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As commencement days drew closer during my life as a dean, I regularly spoke with anxious graduating seniors concerned with having an answer to that omnipresent and somewhat ominous question, “What are you going to do now?” I often suggested that they might respond with another question once recommended by a now disgraced comedian, “Why, are you looking for ideas?”

We can rest assured that more than one high school or college graduation day speaker will remind graduates that the commencement means not the end, but rather the beginning of a new phase of their new lives. Nonetheless, for many traditional-aged college students graduation symbolizes not only the end of childhood but the beginning of futures increasingly full of uncertainty.

The Saint Mary’s College Class of 1998 petitioned the President’s Council for me to serve as their commencement speaker, which remains among my most gratifying achievements. In his formal letter of invitation, the President wrote, “The students shared how your talking with them provided many with their first words from the College when they entered as freshmen; now your words can reside with them as graduating seniors.”

Those students were not the only ones “graduating” that sun gray May day. They would be my final graduating class of seniors, as I had announced that I was leaving the college after 27 years to join the Christian Brothers Leadership Team at Mont LaSalle.

Among my words were the following, “We are leaving Saint Mary’s together; you after two, three, four, or more years, and me after twenty-seven. As WE graduate today, we have feelings of excitement about what life holds for us beyond this day, and there is also uncertainty about our readiness to be successful in our new lives. After living our entire lives knowing what the end of summer brings, we prepare to start new lives, with new roles and responsibilities. We ask ourselves, Am I ready? Will I be successful? What do I do now?”

A few years later, I was honored to be invited back to deliver another commencement address for Saint Mary’s Graduate Programs. My remarks that day again spoke to the fears also experienced by graduate students. “Without fear there can be no courage and each of us needs to have courage to live the lives we think best for ourselves in a world that often wants us to satisfy others who are only thinking of satisfying themselves.”

“Everyone is born unique, but too many people die copies. Stay true to yourself by staying true to your vision and never ever doubt your ability to achieve whatever you can imagine.”

This past weekend, we celebrated as our son-in-law Patrick completed his studies in Industrial Design at California College of the Arts (CCA), after receiving an earlier degree from Berkeley and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. While commencement speakers are noted for their advice, the words of several graduates in the CCA commencement program provide some thoughtful responses to the Whaddya Gonna Do question.

From Emeric Kennard, an Illustration graduate, “Resist the dangerous idea that education ends. The moment we believe our learning is over, we fail ourselves and each other far beyond the line of a letter grade by letting fear of the unknown inflict severing wounds where we might otherwise grow.”

From Kristine Landowski, a CCA Fine Arts MFA, “Continue to be curious: investigate, question, and challenge yourself and your community. Explore failure and realize that our success is through determination to understand and grow. Allow your ambition to cultivate the space for social justice and engagement, as we explore ways to overcome social, cultural, environmental, and economic problems.”

Last week, the comedian Will Ferrell advised graduates at the University of Southern California, “To those of you sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s OK. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”

As we celebrate graduating students in this season of commencement, the words of Thoreau keep coming back to me, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, live the life you’ve imagined.”

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He is currently a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: