Gen. Dempsey, Former Speaker Boehner, Vice President Biden, Father Jenkins, distinguished faculty and guests, family, friends and fellow graduates: Today is a very important day. Today, we — the class of 2016 — are going to receive one of the most expensive pieces of paper we may ever possess: our college diploma. “Just how much is this piece of paper worth?” you might ask. Our parents and the Office of Financial Aid might tell us: about $240,000. An economist might tell us it is worth the present discounted sum of our future income minus the sum of what our future income would have been if we had done something else with these four years. But we know better. We, who have lived, studied, worked, prayed, served, laughed, cried, and grown into adults here, know that this question defies such number-crunching. For us, the question of what our Notre Dame diplomas are worth boils down to what we believe that we have learned here at Notre Dame and what we plan to do with it. Today, I would like to share with you some reflections: three key lessons we can take from our Notre Dame education. They are lessons — sources of value — that we will not find on any loan statement or U.S. News and World Report listing.
Abby Davis delivers the valedictory address at the 2016 University Commencement Ceremony
Lesson #1: We have learned to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Our time at Notre Dame has been full of uncomfortable experiences, from Frosh-O serenades to DomerFest to our first (and maybe last) foray into “Michiana’s Hottest Nightclub.” But these are not what I have in mind. I am referring to the times when we dared to do something different and uncomfortable — even something that seemed crazy — for the sake of learning something new; the times when we checked our ego at the door, threw ourselves into the unfamiliar, and found that, at some point, the nervous flipping in our stomach gave way to butterflies of excitement. For some of us, this meant taking an elective that had nothing to do with our major and loving it. For others, it meant learning to rock climb, ballroom dance, write slam poetry, or do some other activity we never could have imagined ourselves doing before college. For many — myself included — the most uncomfortable and exciting moments of college came during our study abroad programs. During my sophomore year, a class I took on a whim sparked my interest in Russian and the politics of the post-Soviet space, and, before I knew it, I was boarding a plane to Latvia for a summer of research and Russian language classes. When I met my host family for the first time, I gave them my best smile and the greeting that I had practiced a hundred times on the plane, and my stomach immediately sank: with that, I had exhausted nearly all of my Russian. The first week was tough: It ended with me getting hopelessly lost in the rain on my way to church on Sunday and wondering what I had gotten myself into. I had never felt so unintelligent, so out of my element, so ridiculous as I did just then. “I am no better than a toddler!” I thought to myself. “I can barely say anything!” Somehow, I made it to the church, and, as I sat there holding back tears, something within me changed. I said to myself: “Well, if I’m a toddler, I am going to own it! I will be silly, I will make mistakes, and I will enjoy the process of learning something completely new from square one.” We have all had experiences that put wonder back into learning for us: moments when we put our inhibitions and our pride aside and faced a challenge with the bright-eyed excitement of children. We have learned to embrace moments of discomfort because they are often the moments of greatest opportunity. And, somewhere along the way, as we stretched our comfort zones and pushed our limits, we learned Lesson #2…
We have learned what we believe in and what we are willing to fight for. The founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau, once wrote of the Congregation’s philosophy of education: “the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.” This has certainly been true of our time at Notre Dame. Here, all of us — regardless of our backgrounds — have been challenged to consider what we have learned in our classes in light of our values. We have not simply studied education policy. We have asked whether certain policies and systems help all students to receive the quality education they deserve. Our study of climate change has not been limited to facts and figures about carbon emissions or the science behind the greenhouse effect; we have also considered our moral responsibilities to the Earth and to future generations. Classes on epidemiology and health have taught us more than how diseases spread and how health care systems operate; they have also taught us about the links between illness and poverty. During our time at Notre Dame, we have dived into the exploration of social justice issues with open minds and hearts. We have gone on Urban Plunge trips through the Center for Social Concerns to learn about the reality of poverty in our own hometowns — cities we thought we knew and understood — and we have applied for research grants to travel abroad to gain deeper insights into the challenges of development. But we have not contented ourselves merely with learning about injustices and considering how they relate to our beliefs and values. Rather, we each have striven to answer Fr. Hesburgh’s call to “[b]e the kind of person who not only understands the injustices of this life, but is also willing to do something about them.” Our concern for justice in education has inspired us to serve as tutors in the Robinson Community Learning Center and to embark upon careers as teachers in under-resourced schools. Our commitment to the environment has spurred us on to lead campaigns to reduce food waste in the dining hall and to take on “green” engineering projects. Our indignation that many people do not have access to high-quality basic medical care has inspired us to volunteer in neighborhood clinics and to enroll in medical school. Whether we studied business or biology, engineering or English, architecture or Arabic, we have learned to put our education to the service of others: We have learned to fight for something.
Lesson #3: We have learned to take care of ourselves and to pick ourselves up when we fall. Perhaps, after the last point about fighting for our beliefs and readying ourselves to take on injustice in the world, this point seems a bit trivial. But I sincerely believe that this is one of the most important and difficult lessons that we have learned at Notre Dame. As beautiful as these four years have been, there are parts of our time here that have been brutally difficult and disappointing. There are times when all of us were knocked down — knocked down hard — and had to learn to pick ourselves back up and “get our swagger back.” I would venture to say that, when we came here as freshmen, we had very limited experience with failure. We were among the top students in our high school classes; we were the captains of sports teams, the presidents of clubs, debate and Science Olympiad champions … in sum: model students in nearly every aspect. For many of us, coming to Notre Dame was a rude awakening. We put ourselves through the wringer — studying till unheard-of hours of the night for tests, preparing for auditions and try-outs, applying for internships and summer programs — and we failed. We bombed a big exam for the first time in our lives, got cut from a team, and had some job applications rejected — and it felt awful. For some of us, what knocked us down was not an experience of failure, but something completely outside of our control that made us feel defeated. Some of us, like me, have bravely battled anxiety, or depression, or other challenges in order to make it to this stage today. We have all had tough experiences that taught us that college is about much more than building great resumes or even discovering our passions. It is also about learning to love and to care for ourselves — even when we do not feel very lovable, smart, or special — and to pick ourselves up and to drive on through difficulties.
How exactly did we learn to do this? What helped us to learn to treat ourselves with love, especially in times of struggle, and to pick ourselves up when we fall? For some of us, it was the beautiful faith life we shared here at Notre Dame. Some of us found renewed strength, confidence, and peace amid the flickering lights of the Grotto, on a retreat with our peers, or at our dorm Masses. For many students, it was the great sense of community we found here at Notre Dame: the experience of “the Notre Dame family.” We opened ourselves to the guidance and mentorship of our rectors and hall staff and built friendships here that have sustained and supported us through the trials and tribulations of college. For others among us, it was throwing ourselves into the service of others. Sometimes, we found comfort and strength in knowing that — no matter how messy other parts of our lives seemed — we could still put a smile on the face of the child we tutored. We are much stronger now than we were when we came here.
So, in the end, what are our Notre Dame diplomas worth? The truth is that it is hard to give that question a straight answer. It is hard, first of all, because it is impossible to quantify all that we have gained from these four years and, second of all, because our diplomas represent investments that have not yet come to term. Our diplomas are a promise to our families, our friends, our professors, and ourselves that we will use what we have learned here to do great things and to pay back, many times over, all that has been invested in our education and growth. I know that we will follow through on this promise. We will embrace the uncomfortable, we will fight for what we believe in and value, we will take care of ourselves and persevere through whatever challenges come our way, and we will make our Notre Dame diplomas count in ways greater than we can imagine. So congratulations, Class of 2016! We have a lot to look forward to.