Liz White’s quiet strength has not gone unnoticed. As a sophomore, she was selected by her peers to serve on the board of trustees. Since then she has served as president of the Northland College Student Association, was awarded the Student Life Indelible Mark Award “for her thoughtful leadership and strong passion for Northland College and for those she serves,” and was selected to speak at commencement.

Majoring in business and sustainable community development, “she has worked tirelessly to represent students and the College in positive and meaningful ways. Liz quietly inspires those she associates with and those she works on behalf of, to seek justice and to work in service to others,” said the Indelible Mark Award committee.

Liz is planning to move to Madison, Wisconsin, after graduation and will be looking for professional development opportunities related to public service. Liz may consider graduate school in the future, but for now, says her interests are too broad to choose one area of study.

Commencement Address: Defining Community

By Liz White ’16

I’d like to start by saying how honored and humbled I am to be part of the class of 2016 and to also have the opportunity to speak before you today.

So when I was trying to decide what to share in my talk, I thought back to when I first came to Northland as a freshman four years ago.

And to be truthful, When I first came here I didn’t like it. I didn’t know anyone. It was uncomfortable. I started to doubt my decision to come to Northland and I even thought about leaving.

But over time things got better. Obviously, I did not leave. And here I am now as a senior, and I can say that I truly love Northland College. I love the setting here in the Northwoods, the mission of the institution, and most significantly, I love the people here. And so I’ve went from a freshman thinking about transferring to a senior who, although is excited for the future, is also saddened by the thought of leaving.

So what was it that created this change in how I felt about Northland? As I look back, I’ve realized that the thing that made all the difference was community.

Community is a word we hear a lot, I think especially at Northland. But what exactly is community? Well I think community probably is better felt and experienced than described in words. But just to give some examples of what community at Northland has looked like, at least to many of us graduating, is that community is walking around campus and smiling and waving and people you pass by, it is spending hours participating in crazy weird events at this thing called Snofest, it is going to the campus store and having the staff know your name and also know which sandwich you are about to order.

I could go on for a long time about examples of community at Northland but I think we get the idea.

So I think many of us have finally found a place of connectedness, comfort, and acceptance here at Northland, and now it’s time to leave. I think we wonder if we will ever find this type of belonging again. And this uncertainty is unsettling, at least for me, and I started to doubt if I could truly find another community where I felt at home. But then I remembered back to being freshman. I remembered how uncomfortable and how alone I felt, and that this feeling of belonging and community that I feel now didn’t happen overnight. I think once we experience a type of community like that at Northland we are compelled to find it again, and as much as we may want to have this sense of belonging right away again, we can’t force community and that feeling of connection. As we move into this next chapter of our lives, I think we may again have to be patient as we grow into our new communities. It takes time.

But also, I think as many of us know, we don’t’ just find community. It isn’t just sitting there waiting to be discovered. Community is an active process. It is built and shaped by its member. All of us here at Northland, whether we would identify ourselves this way or not, are in fact community builders. Community building does not have to be a big elaborate act. It’s really the simple things.

For example, one day I was leaving the student center and right outside the door there was a vole, or a shrew, I apologize to you all of you natural resource majors out there who are probably embarrassed by lack of mammal identification skills, but anyway, there was some type of rodent that couldn’t see and kept running into the wall. And there was a student there who was trying to usher the rodent to safety in the nearby grass. After I saw what was going on, I started to help. A few minutes later another student joined in the rescue efforts, and I am pleased to report that we were eventually able to get the rodent to safety.

And for me, this story really illustrates what community building is. None of the students involved in the rescue really knew each other that well, and we didn’t get involved because there would be some kind of direct benefit for ourselves. But we recognized the situation as fellow students in need, and I suppose also as a rodent in need, and so we contributed what we could to improve the situation. That’s community. It’s these types of acts of giving, be they big or small, that we can continue to apply in our lives after Northland to create communities that we want to be part of

And finally, I think many of us chose to come to Northland because we have some vision of change for the future.  It might be change in our own lives or change in the entire world. And regardless of scale, Northland has prepared us to be change-makers. We know how to gather information, how to think critically, and we have had amazing hands on experiences.  However, Northland has prepared us in another, more subtle way that doesn’t fit neatly on a resume.

And that is at Northland we learned how to live in community. We have learned to live and work with others who are different than ourselves, who we may not always agree with, and who might not even like. And in world with conflicts and challenges, knowing how to live with in community will serve us all well no matter what kind of change we want to make. Northland has shown us that can do more and be more when we act as a community rather than just as individuals.  And that is powerful.

As I wrap up here, I also want to take this time to say thank you to my peers because I owe my Northland experience to all of you. Like I said earlier, it was community that kept me at Northland and each of you contributed to making that community what is was. It has been such a pleasure and honor to have shared this journey with you all, and I am so very excited for and confident in our futures.

When I look out at our class for this last time, I see scholars, I see researchers, professionals, activists.  But what I see most is close friends, good neighbors, and caring community members.  Together we have already made a huge difference in this community and I can’t wait to see what impact we will make in the future.

I wish the best to all of you, always. Thank you.

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