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The Last Class of the Millennium

  • Date: 12/18/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 1999, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of engineering, education, polymer science and polymer engineering, community service and technology, and business administration.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and new technologies, and, along the way, you have discovered that learning is a continuous process.

    And, you have learned what a difference a few credit hours can make.

    Just think . . . If you still had three more credits to complete, you would not graduate until the next century, the next millennium.

    All of us know that in some respects there is something arbitrary in how we mark time. Some even argue about just when the next millennium actually begins.

    Yet, there is a certain mystique to being the last graduating class of the 20th century. It provides a sense of history and perhaps an enhanced set of expectations for this class.

    We place brackets at the ends of a 100-year or a 1,000-year period so we can lift out that chunk of time and examine it. We turn it over in our minds, stand it next to other centuries on history's shelf, and make comparisons or draw conclusions about the people, accomplishments, and contexts of those times. Because of our University Historian, Dr. George Knepper, we know something about how life was different at The University of Akron 100 years ago -- when it was known as Buchtel College.

    The most obvious difference between your class and your counterparts from Buchtel College's class of 1899 is size. Today we will confer nearly 16-hundred degrees. In 1899, Buchtel College presented 14.

    The Class of 1899 had studied, lived, and exercised in the one gigantic building that was Buchtel College. Most of you have managed to navigate 72 buildings on a 170-acre campus.

    You are a more diverse assembly. Not surprisingly, the surnames of graduates from 1899 reads like an English church registry: Cole, Huston, Sawyer, Foote . . . Today scores countless nationalities and cultures are represented here.

    The lifestyles of your predecessors one hundred years ago were considerably different from the ones you enjoy today.

    In 1899 the streets of Akron were illuminated by electrical power, but most homes and buildings were not. If a student at Buchtel College wanted to listen to music in his dorm room, he needed a friend who could play an instrument. The fastest means of communicating news to the most people was by distributing handbills. And, clothes worn by graduates in 1899 were made of coarse wool or heavy cotton - lightweight, comfortable polymer-based garments would not make their debut for several decades to come.

    Just as today, some students in the 1890s needed a form of work-study to meet what they called "the colossal and forbidding" annual tuition of $40. Then, as now, some jobs were better than others. One fortunate fellow paid his tuition by ringing the college bell to signal class changes each day - while another, Tom Prior, met his academic expenses by feeding hogs for the college's president.

    And, just as we do, Our counterparts from 1899 had their points of pride. 100 years ago the students at Buchtel College were still talking about how their football team, quarterbacked and coached by John R. Heisman, thrashed Ohio State University, 12 to 6, at the state fair in 1894.

    The Buckeyes vowed not to face Akron again for at least 100 years. And so, in the fall of 2001, our football team travels to Columbus for the next Great Game of the Century -- a rematch with Buckeyes, and I hope you will be there to cheer for the Zips!

    In addition to athletics, students of 1899 spent their leisure time boating on the Cuyahoga River, picnicking by the Ohio Canal, and taking sleigh rides through the countryside. And, quite often, they were invited to share meals and visit with families living near the college.

    Those were simpler times, perhaps. But, from their perspective, the change in centuries was anything but simple.

    Consider the history-making changes that started with that generation.

    Within their lifetimes -

    • Refrigeration would make food cheaper and more readily available;
    • Cars would replace horses as the standard form of transportation;
    • Humans would learn how to fly, not just through the air, but ultimately into space;
    • Radio and television would make it possible for words and pictures to sail invisibly through the air for vast distances;
    • Antibiotics and numerous other medical breakthroughs would dramatically increase life expectancies, from 48 years of age in 1899, to 66 by mid-century . . . and 76 today;
    • And, the atom would be split.

    Things that were previously impossible, or even unimagined, became commonplace and changed our lives and our society.

    As the Industrial Revolution came into full swing -- thousands of people moved from farms to cities, women earned the right to vote, the civil rights movement began, the country suffered through a Great Depression, and twice the world was engulfed in warfare . . .

    These facts bring into sharp relief our own anxiety at the dynamic and unpredictable forces that are now shaping our entrance to a new millennium. The challenges and opportunities presented today by revolutions in biotechnology, computing and the global economy are as intimidating to us as those posed by electrification, mechanization, or urbanization 100 years ago.

    The Buchtel College Class of 1899 rose to the challenges of their day by applying their education, their discipline of mind, and the resource of their imaginations to the tasks presented to them. They were ready for the dynamic, unpredictable new century before them.

    And so, too, are you.

    You also have the education, the discipline of mind, and the skills and imagination to shape the next 100 years.

    And you, the University of Akron Class of 1999, shall meet the challenges of the day, knowing that history is watching and that a new millennium waits for you to make your mark!

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Akron family everywhere -

    I salute you, the Fall 1999 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

     

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