At Class Day on May 16, I spoke about the synergies that are created by bringing together individuals within our community. What follows is an abridged version of my speech. To our most recent graduates, who are now receiving Columbia College Today, congratulations again and welcome to the community of more than 50,000 Columbia College alumni. I hope you all continue to benefit from the synergies that you developed along College Walk.
At the Senior Dinner two weeks ago, I told you, the Class of 2017, that you were a “10,” as in the highest rank on a scale of one to 10, and said that you were one of only four classes in the 263-year history of Columbia College to be a “10.” I presented this as a puzzle for you to solve because I always have a puzzle at the Senior Dinner. And the answer, which many of you figured out right away, was that only four Columbia College class years have digits that add up to 10: 1801, 1900, 2008 and 2017.
To be ranked a “10” means to be complete, to lack nothing. The academic regalia you are each wearing signifies that, as a graduate, you have become complete and lack nothing according to the requirements of Columbia College. I ranked you as a class as a “10” to focus your attention on you as a group, who together are complete, lacking for nothing, when all 1,172 of you are considered together, joined together, added up, just as the digits in 2017 add up to “10.”
There is an enormous pressure for each of us, individually, to aspire to be complete, to lack for nothing, right now, and always. And it is something we are not likely to achieve, despite our best efforts. Each of us will make mistakes, be confused, misjudge situations, fall short, perform inadequately. Completeness, lacking for nothing individually, will elude most of us.
Should we stop trying? No. Rather, we should adjust our sights from the individual outcome to the individual effort. And we should also adjust our sights from an exclusive emphasis on ourselves individually to what we can do together, because what each of us can achieve together can exceed even what the most nearly complete of us can achieve alone.
To say you, the Class of 2017, is a “10” by adding you up the way the digits 2-0-1-7 add to 10, is a flawed metaphor. It implies that the whole of you is simply the sum of you individually. But, that isn’t true, because of synergy.
Synergy is created when individual parts interact such that their value goes beyond that contributed by each individual part. Our Columbia campus is majestic because of the relationship among its buildings that transcends their individual architecture. It is even more apparent in human endeavors. Our Columbia a cappella group Notes and Keys is more than the voices of its individual singers. And, the true value of the Columbia College Core Curriculum is the relationship of the works you read, a value that far exceeds the value of reading any of them individually.
This kind of synergy was our goal when we brought you all to campus four years ago. We admitted you to Columbia College because we believed you were the applicants best able to profit from and contribute to the experience of Columbia College, best able to create a synergy that would enhance your individual success and satisfaction. It is what has brought you to this place today. You each have contributed to the undergraduate experience of one another to create a collective value that goes well beyond a sum of your individual contributions.
[Class Day speaker] Sheena Wright [’90, LAW’94] has told us how she contributed to and profited from her experience here. In an interview with Columbia College Today, she said of her undergraduate years: “It was a great way to learn about organization and leadership — how do you organize a collective around an issue and achieve results?” She not only majored in history and sociology, but also was active in many groups and activities on campus, and these communities, these experiences, helped her land where she is today.
In fact, when she received a John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement from the College last spring, Sheena spoke of the “scaffold of love and support and nurturance that came from every strata of this place.” She said others saw in her what she didn’t and instilled in her the confidence that helped her grow.
Today, Sheena’s work continues to depend on synergy. The United Way [of New York City], the organization that she leads, uses what they call a “Collective Impact Approach” to bring families out of poverty. They bring together different entities to achieve a result, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I urge you to seek out endeavors that offer that synergy, that give you the opportunity to achieve more working with others than you could yourself — even if you think you individually can get a rating of “10.” Because the act of working with others might lead to something better for everyone working together, even you. You might be an “11” or a “12,” because that synergy scale goes above and beyond “10.”
That synergy is what multiplies the value of Columbia College — the 4,500 students, 1,000 faculty members, 300 staff members and 50,000 alumni — whose interactions make something of far greater value than the sum of our individual contributions. It is the reason I can say Columbia College is the greatest college in the greatest university in the greatest city in the world.
So, I will close by saying, thank you for coming to Columbia College. Thank you for all that you have taught me. Thank you for what you have taught one another. Thank you for what you have given to Columbia. Congratulations to all of you, to your families, to your professors, to your coaches, to your advisers, to your mentors. Class of 2017, you are not only a “10,” you are the best class ever.
James J. Valentini
Published quarterly by the Columbia College Office of Alumni Affairs and Development for alumni, students, faculty, parents and friends of Columbia College.