Noble F. Allen ’78
We were honored to have Noble F. Allen ’78 as the 2023 Commencement speaker. Here is his speech in its entirety.
BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THIS WORLD
(June 5, 2023)
Good morning everyone.
President Judd-Stein (My fellow class of ’78 classmate. I am so honored to serve alongside you on the Board of Trustees), fellow Trustees, Dr. Howell, distinguished faculty, parents, families, guests and students –specifically, those about to graduate today. I am beyond thrilled to have been asked to be your commencement speaker.
For those of you expecting to hear from somebody famous, sorry to disappoint; I am not. However, with your indulgence, I hope that I can offer some inspiration to some of you in the few minutes that I have been allotted.
So, when I first told my daughter that I would be giving a commencement speech, she gave me one piece of very important advice: she said; “Don’t bomb on stage, Dad.” Talk about pressure! When you have a daughter who is also a stand-up comic, it is sometimes hard to distinguish literal from irony. But I can assure you that she was being very literal when she said that! Let me begin by providing you with some background about me and how I got here in the first place: I first arrived in the United States on August 23, 1975 without my luggage, which, by the way, I have never found to this day. So thank you Air France. I still have the original letter from Air France admitting to this mishap. as they say, “I have the receipts.”
I later arrived in St. Johnsbury in late August of 1975. I was an anxious 15-year old, who at that very young age dared to seek the American dream. (spoiler alert; I think I later found it, or a variation of it). Trust me, my parents would have preferred that I did not leave at that young age. To this day, I am not sure why I wanted to leave home that young. It was either restlessness or claustrophobia. Maybe both.
I was born in one of the poorest, tiniest, and hottest regions of the globe: T he Gambia, located in Sub-Saharan West Africa – the smile in the face of Africa. So you can imagine my first experience with snow, which I believe was sometime in late October or early November of 1975. I recall asking someone two simple questions: F irst, what is this? S econd, when is it going to go away? The response I received was short and to the point: “snow and May.” Seriously? You have got to be kidding me.
I am from very humble beginnings. I am the youngest of seven children. M y family was not welloff by Gambian standards, let alone when compared to standards in the US. So, I will be forever grateful to the Academy for providing me with the necessary financial assistance to enable me to spend 3 years as a boarding student at “Hotel Brantview” (my home away from home) and also for the opportunity to graduate from this great institution.
You see, after scraping for the funds necessary to fly me here at age 15, my parents simply could not afford to pay the airline fare that would have enabled me to travel 4,000 miles each way across the Atlantic to visit them during my summer breaks, so I never went back home, nor was I able to see my parents for the entirety of my 3 years at the A cademy. Sometimes, you just learn to overcome homesickness through the passage of time.
So I graduated 45 years ago from this great institution, and I still remain a proud alumnus of St. Johnsbury A cademy. Let me say that again: I am a proud, proud alumnus of St. Johnsbury Academy. It is a special place for me, and anytime I get the opportunity to come back, I value this place even more. You too will feel the same way years from now. I promise you.
After graduating from St. Johnsbury in 1978, I enrolled at Norwich University. Back then, it was an exclusively military institution, so I was a member of the Corps of Cadets. To say that was a challenging experience for me would be an understatement. Thankfully, with perseverance and grit, I made it through 4 years at “The Wich” and in retrospect, those four years were the most consequential years of my life because they made me the person I am today. Like St. Johnsbury Academy, Norwich also provided me with an educational opportunity, and I will remain forever grateful to that institution, as well. St. JA nurtured my sense of self-reliance and independence, and Norwich gave me discipline, confidence, and a sense of honor. So having spent 7 years of my most impressionable years in this great State, I hope that no one objects when I refer to myself as an honorary Vermonter!
Before I address the graduating class, let me first pay some well-deserved tribute to St. J’s most valuable asset: its exceptional and distinguished faculty. That description was true when I graduated 45 years ago, and it is even more so today.
As a Trustee, I have had the absolute pleasure of spending time and listening to some of the faculty passionately describe aspirational goals they envision for their students. I remember being literally blown away during one such presentation by how dedicated they are to the teaching profession and how committed they are to ensuring that students at the Academy are equipped to not only compete and thrive, but to also be able to excel in the real world once they graduate — be it college bound, entering the workforce with the necessary CTE skills, or even enlisting in various branches of the armed services.
This outstanding group of faculty is not only invested in educational excellence, but equally as important, also has a deep commitment to the mental health and well-being of their students. This faculty has to deal with issues today that my teachers did not even conceive of back in the 1970’s. Nonetheless, it is committed to ensuring that each student has the tools and opportunity to maximize his or her potential to the fullest. So, I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of our entire board of trustees to thank our faculty, and to again remind each and every one of you how thankful and grateful we are for your deep commitment to St. Johnsbury Academy’s most p-r -e-c-i-o-u-s resource — its students.
With the continuing and steady leadership of Dr. Howell, I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that our faculty will continue to make our students excel and inspire us all.
So, for those of you graduating today, you should rest assured about how well-prepared you will be when you begin navigating the various challenges that will surely be coming your way in the next few years after you graduate today.
Three words: “We. Are. St. J!!” I believe in SJA. I believe in its values. I believe in its rich traditions and ideals. I believe in its strident commitment to diversity: diversity in its people and culture; in the make-up and composition of its student body, and in the security and support it gives to students who seek a sense of belonging. Most importantly, I believe in the 3 cornerstones of its core mission statement:
(1) Character: teaching good character and fostering compassion, respect, responsibility and integrity;
(2) Inquiry: fostering love of learning, challenging students to pursue knowledge, creativity, and intellectual self-reliance; and
(3) Community: encouraging students to understand their relationships, rights and responsibilities within their respective communities and the world at large.
I am especially proud of how St. Johnsbury Academy never misses the opportunity to lean forward — forcefully and decisively — whenever confronted with bigotry, anti-semitism, and other hateful events that keep testing its generous capacity for tolerance. And in those instances, visible leadership matters and, thankfully, we have the benefit of plenty of that at St. Johnsbury, starting with our Headmaster and her able team as prime Exhibit A. As Dr. Howell has made it unmistakably crystal clear, without any vacillation whatsoever: there will be absolutely zero tolerance for such despicable conduct at St. Johnsbury Academy.
Let me now take this opportunity to salute this wonderful class of exceptional students, the class
To say that this class is resilient is a truism. You started your freshman year out of the gates strong, but after Walker Jenkins dropped his rap in chapel on March 12, 2020, it seemed like he had ended chapel forever. So shout-out to Walker for finishing what he started when he performed the same rap in the homecoming pep chapel on October 21, 2022.
This past February, the class of 2023 pulled off the greatest Winter Carnival Dance-off ever in the 15- year history of that event. So, congratulations to Jayden Henderson, who was the person responsible for choreographing that off-the-charts winning carnival danceoff routine this year. What an outstanding achievement!
So, this just in people: as homage to your class, Dr. Howell has decided to just retire that event for good. How cool is that? (just drop the mic and walk away!)
Thank you Theodora Montague for displaying tremendous generosity and kindness by providing fresh baked goods to the boarding students who were not able to go home for the holidays to visit their families in 2020-21.
shout-out to Jonathan Kalach who in the past two years at St. J, has said “good morning” approximately 856,874 times and “whazup” 488,245 times to everyone on campus. Dude, combined that is over 1.3 million times!
Thank you Lydia Wang for being the incredibly generous and caring person that you are for always willing to say hello and giving a smile to anyone who needs it.
So, although your class made an unforced error during spirit week of your freshman year by miscalculating that dinosaurs roamed the earth in 2023 B.C., you have rebounded very nicely by not taking yourselves too seriously, being supportive, resilient and successful (now, to be fair, 230 million years and 2023 B.C. do have something in common, no?)
So, I have a few parting words for the class of 2023:
Create your own lane rather than stay in someone else’s lane: if you are presented with an option of either leading or following, always lead; do not follow. That affords you to own your mistakes and be able to learn from them, rather than blaming those that you might have followed. Always have a “Plan B” in your back pocket, no matter how confident you are about your initial aspirations and goals. I wanted a job at the un after obtaining my master’s degree from American University School of International Service. I really, really desperately wanted to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. Unfortunately, B outros B outros- Ghali from Egypt, and later Kofi A nnan from Ghana, also had the same idea and stole my dream job. (Now to be fair, both were far more qualified and far more deserving of the job).
So, I had a Plan B — I went to law school and became a lawyer, and the rest is history. I have been practicing law for almost 32 years, and I am extremely passionate about what I do: I am the Chair of my Firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee; I get to practice immigration law, which allows me to channel my immigrant roots; I litigate and try various types of cases in court; and I negotiate lease agreements and lease disputes on behalf of my clients. So I activated by Plan B when I needed to.
Class of 2023, the world needs your generation of leadership now more so than ever. In case you have not noticed, we do not seem to be in a good place at the moment in this country (and this world, for that matter). We are dealing with trivial and frivolous issues such as what is or is not “woke” and book bannings, instead of dealing with real and consequential issues that affect peoples’ lives every day. So I challenge you to be compassionate force-multipliers. I challenge you to do things that are just, decent, and kind, rather than allowing yourselves to further contribute to the decline in civil discourse, or be sucked into a miasma of cynicism, indifference, bigotry, and even cruelty.
Stand up for what is right – always – no matter whether or not it is popular or cool (or is the proper lingo “dope”?). Granted, this is not always easy when you have peer- pressure in your rear-view mirror ready to pounce. However, in the words of Charles Blow, “there is no wrong time to do the right thing.”
Abhor intolerance, bigotry, xenophobia, racism a n d hate in whatever form they manifest themselves. Be conduits of tolerance and continue to be open-minded. Feel free to exercise empathy and compassion generously and whenever necessary, and do not for one second think that you need to apologize to anyone for doing so. In the words of the great Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Dare to be “change agents” for things that are principled and just while still chasing your dreams and aspirations. Such dexterity is indeed honorable. As reflected in one of the cornerstones of SJA’s mission statement, each one of you should have a say in how your respective communities and this country are governed. Do not sit back and be indifferent and allow others to make decisions for you. Exercise your rights as often as is required no matter what obstacles are in your
Stay humble. Humility remains a quintessential virtue that has withstood the passage of time. If you have confidence in your abilities (which you should), you do not need to be bombastic or display obnoxious hubris to advance it. Let others tout your accomplishments, or even better, pay it forward, and as the saying goes: “Lift as you climb.” Offer support and assistance to those in less fortunate situations than you, and compliment others for their achievements any chance you get. After all, it is by giving that we receive.
Continue to work hard — and please, please, for goodness sake, be kind and respectful to every one you meet. Do not calibrate your level of courtesy and respect based on the recipient’s status. You should extend the same level of courtesy and respect to a janitor in the hallway in much the same way as you would to the President or CEO of your new company, or the Dean of your soon-to-be College or University. It will cost you absolutely nothing!
So, class of 2023, here are my two questions to you: (1) What do you want to be? (2) How would you like to distinguish yourselves?
I have an idea:
Chart out aspirational legacies and try to be the best iteration of yourselves, and along the way, I strongly encourage you to embrace the great Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge — which is this: Be the change you wish to see in this world. Let me repeat: Be the change that you wish to see in this world. Your parents, your families, and your teachers are all counting on you. I know that you have all worked very, very hard to get to where you are right now, but guess what? This is just the beginning of your journey to bigger and better things.
So, before I leave you, I would like to read to you something that has inspired me for most of my adult life. It is framed in my office and I take a few minutes every so often to just to stop and read it to myself. It is called Desiderata, (“things desired” in Latin), and was written almost 100 years ago by an American writer by the name of Max Ehrmann. Not every sentence may necessarily resonate, but most of it should inspire you:
“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is
full of heroism.
Be yourself. especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with god, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
So, congratulations to this year’s Valedictorian, Theodora Montague, and this year’s Salutatorian, Nathan Lenzini, for your exceptional academic achievements.
Congratulations to the entire class of 2023, and special shout-out to all of our international F-1 students from: Azerbaijan, Bermuda, China, Dominican Republic, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey. (Did I miss any?) What a wonderful representation of our global community, and what a tremendous honor for these graduates to have excelled at a US institution such as this. All of you now belong to an elite and proud group: St. Johnsbury Academy graduates. Strive to be happy. I wish each and every one of you nothing but success and good health!
Thank you so much for giving me this wonderful opportunity to be your commencement speaker. I am so very, very honored.
Thank you all.