Author Katherine Paterson Urges Graduates to 'Stick to Reality and a Dream'

Katherine Paterson

Watch Katherine Paterson's speech on the Champlain College video channel.

President Laackman, members of the board of trustees, faculty and staff, family and friends, and especially my fellow honorees, Grace Potter and the Class of 2016: Thank you for letting me be a part of this great day.

As you know I am a writer for children and I get a lot of letters from children. Now it's nice, as Grace Potter surely knows, to hear from your fans, but the letters I receive are not all great letters. "For example: Dear Katherine Paterson, "My teacher said we had to write a letter to an author so I thought I might as well write to you." or "Dear Mrs. Paterson: You are the best writer in the world. Someday I'm going to read one of your books." "Dear Katherine Paterson: I did not like the ending of your book. Here is my idea of how you could end it better. I hope you will take my suggestion."

But then, there are those letters you want to remember. One came from a young girl who said. "I liked your book, Bridge to Terabithia, because you stick to reality and a dream."

When I was writing these remarks, I remembered those words-"stick to reality and a dream--" Because don't they describe this wonderful college you are graduating from today?

When my husband and I moved to Vermont 30 years ago Champlain was a small two-year college, known mostly as a business school, across the street from and in the shadow of a much larger, better-known institution that today shall remain nameless.

I am particularly thrilled to be receiving this honor today because, like many people in Vermont, I have watched the utter transformation of Champlain College with admiration and amazement. What was the secret behind this transformation? How did this small junior college become, in the words of The US News and World Reports, the "#1 Most Innovative School of regional colleges in the North?" And in the words of another person who evaluates colleges and universities across this country, "one of the most exciting schools in the United States?"

I am a writer, so I always want to know the story. And I think I found a hint of the story in a change that was made in 2009. At that time, the motto of Champlain College was Suum Cuique. My high school Latin is a bit rusty, but it means something like "You get what you deserve." I suppose it was meant as a challenge to the individual student to study hard and it would pay off. But in 2009 a committee of faculty, staff and students felt that this motto no longer expressed their vision for the school and came up with your current motto: Audeamus - Let Us Dare. A few short years ago, the people who cared about this school laid out an audacious vision for what Champlain College could be and together - and that is the key word, together - you are daring to fulfill it. Sticking, as my young friend said, "to reality and a dream--" while not getting either stuck in reality or wandering off into wishful thinking.

Throughout your studies here, whether on campus or online, you graduates have lived out that vision. You have shared in that spirit of daring. But what happens tomorrow? And the next day? And next year? What happens when you leave this beautiful supportive community and find yourself in a world torn by conflict and riddled with fear -a situation exasperated by a political climate such as I've never seen before in my long life?

Katherine Paterson receives Honorary DegreeI'd like to share a story with you that I've retold many times because it has been such an inspiration to me. About 35 years ago I was living four blocks from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Maya Angelou was slated to speak as a part of the university's literary festival, and I went over early to make sure I got a good seat in what was to become a packed theater. As it turned out I had a perfect seat, third-row center.

Ms. Angelou, as you may know, was at least six feet tall. That night she was wearing a full-length African dress, and she had a scarf wrapped around her head that went up into the air and added at least another foot to her height. She gave an eloquent presentation, weaving stories of her own difficult life through readings from her prose and poetry.

The evening concluded with questions from the audience, in the course of which Ms. Angelou recognized a young woman sitting two seats to my right.

"Ms. Angelou," she said, "Could you tell us how hard it was to get published when you were not only black but a woman?"

Ms. Angelou, all seven feet of her, leaned so far over from the stage that I felt her face was nearly in the face of her questioner. "Darling," she said, "don't whine. You lose grace when you whine."
I was very happy not to be that red-faced young woman, but I might have been. You may be surprised to hear it, but I have been known to whine, especially in this election cycle. And it seems to me, realistically, that there is plenty to whine about these days especially if you're young and about to graduate in 2016. Many of you, thanks to this great school, already have a good job lined up, but some of you don't. Then there's the economy in general-the greed of the 1% -- global warming, which you never created but will have to live with the consequences of politics - whether you lean left or right, nobody seems to be doing it properly - and that college loan - how in the world will you ever get that paid off? And we haven't mentioned ISIS or earthquakes, nuclear weapons in North Korea, or hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees. Today you are celebrating, but tomorrow? Come on now, who in their right minds won't feel like whining?
And then I think of Former President Jimmy Carter. He entered the White House daring to hope that an honest man could truly make a difference in the world. Everything went wrong during those four years -from the severe gasoline shortage to the Iranian hostage crisis. He left Washington after what was universally labeled a "failed presidency." He was the laughing stock of the media, this pious little peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. But Jimmy Carter didn't whine. He was realistic all right, but he still had a dream of what the world might be. He was still daring enough to believe that he could make a difference.
I read a statement last week from a former media critic who said: "He may not have been a great president, but he was the greatest man to be a president."
The Carter Center which is his post-presidential endeavor has made its mission to work for the peace and healing of the world. Daring indeed. Just one of its goals over the last 30 years has been to rid the world of the guinea worm. The guinea worm is a particularly horrible parasite that for thousands of years has killed and maimed millions of people in Africa and the near and far east. There is mention of the guinea worm in 2000-year-old records found in Egypt. In 1986, when the Carter Center took on the fight against this terrible scourge, there were a reported 3.5 million cases of guinea worm infestation in 20 countries. In February of 2016, there were 22 cases reported worldwide, all of them confined to a tiny village in Southern Sudan. At his news conference announcing his brain cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago, President Carter was asked what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He said he wasn't afraid to die, but he did want to live longer than the guinea worm. And friends, at last count the 92 year-old Carter is slated to outlive the several thousand year-old guinea worm.
So, you can whine that the world has treated you unfairly or you can dare to make a difference in this unjust world. That takes daring. That takes courage. That night in Norfolk, Maya Angelou reminded us that "Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently."
I love the broad vision of this college. You may be better known for sticking to reality with the very practical goal of preparing students for real jobs, but your dream is much broader than job training. You have been challenged to embrace diversity, to open your eyes and hearts to a vision that is global and compassionate. Champlain College has asked you to dare to look beyond your own race and religion and zip code to embrace all human beings as your neighbors and to care for this tiny planet that is our shared home.
I used to think that the reason so many people were hungry or starving to death was that there wasn't enough food to go around. But that is not true. There's plenty of food, it's just not getting to where it's needed. Last week there was an article in the paper that said that in the United States 40% of our food is wasted. There are young people graduating here today with the technological skills and the caring imagination to figure out how to transfer the food that would rot in American warehouses to children who are starving in Sudan. I'll just throw out that as one challenge. There is no shortage of challenges for those who dare.
Jimmy Carter is set to outlive the guinea worm. I want to live long enough to see the Class of 2016 take the skills and knowledge you have acquired and the vision you have shared here in this wonderful school and go out and change the world. Audeamus!


Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 382 Colleges: 2018 Edition. For the third year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2018 "America's Best Colleges," and an "A+ School for B Students" and is ranked in the top 100 Regional Universities of the North. Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2018 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2018 College of Distinction. For more information, visit  www.champlain.edu.