Death and Glory

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Professor Caroline Heldman ’91 delivers an unorthodox, but inspiring commencement address

Caroline Heldman at podium

Professor Caroline Heldman: reject the trappings of success and do what makes you happy.

Professor Caroline Heldman offered what on first listen might seem like a less-than-uplifting message for Clark’s 2013 graduates: “In 100 years, everyone in this room is going to be dead,” she said during her keynote address during Clark’s 77th commencement ceremony on June 20.

Heldman ’91 quickly explained the hidden inspiration in her words: Since life is short, each of us should spend it well. Heldman urged the graduates before her to reject what they might be told will make them happy—money, fame or other traditional trappings of success—for what truly will make them happy.

As befits a staunch academic—Heldman is chair of the Politics department at Occidental College—she offered a definition of happiness based in statistical research. Citing Harvard’s Grant Study (commonly known as the “Happiness Study”), as well as numerous other research findings on life expectancy and personal satisfaction, she offered three key ingredients to a happy life: Meaningful work, helping others and a life filled with love.

Heldman qualified her last item by explaining that happiness-producing love did not necessarily have to come from a marriage and family; strong friendships were equally important for both emotional and physical health. Such friendships, she added, are not conducted online or through social media—they’re based on regular face-to-face contact.

“So look to the person on your left, look to the person on your right,” she told the graduates. “Could one of them be your new bestie?”

Heldman knows firsthand that Clark students are good friend material: She graduated from the college in 1991. Heldman enrolled at Clark College when she was 14; she credits her time at Clark with exposing her to a diverse student body of all ages and backgrounds, an experience that helped her in a career path chock-full of success in business, politics and academics.

After earning her associate degree from Clark, Heldman attended Washington State University Vancouver, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business. After working in the private sector, she served as a congressional staffer and campaign manager, earning her master’s and doctorate degree from Rutgers University in political science along the way. In her academic career, she specializes in race class, and gender in United States politics. Heldman recently returned to Clark to present a lecture on misogyny in the media, called The Sexy Lie.

Clark College President Robert K. Knight said during his commencement introduction that he was impressed by Heldman’s eloquence and presence and therefore asked if she would consider speaking at commencement one year. Heldman agreed, not realizing that “one year” would wind up meaning “this year.” But when Clark’s original commencement speaker, ABC newsman Byron Pitts, was called away on an emergency assignment three days before commencement, Heldman flew back to her alma mater to speak to the Class of 2013.

Heldman noted that while some things changed over the past two decades—commencement was held in the gym back then, and the term “Penguin Nation” had yet to enter the Clark lexicon—other things are the same.

“I’m willing to bet that Clark College is still that door to the world for many of you,” she said.

Caroline Heldman cheers for Clark grads

Caroline Heldman joins Clark’s staff in cheering for graduates.


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