Baccalaureate message: ‘Be comfortable being uncomfortable'

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, encouraged students to be bold during Elon’s Baccalaureate sermon in Alumni Gym.

In a time of radical, turbulent transformation — politically, morally, economically and technologically — taking risks can be scary.

But as Ruth Messinger told the audience gathered in Alumni Gym Friday afternoon, it’s only when you act boldly that you realize the power of your words and actions and the impact they can have on the world around you.

“We may not ever be able to understand why society permits inequality, intolerance, hunger, disease and genocide in the first place, but we can understand what we can do to stop them,” she said. “… So be a little gutsy sometimes. Have some chutzpah. It’s a good thing to have.”

Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, an international human rights organization that promotes social justice through education and service, delivered her message as part of Elon’s Baccalaureate, a ceremony the university holds each year in honor of the graduating class, their families and the Elon community.

In a heartfelt sermon laced with personal insight and charisma, Messinger challenged students to break from conventional paradigms that may limit their view of the world. Instead, she urged them to “redraw the larger picture” in new and imaginative ways. Only then they will be able to recognize that each person on this planet is valuable and build coalitions across lines of race, class and religion, a task that she said is needed but hard to achieve.

“But here’s a secret,” she said, “coalition work and pluralism are about learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” She added, “As you continue to chart your course, both professionally and personally, never allow yourself to get too comfortable.

“Make sure you experience some discomfort. Make sure you’ve felt what it’s like to be an outsider, to be a stranger, to be on the margins. These experiences will make you a stronger leader. They will make you a better person.”

And while she acknowledged that many students will likely leave college with substantial student loans and face economic struggles, she reminded them that money is not everything.

“[Money] is only a tool. Our values, principles and integrity contain the essence of who we are,” she said. “Even in your moments of doubt and struggle … remember that your education is a powerful instrument of change — for yourself and for our global community.”

Before closing her message, Messinger encouraged students to take action and help solve humanity’s biggest problems, to always look for ways to create a more just society and to do it all with a mixture of patience, hope and fun.

“That is what I wish for all of you and for all of us: Hone your political will, wrestle with your faith and sharpen your moral compass,” she said. “Act with integrity, engage in reflection, ask hard questions and allow yourself to change your mind. Live with your values and recognize that we honor our faith when we help those in need.”

Before the message, Chaplain Jan Fuller told the seniors in attendance that it was appropriate for them to nurture the spiritual dimension of their education on the day before Commencement. She encouraged the soon-to-be graduates to embrace the excitement and trepidation of moving into a new chapter of their life.

The ceremony also included readings and music performances representative of various secular and religious traditions, remembrances from members of the Class of 2012 as well as a tribute in memory of Milena Alvarez, a freshman who died in 2009 after a battle with cancer.