President Mike Latham ’86 – Building a Sense of Connectedness

2022 Commencement address by Mike Latham ’86

Aloha, everyone. It is such a joy to gather here tonight to celebrate the Punahou Class of 2022. Students, you did it! You amazing young people made the most of what Punahou has to offer, excelled in a challenging academic environment, developed talents in music, art, theatre, dance and athletics, and grew intellectually and emotionally as well. But you didn’t do it alone, did you? While I am going to hand each of you a diploma in a few minutes, I’m sure you would agree that this night also belongs to many others, including your families, teachers, coaches, mentors and closest friends. Your success was built upon their love, devotion and commitment, and that community has given you a precious gift.

That theme of community fascinates me. How far does it stretch? What are its limits? We are grateful and indebted to those who know and care for us, who believe in us, who forge lifelong friendships with us. Each of us can make a mental list of who those beloved ones are in our lives, and in time of need we know that we would do all we could for them. But what is it that inspires us to reach beyond our immediate sphere and draw much wider, concentric circles to the point that we are willing to go to great lengths to serve people we do not know, have never met, and who may lead lives very different from our own? How wide is the circle of the “we”? In the words of the 17th century English poet John Donne, what does it take for us to understand that “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main?” How do we draw connections between our own experiences and values with the fate of others and wider causes? 

History, I think, can offer us some clues. John Lewis, the Georgia Congressman who passed away three years ago, was a compelling leader in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. Reflecting on his first arrival to college in Nashville, Tennessee, after growing up on a remote Alabama farm, he recalled that “the center of my world was school, and I dove into it with a vengeance. The universe of philosophy and religion was opened to me, and I took to it like a fish to water … Now my brain was crackling as it strained to assess and absorb these new ideas. Now I saw philosophical and theological underpinnings for what I’d sensed and deeply felt all my life – that there was a contradiction between what was and what ought to be.”

In 1961, as a 21-year-old college student, only a few years older than our graduates tonight, Lewis became one of 13 original freedom riders organized by the Congress on Racial Equality, an interracial group of white and Black young people that rode Greyhound buses together throughout the South in defiance of segregation. At bus stations the African American riders entered white waiting rooms and restrooms, while the white riders went to the facilities set aside for Blacks. They intended to push the federal government to enforce Supreme Court decisions that already outlawed segregation in interstate travel, but they did much more than that. As they suffered violence at the hands of angry mobs and Klansmen, they came to stand for a very different vision of what a truly multiracial American democracy might become, helping build momentum for the passage of the pivotal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed segregation across American society. Lewis and figures like him defined and acted on a vision that would transform not only their own lives, but the future of their country. As Martin Luther King Jr. would later explain, they came to understand that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We can find a similar way of thinking closer to home, in the history and culture of Hawai‘i. The Polynesian Voyaging Society, as many of you know, was founded in 1973 with the intention of proving that Polynesian navigators had crossed the vast Pacific to find and populate Hawai‘i. Through dedicated study and successful voyages to and from Tahiti, using celestial navigation and reading the signs of the sun, wind, waves and clouds, the captains and crews of Hōkūle‘a became a core element of the Hawaiian Renaissance, a powerful movement that recovered vital elements of indigenous language, culture, and history. A remarkable friendship between two Punahou alumni, the navigator Nainoa Thompson ’72 and the astronaut Lacy Veach ’62, moreover, placed that project in a wider frame. Having seen the islands of Hawai‘i from orbit, where the Earth itself appeared through the cockpit of a spaceship as a blue-green planet floating in the ocean of interstellar space, Veach talked with Thompson about the existential challenges of climate change and sustainability.

Hawai‘i, he believed, was the best place to show the world where the answers could be found. Veach passed away in 1995, but from that partnership of kindred spirits emerged a shared conviction that Hawai‘i’s own history and culture could inspire a wider, human response to environmental crisis. From those seeds grew the vision of Hōkūle‘a’s global voyage from 2013 through 2017 to mālama honua, to care for and to restore creation. As Thompson put it, “the voyage is about sailing on the core set of values we believe in. The sail plan of humanity is off course. But here is a movement of compassion and kindness that is happening around the world in response to the damage to our Earth. Hōkūle‘a is a needle sewing a lei of flowers around the world as an act of peace, and that is why we sail.”

It’s not hard to find other examples in which individuals have reached beyond concerns of their own achievement, identity, and status to serve others with humility, grace and conviction. I think here about the tremendous response that much of our own community put forward at the height of the pandemic. At a moment where COVID was rising and there were not yet any medical solutions available, networks of volunteers prepared and delivered food to kūpuna who were unable or afraid to leave their homes. Others worked to support the mental health and nutritional needs of the elderly and impoverished, and we navigated a true crisis together, supporting many whom we had never met and would never know.

All these stories, and many more, reflect a profound sense of connectedness, the foundation for moral action. As the historian Michael Bess argues, our connection to others is shaped by two factors: “The element of empathy, through which one says, ‘That person’s experience is a part of my own, and I feel something of what he or she feels’; and the element of accountability, through which one says, ‘That person’s situation, for better or worse, is a part of my own situation. We can change each other’s lives and are therefore responsible to each other.’”

The question for all of us, and especially for you, the Class of 2022, is how to build that sense of connectedness. The good news, I think, is that you have already started to do it. You have created programs designed to build literacy among children, supported public health campaigns to prevent tobacco use among young people, volunteered at food drives, recycled computer equipment for use in schools, and led voter registration drives. 

Going forward, as you start your college careers, I would encourage you to deepen your sense of empathy and accountability. Take advantage of the college setting to get to know people with backgrounds and experiences very different than your own. You will be surprised by what you might discover you have in common. Expose yourself to challenging ideas and arguments, including those that you disagree with or find hard to understand. You may not change what you believe, but you may gain a better sense of why others think as they do, and ultimately find a shared language or common vocabulary for understanding. And I encourage you to go away. Really, get off campus! Volunteer or intern with local service organizations near the college you attend. You will have the excitement of seeing your ideas in action beyond the walls of a classroom and you just might develop some lifelong friendships. Study abroad if you can too, as there is nothing like living in a foreign country to develop your capacity for navigating cultural differences and your ability to see your own society in a different light.

As your classmate Sydni Gephart pointed out during your Senior Chapel, this is indeed the “end of the prelude.” It is also a commencement and the start of the next chapter of your lives. I understand that you may have mixed emotions about that. Your fellow senior, Josh Lee captured that feeling so well: “How lucky we are to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I encourage you to cultivate that sense of gratitude and to thank your families, teachers and mentors.

I would also like to thank the Trustees who have joined us here tonight to celebrate and share in your joy. Thanks to your wonderful Class Deans, Christine David and Jonah Ka‘akua ’97, for their guidance, care, and support of this Class. Mahalo also to Ms. Lynn Kimura ’81 Kunishige, the amazing architect of this ceremony and a friend to so many of you.

Finally, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Emily McCarren for her leadership and care during her time as Academy Principal and wish her the very best as she departs to become the Head of School at Keystone Academy in Beijing. Emily, you have always remained deeply committed to our students and their learning, and that vision has made a great difference. Please join me in a round of applause for all of them.

To the Class of 2022, congratulations and thank you. You have made Punahou a better place and you have a great deal to look forward to. We are very proud of you, we will miss you, and we hope you come back often.

Aloha to you all.

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