Since deciding to write this weekly column I began thinking about other commencement speeches I have experienced, I realized that SFC should aspire, perhaps more than aspire to have commencement speeches equal if not better than masters like Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace famed for his novel “Infinite Jest” did the commencement speech at Kenyon College. The effect it had culturally and on the Internet is second only to Steve Jobs.

Wallace’s commencement speech before his terrible demise has gone viral on the Internet and most recently an animation was created depicting his speech with his voice as the narration.

Three statements made in his speech mystified me.

Here they are:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

“…The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.
It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Joseph Hemingway is the VP of technology at Pratt Institute alumni of SFC.

SFC Today reached out to Joe and asked him like we did many others what he though made a great commencement speech. Joe responded with plenty detail and analysis of what he thinks makes a good commencement speech.

Hi Joseph,

You’ve asked a really great question. I think it boils down to two things: relevance and authenticity.

I’ve been to a LOT of commencement ceremonies, convocations, baccalaureate masses, etc over the course of almost 30 years. Speakers that really speak to the graduates for the graduates’ sake are rare. Those that do resonate with them, they understand the multiple emotions that a newly minted graduate is feeling. So rather than speaking about themselves or their own accomplishments, they create the image of pulling up a chair next to each individual student and having a heart to heart, like a member of their family might. That’s authenticity.

I can also understand the desire on the part of some folks to want to have someone with rock star caliber speak. It’s a certain cachet for the school (read the papers in May and June and it is full of celebrity commencement news) and a bit of a momentary thrill plus bragging rights for the graduate. “Hey I had Howard Stern speak at my commencement — it was awesome!” Not to pick on Mr. Stern, but what value would you retain a year later? Two years . . . ten years? That’s the relevant part.

I know you didn’t ask about the following, but I hope you don’t mind me adding one more item.

The tradition of the school matters in terms of the question you have asked.

How does the commencement message relate to the school?

We have a precious tradition to nurture at SFC. I literally remind myself every day of a handful of young Franciscan Brothers who left Ireland on a boat in 1858 to come to Brooklyn. They didn’t question their mission or seek anything for themselves — they came because there was a need. I can’t imagine how unnerving that must have been and how much faith was needed to let go of one’s trepidations. But all they needed to know was a need and they went — never to see their homeland or families again.

Fast-forward to 2013 and you and I and the rest of the community are all that stands between the survival of that mission and its relegation to an archive somewhere.

So the point here is that the speaker should get to know the school and relate his message to the most recent alumni and let them feel a sense of belonging and obligation to the mission. It’s the last time all of the class will be together. Either you hit it right or you may lose them for years or for good.

This matters because our mission has never changed since its founding. Take a look at the oldest of institutions like Harvard. Their original mission from 1640 is known as New England’s First Fruits. It’s an interesting read if you have a couple of minutes. And yet today their mission bears no resemblance to that. It is now only a page in an archive.

Thanks very much for the opportunity to consider this and offer these thoughts. I’m always here if you need anything.

Best regards,


Joseph M. Hemway
V.P. of Information Technology & CIO
Pratt Institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *