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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Wolfgram

Stories and Leadership - A Graduation Speech Submission

Good afternoon. I’d like to begin by saying on behalf of the graduating class of 2020, to all of the parents, faculty, teachers and administrators that make this institution a wonderful place, we thank you. Thank you to the technicians who ensured a smooth transition over to virtual classes, and thank you to the professors who gave up their spring breaks to tirelessly redesign their courses and put their students on the best track.

And thank you to Joan Gabel, for the warmth and encouragement of her ceaseless email campaign that’s kept us from crying into our precious toilet paper reserves.

I don’t need to tell you that we are in trying times. Weird times. The world is in greater need now more than ever of medical personnel, epidemiologists, pharmaceutical researchers, and countless other positions to fight the global pandemic COVID-19, but many of us, graduating with a liberal arts degree, are questioning: well now, what do I do with this?

And while countless speeches before mine have touted the many virtues and benefits of a liberal arts education, I’d like to examine two that are particularly relevant right now: stories, and leadership.

Myself being a philosophy major, stories and clever anecdotes have been arguably the only use for my studies, but it’s within this college that I learned the story of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and philosopher king.

Roughly 2,000 years ago, near the end of his life, Marcus Aurelius was confronted by the Antonine Plague, a highly infectious disease that overturned the strongest of the world economies, had a fatality rate of roughly seven percent, and killed its victims with a bitter cough within nine days. It was frighteningly similar to the crisis we face today.

The Antonine Plague began in the East and spread throughout Europe without warning. Travel was delayed or shut down altogether, doctors were confused, festivals and sporting events were cancelled, and the Roman economy gradually fell to pieces. Those infected with the plague had flu-like symptoms, nothing anyone would be concerned about, until it escalated, and days later claimed the life of its victim in agony alongside an estimated 18 million other people.

But it’s how the emperor responded to this crisis that can teach us how to behave today. While hysteria spread and the richest fled town, Marcus Aurelius stayed and asked everyone to stay calm. He said, “Bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before and all will happen again; the same plot from beginning to end.”

And while there was little he could do to fight the pandemic, he led by example and stood as a pillar of ease. He hired the best doctors and shared their advice with anyone who would listen, he gave speeches and took protective measures. In an effort to stimulate the Roman economy he sold the treasures of his own palace: gems, crowns, robes, and his wife’s jewelry, all to mitigate the damage the Antonine Plague brought upon his people.

Marcus Aurelius stayed calm. He took responsibility and he led, and the Roman people followed.

And while the majority of us don’t have a Roman legion at our back, we all have people looking up to us as an example for how to behave. Whether it’s siblings, friends, children, or total strangers, the way we live our lives influences other people’s conduct. And with that, we are all leaders.

Because of that leadership we must ask ourselves what behaviors we want to bring to the world. Are we acting with caution? Are we contributing to the fight against this pandemic, or perhaps volunteering to mitigate the damage? We ought to do as Marcus Aurelius did and understand what’s in our control and what isn’t, and do everything in our power to help those most brutally affected by COVID-19.

Yes, we could stay in our pillow-fort and rewatch Tiger King again, or we could be the leaders that CLA has taught us to be. We’ll get up, work hard, be responsible, and project so much love and fulfillment into the world that we demonstrate exactly how powerful and caring a group of leaders can be, such that we might look back on these trying times not as strenuous or scary but as sacred.

That leadership is exactly what makes our University of Minnesota education so valuable. Not just because it’s prepared us for the job market or that we’ve matured before we take on adulthood, but because of how we’ve been shaped into the brilliant, responsible leaders that our world needs so desperately right now. So as you graduate and go forth into this particularly weird world, ask yourself, who am I leading? And how can I be better for them in their time of need? Thank you.

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