Carolyn Pope Edwards

Dr. Carolyn Pope Edwards, Willa Cather Professor and Professor of Psychology and Child, Youth, and Family Studies, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on August 10, 2012.

Commencement, a Day of Hopeful Beginnings

Good afternoon. I have been asked to make some remarks at this wonderful ceremony, graduate commencement, a day of celebration. I will say a few brief words about “graduate commencement,” so we can all get on to the next part, “celebration.”

Graduate education is widely seen as the centerpiece of this and every nation’s educational systems. It is the highest level of education, and it has a unique role in producing new knowledge, skills, and technologies. It also establishes a country’s leadership position in the world economy. Graduate education has been called a “key driver” in generating and spreading new knowledge and ideas. You are part of the ascending generation of working scholars and researchers; and it isn’t too much to say that the whole world depends on you, and other new masters and PhD graduates, to contribute your best efforts. Two areas of pressing need come to mind. First, people like you must help find ways to best use and conserve our natural resources and sustain the sacred beauty of life. Second, people like you must find ways to establish and foster new pathways for exchanging discoveries and cooperating across national and cultural boundaries. You can create valuable and enduring concepts in every area and discover meaningful intersections between disciplines and fields. In the custom of a great land grant university like ours, you can translate basic discoveries into applications that make life in the community better for us all. I know you have had plenty of practice at UNL building up your muscles of self-discipline and mental focus. And hard work and effort pay off. H.L. Hunt, the Texas wildcatter who became an oil billionaire, had some famous advice for graduates: “Get up early, work hard, discover oil.”

I also want to say something about the emotional aspects of this day. I especially like the term, “commencement,” because it reminds us that this is a day of hopeful beginnings. I am in the field of early childhood development and education — we focus on children from birth to age eight — and so I have thought a lot about hopeful beginnings. Young children are so beloved partially because they carry their families’ hopes and dreams for the future; they are entirely potential. They are small in size, but not insignificant. As Walt Disney said of his life enterprise, “I only hope we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”

As children grow older, they begin to realize and develop their potential, and something important happens to the hope for them, it spreads to others outside the family, such as their teachers, who invest time and energy in their development. Today, as you sit here, you are surrounded by a glow of sentiment and caring from all your mentors, including those who couldn’t be here today but who have made an impact on your graduate education. And something important happened over the years — you became the bearers of your own aspirations and dreams. Now you have the task in the years ahead of figuring out what opportunities you will pursue and how you will overcome your challenges.

I know that I would never have predicted what would eventually become my most satisfying research opportunities. As I mentioned, I study young children, and some of my best projects came up unannounced and unexpected. For example, long ago I was led by one of my PhD students from the University of Massachusetts into the public preschools of northern Italy. There, I came upon striking, detailed, vibrant work — paintings, drawings, sculpture, constructions of cloth, wire, wood, you name it — all emerging from the hands of very young children, under age 6. And it wasn’t as if these enchanting products were produced by children solo — one child painting at this easel, another child painting at that easel, all around the room, but instead children working together — in small groups of two, or three, or four, — when they were supposedly too young to cooperate. These creative acts would change my mind, and that of countless others in North America and around the world, about what can be hoped for from high quality early childhood education.

Such encounters led to many questions. For instance, how were teachers able to lead children so young to such surprising levels of performance? We had many fascinating conversations with colleagues that led to books and articles. Yet this line of work wasn’t a diversion from my main direction, or grand plan, but instead was incorporated, making my overall purpose clearer, more satisfying, deep, and productive.

The uncertainty of what you encounter will be a source of adventure and stimulation for you, in the same way as it may have been suspenseful to conduct your masters and doctoral studies and research. You didn’t know exactly what you would find out or what would happen on any given day, yet here you are, that process completed.

You will want to sustain that attitude of inquiry. Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” And Oscar Wilde added a very good thought, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”