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ILR Dean Alex Colvin

“You are Part of a Lifelong Community”

The Class of 2022 was addressed by Alex Colvin, Ph.D. '99, the Kenneth F. Kahn Dean and Martin F. Scheinman Professor of Conflict Resolution, at the ILR commencement ceremony Sunday in Barton Hall.

The complete text of the dean’s speech:

Thank you all for coming today. Welcome to the graduation ceremony for students in ILR. I want to thank the many family and friends who have trekked from near and far to come here to recognize the students they have supported on their journeys at ILR. I want to thank our faculty and staff who have helped our students throughout their ILR education. But most important of all, I want to thank and congratulate our graduating students!

We are here today to celebrate their accomplishments, to recognize the degrees they have earned.

What is a degree? An achievement, certainly. One that is the product of a lot of hard work. When my colleagues and I look at the grades, resumes, and personal statements of our incoming students we are amazed at how impressive a group of students we are going to have the privilege of teaching. We often wonder if we would have been admitted to ILR if we had to compete with you. But then you arrive here on campus and remove all doubt – I and my Gen X compatriots really were a bunch of slackers compared to you. Prepped by mastering great piles of AP courses, you proceed to terrify your advisors with your credit laden-ed course schedules. Being ILRies, you run for and win campus leadership positions. You don’t just join clubs, you lead them, and create new ones. You start entrepreneurial businesses. You launch social justice movements. You make us proud and also a little tired watching all of the things that you do. And you work hard in class. You read, you write, you learn statistics, you master supply-demand diagrams, you learn to research and analyze legal problems. You show the amazing all-round achievements that ILRies are known for.

And let’s recognize the wonderful achievements of our graduate students. Masters students who have developed expertise across the broad range of labor relations and human resource management. Doctoral students who are the emerging scholars providing new research insights on topics that we had only begun to think about. Whatever the degree you earn today, you are an ILRie whose accomplishments we are immensely proud of.

But also remember that this is not an achievement that you could have done on your own. One of my favorite assignments I give to new students in my colloquium sections is to write something I call the “Three People” paper. In it I ask the students to describe the work experiences of three members of their family – if possible from three different generations – a grandparent, a parent, a sibling. I ask the students to reflect on how work has changed over time. How did education make a difference? What was the impact of emigrating to a different country? How have careers changed and the type of workplaces we work in? But the most striking thing to read in these essays is how each generation stands on the shoulders of the one that came before it. The grandparents who moved to a new country where they didn’t speak the language to provide new opportunities for their children. The parents working long hours so their daughter or son could be the first in the family to go to college. You have achieved much through your hard work, but honor the hard work of those who helped get you here. Graduating students, please join me in giving a round of applause to the family, friends, caregivers, supporters and mentors who helped you get to where you are today and are here to celebrate your success.

Earning a degree from Cornell takes a tremendous amount of hard work whenever you do it. But I want to recognize the extra challenges that you, the class of 2022, faced. Back in February 2020, when we started to read news of a new virus called COVID-19, we didn’t realize that within a month we would have evacuated campus, sending our students home, and beginning an unprecedented venture into remote learning.

As the country and the world struggled with the human toll of the pandemic and the challenging measures we needed to keep people as safe as possible, you began the process of taking classes over a Zoom screen from a childhood bedroom, a basement, or wherever you could get a decent wifi connection. Then that Fall, we all wondered if we could be back on campus again. After a lot of preparation, effort, and some amazing testing work by our colleagues up in the Vet school, we did return. Classes were a bit different – hybrid formats, some online, some in-person, a lot of masks. It was hard but you made it work. You should be proud of your efforts. You continued your studies under challenging circumstances. It required discipline, flexibility, and a lot of good will. But you made it work.

This year we have managed to move further along the path out of the depths of the pandemic. Classes were more normal. Social activities on campus returning. Still taking precautions, but also living college life more fully. I know it has been a challenge, but I also think that your ability to persevere through it will set you up well for whatever you have to face in the years to come. You have known adversity, faced up to it and recognized that this is part of life. You are the Class of 2022 and you will be the stronger for what you have come through.

I hope you will also recognize that the challenges of the pandemic have reinforced the importance of so much of what we study at ILR. Think about the phenomenon of ‘remote work.’ A couple of years ago, this was a niche topic, studied by a few HR experts. (Of course our own Professor Brad Bell was already one of the world’s leading experts on the topic.) But today it is central to the national conversation. The home office, the zoom meeting, the balance between work and family life, all are part of our daily conversation. Workplace health and safety and essential workers, again topics that are central issues of our times and that we think about very differently now. These last two years have reinforced the importance of understanding the complex and changing world of work. Whether it is mask mandates in the office, truck driver jobs being replaced by self-driving vehicles, or whether your local Starbucks baristas are going to be represented by a union, the issues we study at ILR are central to the world we live in today.

As we move forward, I hope that you will continue to see the value of the education that you have had here at ILR. When I talk with our alumni, whose ranks you are joining, I am always struck by how often they mention the value of what they learned at ILR for their careers and lives. How to think analytically, how to deal with people, how to negotiate. Regardless of what fields they go into, they find the skills and knowledge they acquired here incredibly valuable and I am confident you will do so too.

Having earned a degree from Cornell will open doors for you. You will have opportunities that are rare and valuable and you should cherish that. But know that once you walk through those doors, you will have to continue to show that you can realize your promise. This is where you will have the chance to employ that ILR education you have worked so hard for. Show that you can analyze the complex situations. Bringing together and apply your reading, writing, and analytical skills. Navigate organizations, negotiate deals, resolve conflicts, stand up for what is right, be a leader. Do the things that ILRies do well!

There is a quote that I used when I gave this address three years ago to the class of 2019. After two years of being unable to have an ILR commencement as we struggled through the pandemic together it seems even more fitting today. Having being a nerdy, teenager in the 1980s, who played way too much Dungeons and Dragons, it is naturally a quote from the great J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In response to young Frodo’s fears about living in a time of turmoil and uncertainty, where Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”, Gandalf replies, “So do I .. and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” This is a line written by a writer who after graduating from Oxford University in 1915 served his country in the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War, but survived that experience and went on to write one of the most beloved books of the 20th century. A century later, that spirit of persevering through adversity and valuing the time that is given to you continues to echo today. Be brave, be purposeful, be kind, be honorable. Build a career, build something worthwhile. Take advantage of the opportunities that your ILR education has given you.

Be proud of who you are as we congratulate you – the Cornell ILR Class of 2022!

I want to close by again thanking the friends, family, faculty, and staff who are here to celebrate with our students. To our students, thank you for spending such an important part of your lives with us. But do not think this means you are getting away. Once you are an ILRie, you are always an ILRie. Keep in touch, come visit. You are part of a lifelong community and we will look on with pride at your accomplishments and celebrate them with you. Congratulations and well done!

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