Dressed in their academic regalia, Alice Beban France and her husband, Justin France, appeared relaxed at the reception following Cornell’s 14th January graduation recognition ceremony at Bartels Hall Dec. 17.
That relaxation was well-deserved for a couple juggling education with parenthood – they have two daughters, ages 4 and 6. Fortuitously, Justin earned his master’s in horticulture at the same time Alice completed her doctorate in development sociology.
“We prioritized family over school,” squeezing in coursework late at night and early in the morning, Justin said. It helped to live in graduate student housing at Hasbrouck Apartments, where there was a good support network and child care for families juggling school and children, Alice said.
The family plans to move to New Zealand, Alice’s home country, where she will work as a lecturer and he will manage a vineyard.
During the ceremony, which recognized about 470 degree candidates, Cornell Interim President Hunter Rawlings recounted a commencement speech given by the late writer David Foster Wallace to Kenyon College graduates. Wallace’s speech, “This Is Water,” tells the story of two young fish who swam past an older fish, who said, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish swam on and one said to the other, “What the hell is water?”
The moral of the story, Rawlings said, is that many of us are too self-absorbed to easily perceive the world outside ourselves, which makes us “prisoners of our own minds.”
“In order to get out of our own minds, at least enough to be interested in other people, we have to make a conscious decision, a choice: to consider what someone else is feeling, or thinking, or suffering, or wanting, or needing.”
For Alice and Justin France, self-absorption was not an issue.
“When you do graduate school as a parent, you don’t have time to be inside yourself,” Justin said.
Rawlings went on to say that people get too caught up with wanting “money and things,” which are desires that never stop. For people who are “full of themselves,” Rawlings said, even a Cornell degree, critical thinking and communication skills, and a job upon graduation will not be enough for a fulfilling life.
“For that you need the self-discipline to make the choice, often and consciously, to get outside your own mind and into the minds of others. Then you will know what water is, that it is all around you, and that you are swimming in it with lots of other fish,” Rawlings said.
Sara Gregg, who completed her master’s in mechanical engineering and is interviewing for jobs in the robotics industry, said Rawlings’ advice was an “important thing to always keep in mind,” and added it helps that “Cornell is a good place to meet people of different cultures and backgrounds.”
Rawlings introduced Lauren Lang, president of the Cornell Class of 2017, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the ILR School with a minor in business.
Lang said she took inspiration from the light sculpture “Cosmos” by artist Leo Villareal, composed of nearly 12,000 energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, that illuminates the ceiling of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art’s Mallin Sculpture Court.
Lang said “Cosmos” represents inspiration and persistence. “This piece of art teaches us to see the light in everyone,” she said. “To the graduates, I hope that when you leave Cornell and start a new journey that you draw from some of the lessons from ”Cosmos” and continue to search for the light in every person that you meet.”