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Jill Tiefenthaler Address

Good morning. Thank you. President Edmonds, President Moore, Provost Garcia. Distinguished faculty, staff, parents, students, friends. And most importantly, the class, Colorado College class, of 2021.

This is truly a wonderful homecoming. I'm thrilled to be part of your commencement, and in-person no less. We are all together in a crowd of more than 10 people. I stood before CC graduates at the college's last commencement back in 2019. I remember sitting in my chair, listening to Oprah give her speech. And I was thinking, "I feel really sorry for the poor soul who has to follow Oprah as commencement speaker." Thank you for the invitation,

But seriously, it is such an honor to be here with the class of 2021 because you're very near and dear to my heart. I was here for much of your Colorado College journey. I welcomed you and your parents and families and Shove Chapel in the fall of 2017. And I watched your impact up close for your first three years, and then from a distance this last year. I know your class well, and I'm fortunate to know many of you personally. I heard your stories. I watched you pursue your passions. I admired your accomplishments.

And of course my wonderful daughter, Olivia, is a member of the class of 2021. When I was invited to give this speech I asked Olivia if that would be okay with her. And she said, "Yes, but there were two conditions. It must be funny and short." Liv, I don't know about funny, but I will definitely be brief.

It's been an amazing thing to be a part of her Colorado College experience and that of her roommates and friends. When I was president here, parents often told me that they thought one of the very best things about Colorado College was their kids' friends. I share that sentiment and I'm so grateful that I got to experience it firsthand. It's why I loved leading Colorado College, the students. Watching talented young people at the most transformative period of their lives.

So it was incredibly bittersweet when I received a call last year to consider a new opportunity at the National Geographic Society. They were looking for a new leader and my immediate thought was, "I'm not a scientist and I'm an academic." But I kept thinking, "It's National Geographic. I have to step outside my comfort zone. I have to explore this."

For 133 years the National Geographic Society has been grounded in values that I share. A commitment to mission, boldness, innovation and dedication to advancing meaningful change. Back in 1888, 33 scientific leaders, cartographers, geographers, naturalists, gathered a few blocks from the White House to establish this organization dedicated to dauntless exploration and making the world better. Throughout our history we drove positive change by funding some of the coolest explorers of the time, like Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall and Bob Ballard.

Today we deliver on our mission to illuminate and protect the wonder of the world by supporting hundreds of equally amazing explorers across all seven continents. Like Sri Lankan marine biologist, Asha de Vos, and Kenyan wildlife conservationist, Paula Kahumbu. A great example of our impact is our Pristine Seas project, led by explorer Enric Sala. Over the past 12 years Pristine Seas has helped create 23 marine reserves, from the giant kelp forest of Cape Horn to the humpback whale nurseries of Gabon. Altogether they cover more than 2.3 million square miles, which is more than twice the size of India.

Our curious explorers forge into the unknown, sometimes at great risk, to protect and learn about the world. This sentiment has resonates deeply with me and more than ever this past year. The global pandemic forced us all into the unknown in ways we never imagined. And like those Nat Geo explorers, from our difficult and sometimes frightening journey we gained valuable insights that enrich our lives.

I want to talk a little bit about what we learned today. First, the most important lesson, we found out that when people get scared they buy lots of toilet paper. Sorry, Liv, I tried. But seriously though, over the past year one thing I thought about time and time again was all the little things I miss so much that I took for granted. Reuniting with my siblings over bar food, beers and college basketball, sharing a smile with a stranger, hugging my parents.

Before the pandemic we enjoyed these moments without always appreciating them. I'm determined to never again take those beers, smiles and hugs for granted. And in thinking about all we missed we were more appreciative of what we had.

I'll never forget a conversation with one of you, a roommate of Olivia's, that brought this into focus for me. It was last Fall and I was thinking about it being your senior year, which should be this amazing time, and all the pandemic took from you. Internships were canceled. You missed out on many block breaks. The Block One Senior Party calendar. Yes, we do know about that. Spring break, the last in-person class with your favorite professor.

I said to this young man, "This is the worst, isn't it?" And he replied, "Yeah, but I feel so lucky. I'm fortunate. I'm healthy, my family's healthy. My parents have their jobs. Yeah, I'm missing out on a fun senior year, but so many others have lost so much more."

His words underscored what your class experienced this year. You faced such loss, but you shouldered it with grace perspective and fortitude. You learned the importance of appreciating what you have and not taking anything for granted. And I know all of us here, the faculty, the administration, your parents and families, are so proud of how you handled this enormously challenging time.

Throughout the pandemic we experienced a lot of loneliness and it hurt even more than we thought, but we also discovered that solitude can reveal new pieces of ourselves. Over the last year we spent a lot more time with ourselves and kind of liked what we found. I know some of you discovered that you love to paint, knit or play the banjo. You enjoyed the simple pleasures of baking bread, decorating cakes, rolling sushi, or building a campfire. You made masks, face shields, and mittens.

You faced what seemed like endless hours alone and you filled them with passion projects. And they're not just hobbies to fill their time, we learned that creating things with our hands is grounding. It gives us purpose and comfort. Another great lesson of the pandemic, we're much healthier as individuals and society if we give ourselves and each other a break. Just as it seemed that we were doubling down on a "gotcha" culture, making people pay for little mistakes and so fearful to make even a small one ourselves, the pandemic wore us down and we gave up on the pretense of perfection.

I guess we had no choice. We were dependent on technology and it often failed us. The WiFi went out, the sound quality wasn't great. And what about those unexpected moments? Like when your roommate or pet made a surprise appearance in your thesis presentation on Zoom. All those things that we would have worried about we learned to let go, to no longer sweat. In a strange way living in a socially distant world brought us into each other's real lives and we practiced empathy and compassion. We gave each other and ourselves a pass, realizing that there's more substance in authenticity than imperfection.

Over the past year in it's aching absence, we also better understood the power of human connection. While technology kept the world moving during the pandemic, it didn't comfort us, inspire us or energize us. I'm sure those Zoom classes didn't compare to being in Palmer, surrounded by your classmates and teacher. Just as none of my thousands of Zoom meetings came close to replacing have a team brainstorming together with a whiteboard and a few markers.

We learned the hard way how much we need and want to be with each other. Those personal connections are the essence of life. So as we come out of the pandemic, let's be present. There are a lot of distractions out there, but let's tune them out, listen, learn and connect. Let's set aside all those devices we became even more reliant on this past year and enjoy the people right in front of us.

Finally, if exploring the unknown has taught us anything, it's that we need to be comfortable with ambiguity and change. For all the plans we had, countless were dashed. In the past year I think we had to move back Nat Geo's return to work five different times. We wanted stability more than ever and there was little to be found. We wanted the answers to questions that no one could give us. "When can we travel? Will we have a graduation? Will my job be in-person or remote? When can we ditch the masks?"

We learned to be adaptable and nimble in the past year and this ability will be a critical strength going forward. Because life is not a straight line, it's a circuitous path. And that more change is coming is the one thing we can be sure about. While it's important to plan. It's just as important to be able to thoughtfully pivot when life presents you with its plans.

The global pandemic forced us into the unknown. And we often felt like we were stumbling around in the dark, trying to find our bearings. But during this time of great uncertainty, we did what we do best at Colorado College, we learned. We took it upon ourselves to look inward and embrace meaningful, life-altering lessons. We'll appreciate the little things and what we have. We'll find time for solitude and we'll keep making things. We'll give each others and others a break. We'll be present. We'll be more comfortable with ambiguity and change, and we will hug and smile a lot.

So what's next? We're coming out of this enormously difficult time and we're looking around the world and it's very different. We're never going back to the way things were. We all know about this new normal, but the shift means something really profound. We get to help create the new normal. And you, the class of 2021, have an incredible opportunity to see the world in new ways and to shape your future.

Let's take the lessons we've learned as our lantern and boldly step into the unknown once more, but with confidence, courage, and conviction. Everything is on the table. It's time to explore, so get out there. Thank you.

 

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