made a prescient statement that electronic media would shrink the world to “a village or tribe where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the minute it happens ... in the global village.” In the first part of the 21st century that sense of global connection has taken on new meaning, new import and frequent use, in the phrase “global pandemic.”

You, the members of the Columbia College Class of 2021, have experienced our global pandemic in many ways, but likely mostly through loss. Some of you have lost family members, some of you may have been taken ill by the virus; others experienced financial setbacks in your families, and most of you had to contend with severe individual dislocations and disruptions of your normal lives. But what all of you share is a loss of your expected Columbia College senior year experience. Expectations not met are particularly difficult losses to accept, whatever the nature of the expectation. I share that sense of loss, though obviously in a different way.

Dean James J. Valentini and Elena Comas Wood ’21 share a celebratory elbow bump.


While I cannot celebrate you in person, I assure you that today you are celebrated and you are special. You are to be celebrated as a class that displayed impressive adaptability, resourcefulness, resilience, persistence and determination. That is why you are part of this Class Day celebration. Despite the many personal challenges, setbacks, disappointments and losses each of you has encountered, you completed your Columbia College studies and earned this most valuable degree. It will always be recognized as especially valuable for the daunting challenges presented in the year 2021.

But there are some elements of today’s ceremony that are not unique to this difficult year. Something that every Columbia College graduate might expect to hear from me at Class Day is, “In the Beginner’s Mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” For those in our audience who have not heard that before, Beginner’s Mind is the Zen Buddhist concept “shoshin,” which advises us to see the world with eyes open, as if we were seeing everything for the first time. In a world of unprecedented challenges, everyone is a beginner by definition because there can be no experience of the unprecedented. And without such experience, no expertness in the sense used here. But that does not mean that Beginner’s Mind becomes trivial or automatic or easy. No. Beginner’s Mind looks to the possibilities of the future, guiding choices of what to do now as the unprecedented has arrived. And it, indeed, requires our serious effort.

It directs us to think about what we do in response to the unprecedented. Beginner’s Mind cultivates a mindset that anything is possible, and that should be our expectation, never a surprise. The unprecedented is to be imagined and anticipated. Your entire Columbia College experience has been unprecedented because it is an experience unique to each of you, full of discoveries and realizations, and most importantly, a new sense of all the possibilities held within each of you.

When you arrived at Columbia you had ideas about the world and your place in it. Sitting in small Core seminars you were asked to speak about, advocate for and defend your ideas, and to understand and appreciate those of others. I expect that your understanding about the world and your place in it changed in ways unexpected to you. That is good. That is your Beginner’s Mind being developed. That recognition won’t diminish the disappointments of this unpredictable senior year. But it will point the way to reframing your thinking from what has been lost to what can be done that is new and full of possibility.

As you continue your Columbia College Journey beyond graduation, I look forward to seeing how you do that, and hearing about how you do that, frequently, in person at Columbia Reunion and at the other events that make up your College journey. I have no doubt that the creativity and imagination each of you individually has developed here will enable you to meet every challenge with the same determination that you displayed in completing your senior year. Congratulations to you, our graduates, and to your families, teachers, mentors and advisors.

James J. Valentini