The following remarks were delivered by Head of School Judy Guild during Commencement of the Class of 2023:
During the last decade when members of the Class of 2023 were growing up, the social media marketing industry developed a new role for individuals to play, called the Influencer. While the concept itself has been around for centuries, it began to take on a new meaning and gain social power between 2010-2023 as social media platforms were released. For example, when the social media platform Twitch started, along came gaming influencers. Instagram quickly gained the largest number of influencers with Salena Gomez having the largest number of followers. Then a bit later in the decade, TikTok arrived, and once again influencers on that platform swayed the public. Now a 13.8-billion-dollar industry, influencers share their lives in engaging ways as they interact with fans through their content. In fact, just this week Christian Lockhart created the Cultish Conquest Board Game as part of his senior project, which was designed around this concept of being an influencer. So, what does it mean to be an influencer, in todays’ terms and in yesterday’s world? Why does an individual have such power? I experienced an impactful influencer during my coming-of-age decade.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of my influencers. I know, she was not a Salena Gomez, but she was an influencer!
I lived in Hyde Park, New York, the home of Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt (FDR). The longest sitting president, FDR’s profile hung over our town. However, it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s life that influenced me. The wife of a powerful president, a mother of six children, an educator, and civil rights activist, Mrs. Roosevelt’s influence taught me that women could be agents for change.
Like today’s social media influencers, certain people, especially those with a public image, can hold a special power over the thoughts and minds of others. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt believed that realizing the importance of this power was essential. She proclaimed, “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one. You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this.”
Eleanor Roosevelt tried to live this truth. She stood up against wrongs done, and she believed in the power of the individual to stimulate change. My mother volunteered at Val-Kill, the country home where Eleanor spent much of her time, tending to Mrs. Roosevelt’s rose garden. My mother would return home with various ideas that inspired her as she listened and learned of the life Eleanor lived. Val-kill was Eleanor’s place, a mile away from the home of FDR, a place she could be less public and find time to be her own person.
Much like today, the decades in which the Roosevelts lived were riddled with challenges and rapid change both at home and in the world. Mrs. Roosevelt had seen and experienced World War II, lived through the perils of the Great Depression, navigated civil unrest, and championed women’s rights. Additionally, she was appointed to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis, and she chaired the hearing to investigate the conduct of federal judges in the cases against the Freedom Riders.
During her later years, Mrs. Roosevelt remarked on the importance of what today we define as a growth mindset: “The learning process must go on as long as we live. Life is interesting as long as it is a process of growth… we can grow only as long as we are interested.” (Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words ed. By Nancy Woloch p. 308). Effective influencers keep us interested, so we will expand our own curiosity, inspire our inner strength, and spark a spirit of adventure.
The remarks my colleagues and I will share in the next hour about the individual members of the Class of 2023 will offer you a glimpse into these remarkable young people and how they influenced others. They learned to persevere through the pandemic’s many challenges, wrestle with racial inequalities and social unrest, and face daily uncertainty. Despite these challenges, you will hear how they stayed interested in their learning, found their individual path, and held on to their sense of adventure. According to Eleanor Roosevelt, “curiosity, interest, imagination, and a sense of adventure are the qualities that enable us to continue to grow as human beings” (p. 306) and the members of the Class of 2023 clearly exemplify these qualities. Class of 2023, you have been my modern-day influencers.