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SU Commencement 2012: Remarks by University Scholar Stephen A. Barton

May 13, 2012

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Representing the group of University Scholars and the entire SU graduating class, Stephen A. Barton, a triple major in international relations; economics; and Russian language, literature and culture in Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences, delivered the student address at SU’s 158th Commencement, Sunday, May 13.

I’d like you to pause, take a moment, and fathom the thousands of photographs that have been taken of, by or around you during your time at Syracuse.

bartonA photo of you and your friends surrounded by 34,616 other Orange fans in this Carrier Dome; a snapshot of you lounging on the Quad during a precious moment of warm weather; an image of you nervously wielding a nail gun on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house in the Near Westside; a picture of you “taking back the night” with a thousand other students; those photos from Mayfest that you wish had never been taken…

The past four years have been a series of such photographic memories. And while you’ll certainly remember that chemistry test you flunked last semester or the time you mustered the courage to stand up and challenge your philosophy professor during lecture, I would argue that you’ll remember what happened outside the classroom even more. Those memories are the sort you’ll cherish forever, especially if they’ve been preserved by photos.  

It’s a funny thing, a camera; such a small device, but charged with the great responsibility of recording our existence. This is my camera. I bought it almost three years ago, as I was preparing to study abroad in Spain. It’s been from Madrid to San Francisco and everywhere in between, capturing the most meaningful moments of my life.

Speaking of which, if you’ll just indulge me for this quick moment:

On the count of three, everybody say, “Scholarship in Action”: 1, 2, 3, “Scholarship in Action!”

By the end of today, thousands more photos will complete the latest page in our generation’s collective photo album. It’s amazing to consider how far we’ve come from those first few pages, where embarrassing images of us naked in the bathtub as babies are juxtaposed against the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

Our generation straddles two completely different eras. We grew up during a time when calling a friend to invite him or her over to your house wasn’t strange at all, so long as they weren’t connected to the Internet. Film had to be purchased and developed. 

Now think of the last time you called someone to organize plans, much less surfed the web via dial-up. We can take a photo and upload it to the Internet while texting a friend to meet us for lunch—pretty much anywhere, and all with a smart phone no bigger than a deck of cards.

We live in an age of ever-increasing possibility, thanks to technology, but the connections between us are becoming frayed. We’re plugged into the world more than ever via social media, but our interactions have become transient and less meaningful. Politically, we’re more polarized than ever, and events like Trayvon Martin’s death and Occupy Wall Street represent the vast disagreements that continue to divide us.

At this point, you might expect me to tell you that these problems pale in comparison to our generation’s ambition, intellect and charisma, but that would be letting us all off the hook a bit too easily. The problems that we’ve inherited—and the ones that we’ll inevitably create—are going to take a lot more than just “liking” a social activism video on Facebook or re-tweeting an editorial we agree with. And let’s face it: We love doing that sort of stuff.

Technology can empower us to do incredible things, but too often we use it to distract us from reality, to ignore the problems around us. While we’re busy watching cat videos on YouTube, the troubles of the world are growing in number and complexity.

We must fight the urge to recede even further into our own self-contained bubbles, immersed in virtual reality, by finally dimming the blinding glare from our computer screens, unplugging our noise-canceling headphones and taking our phones off the dinner table.

It’s not as though our ability to take on the concerns of the world has suddenly evaporated. In the words of "The West Wing"’s President Jed Bartlett—forgive me, Mr. Sorkin—“Every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”

As we open that next, blank page of our shared photo album, remember that the only limits we face are the ones we create for ourselves. You know … the same sort of limits that thousands of Orange-tinged photos show us hurdling past. 

Congratulations to you, the Class of 2012, and your families. Strive to fill your lives with memories as genuine and joyful as those that will be made today …

… and don’t forget: Take plenty of pictures along the way.

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