A few short years ago, Jackson Pierce-Felker '18 imagined a path ahead that was safe but conservative: a college close to home, a business degree and "any job that would pay enough to support my family."
Four years later, delivering the graduating class response at Bucknell University's 168th Commencement, the psychology and creative writing major from outside Washington, D.C., reflected with pride on how much he gained by straying from the obvious path.
"Had I followed the path of least resistance, I never would have left Maryland," said Pierce-Felker, who came to Bucknell through a Posse Foundation scholarship. "I never would have had the chance to present my own artwork at a diversity summit, or to build communities as an RA, or research the effects of exogenous oxytocin on voles.
"If you had told me at 17 that I would spend a summer in Lewisburg writing poetry with other undergraduates from around the country, or that I would team up with one of my best friends to start Bucknell's best boy band, KP 140, yeah, I would've laughed at you. Choosing the comfort of home would have cost me so much."
As he dove headfirst into the opportunities the University's living-learning environment provided, Pierce-Felker said he learned the wisdom of avoiding "the beeline complex — the belief that we have to take the most direct route to our goals, that we can't stop and smell the roses until we get there."
Working for the University's Student Calling Program also gave him the confidence to follow his passions — to embrace his "natural geometry." Contacting alumni on Bucknell's behalf introduced him to graduates "who started out as biochemists but discovered a passion for making soap," and to "English majors who now develop the polymers in our chewing gum.
"The one thing they all have in common is that they weren't afraid to step away from what was familiar to them," he said. "Stories like these have taught me that we need not fear the unknown. Oh, no — the unknown needs to fear us. We went to Bucknell."
A Network for Success
Pierce-Felker's message underscored that of Commencement speaker Jim Cramer P'18, the financial analyst, best-selling author and host of CNBC's Mad Money. Delivering his address in the forceful, mile-a-minute tenor that is his trademark, Cramer told Bucknell's Class of 2018 that "life after graduation is rarely a straight path. There are twists and turns and roadblocks and defeats, and you must know how to negotiate them as gracefully and earnestly as possible."
Cramer was frank in recounting the rocky start of his career, which took him from "a man often thought to be one of the most likely to succeed from the Class of 1977" at Harvard to living in his car, scraping together a hand-to-mouth living as a Los Angeles crime reporter only a year later.
What pulled him back from rock bottom, he said, and to heights he never even imagined, were the relationships he cultivated with his classmates. Now a successful media personality and the parent of a graduating Bucknellian, Cramer told the graduates to never underestimate the power of the "Bison safety net."
"The friendships of the students, the shared skills of the academic and the extracurricular activities ... gave you a return on investment far in excess of the tuition," Cramer said. "Those classmates who are sharing this moment are the ones who protect you. They are the ones who serve you when you most need them. They and the education at Bucknell are priceless."
Nearly 900 Graduates
The speakers delivered their remarks to nearly 900 graduates and thousands more family members, Bucknell faculty and staff, and other well-wishers who gathered on Malesardi Quadrangle on Sunday, May 20. The University conferred 868 degrees at Commencement, with 852 students receiving bachelor's degrees and 16 receiving master's degrees. They included 34 students who graduated in January and July 2017.
Find Your Path
Among undergraduate degrees, the College of Arts & Sciences conferred 548 and the College of Engineering awarded 167. In a first for the University, the Freeman College of Management conferred 137 undergraduate degrees. Bucknell's School of Management was elevated to a college in 2017, and was named in January in recognition of $25 million in support from Ken '72 and Janice Freeman. The Class of 2018 represents 32 states as well as 16 countries.
In addition to the graduates, Provost Barbara Altmann also recognized members of the Bucknell faculty with awards for distinguished and inspirational teaching: Professors Carl Kirby, geology; Michael James, political science; Renee Gosson, French & Francophone studies; Abby Flynt, mathematics; Brian King, computer science; and Meenakshi Ponnuswami, English.
Altmann also acknowledged Professor Helen Morris-Keitel, German studies, as the 2018 Burma-Bucknell Bowl recipient for her outstanding contributions to intercultural and international understanding, and Professor T. Joel Wade, psychology, as the faculty recipient of the President's Diversity & Inclusion Award. Both awards were presented at a ceremony earlier in the spring.
As the graduates prepared to leave Lewisburg to blaze new pathways, Pierce-Felker reminded them once more to follow their passions and reject a familiar platitude. "To claim that college was the best four years of your life is to speak as someone who has already given up," he said. "We wouldn't take one bite out of an apple, then throw the rest away because the first crunch was so satisfying.
"We have a responsibility to disrupt, agitate and crash through the structures we know, to push life in new directions," he continued. "Don't let graduation make you complacent; the real work has only just begun. But we needn't be afraid. We went to Bucknell."