Lord Patton, Father Jenkins, distinguished faculty and guests, dearly loved family and friends, and fellow graduates: It is an honor to stand before you. Today we, the Class of 2015, receive our diplomas, the official certification that we know everything an undergraduate could possibly hope to know. After all the tests, essays and late nights, this piece of paper shouts to the world that we are finally finished learning.
Anna Kottkamp, valedictorian of the 2015 graduating class, delivers the valedictory address
I’m here to say that nothing could be further from the truth. After four years of nonstop learning, in some ways we know even less than when we first stepped on campus. Before we organize a rebellion over the tuition we’ve paid, allow me to explain. I believe that an education in how little we know is one of the most valuable things there is.
Nowhere has our lack of knowledge become more apparent than in the classroom. Notre Dame has exposed us to some of the best minds in their fields who have encouraged us to think critically about everything from the morality of medical mission trips to the theory of Irish-American tap dancing. We have learned a great deal. Yet the more we learn, the more we are humbled by the realization that we still have so much left to learn. Thankfully, throughout these years we have also developed the skills to continue investigating those subjects that inspire us. We have learned how to ask questions, be wrong, respect diverse perspectives and promote conversation. We have learned how to learn. More important than intellectual tools, our time here has cultivated in us a curiosity for things unknown. One of the most valuable gifts of our undergraduate education is opportunity to explore those subjects that inspire us to keep on learning. This passion for learning will last far beyond our years here.
I began, as many of us did, with the intention of pursuing a pre-med major. While I applaud those of you planning to enter the medical profession in the coming years, I quickly realized that fields of corn were more interesting to me than the field of medicine. Though environmental careers were unfamiliar territory for both me and my parents, I took a leap into the unknown and changed my major to environmental science. This was my best decision at Notre Dame since switching to real egg omelets at the dining hall. In studying something that truly engaged my sense of purpose, I enjoyed going to class, and, as much as was possible, doing homework. Notre Dame fosters interdisciplinary dialogue, and each perspective I gained opened a new field of unknowns with endless possibilities to explore. My story is far from unique. Each of us has been challenged to find that which sparks our excitement. We welcome the little we know now, because this will propel us into a lifetime of learning.
Today is as much a celebration of the past as it is a time to look toward a future full of unknowns. As much as we would like the instant gratification of always knowing what comes next, life doesn’t work that way. While we all have different degrees of confidence in our plans, the truth is that none of us really know what the next year will bring. In my experience, it’s just when I think I know everything, that I am proven completely wrong. Facing the uncertainty of the future, we can either allow it to frighten us into inaction or we can take action to shape it.
I learned this lesson during the emotional whirlwind that is freshman year. As an introspective kid far from home, the transition to college was difficult for me. I had a hard time finding friends, adjusting to the workload, and getting used to the nonstop schedule of a student-athlete. I would often consider not only quitting the rowing team, but quitting Notre Dame altogether. My favorite moment of freshman year was getting appendicitis, because it meant my mom came to visit. That should tell you how bad it was, because nobody’s favorite moment happens at St. Liam’s. By the grace of God I made it to the summer and, after a taste of home, was ready to face the challenges of another school year. I distinctly remember that August having the hopeful thought, “Anna, you have no idea how God is going to surprise you this year.” I wasn’t any more certain about my future, but this one tiny change in my perspective became a daily exercise in faith and hope. School was no longer about just “making it through.” The unknown was a chance for me to define myself the way I wanted to be defined. I began pursuing only what I love, the things I knew would fulfill me in a way my freshman year did not. I switched majors, joined the Voices of Faith Gospel choir, and involved myself in the South Bend community through the Catholic Worker. As we have all done with our years here, I plunged into the unknown with purpose. Each one of us has shaped our own path at Notre Dame by seeking opportunities and being open to those things that give us joy. Being open to our roommate’s unique habits, to a class we know will be challenging, to giving our time to serve others or to the Indian food in the dining hall hasn’t always been easy, but it has made our time in college more meaningful than we could have ever predicted.
Today we stand at a similar precipice. Whether you’re a freshman going on sophomore, a senior going on graduate, or 70 going on 71, the uncertainty and anything-is-possible quality of life is exactly what makes it worth the journey. Life isn’t a paint-by-numbers kit or a game of MASH on a bus. It’s a blank canvas, an unwritten novel, and it’s ours for the making. This idea is as disquieting as it is beautiful, for no one else can tell us what to do with the great potential in our future. Every day, we can choose to take advantage of the unknown, or we can let it take advantage of us. Whether you decide to pursue justice, or service, or love, or money, take time to decide what you are about and believe in it, because those actions and values will define you.
Maintaining clarity of purpose will become increasingly important in the future, where the breadth of opportunities can be overwhelming to the point of apathy. There are too many problems in this world, too many disparities and injustices, for us to ignore the suffering of others. We are lucky to be able to consider uncertainty a blessing. We must never allow ourselves to become insensitive to those for whom uncertainty strikes a deeper cord. There are those for whom “uncertainty” is not knowing where the next meal will come from or where to sleep that night. As Father Ted once charged a group of graduates, “Be the kind of person who not only understands the injustices of this life, but is also willing to do something about them.” Our moral education here at Notre Dame has challenged us to care about a range of issues, from immigration to disparities in the education system, class privilege to gender inequality, peace to violence. Now it is up to each of us to respond to this challenge. Like a student choosing an uncertain future, by being open to pursue those things that give us joy while working for the common good, we will never grow tired of the uncertainty of life.
If the unknown is still difficult to embrace, it may help to think that Notre Dame itself stands at the brink of a very unknowable future. Notre Dame is constantly being defined and redefined. This place is not perfect, and to say that it is would be a discredit to those who work daily to make it a more welcoming place of academic inquiry and spiritual life. Having a chance to look back on the legacy of Father Ted, we are reminded of what it means to pursue one’s values in the face of the unknown. Father Ted’s continual pursuit of what he knew was right in the midst of uncertainty stands as an example for current school leaders to act in solidarity with those on the margins, no matter the cost.
Gathered here today are some well-equipped individuals on the verge of unknowable, unlimited futures. While getting to this point has taken personal hard work and determination, we have all been supported by many caring mentors. We are grateful for every parent, teacher, role model and pass-fail class that has brought us here today. Thank you for setting us free and letting us face the unknown, not pressuring us to take the paths most traveled. With your encouragement, we have accomplished many things, and this is only the beginning.
Going out into a nation and a world full of uncertainty, the diplomas we receive today are as much a statement of our accomplishments as they are a directive for our futures. Each one of us has the opportunity to decide what makes up our essence; the attitudes, values and dreams which shape our growth and keep us grounded in times of hardship. The unknown is a chance to pursue what we love. Whether we have a job lined up or plan to take as many gap years as we possibly can, we embrace the uncertainty of the future, guided by a sense of purpose that has been strengthened in this place.
Thank you and God bless.