2004 Commencement: Valedictory

Author: Sarah Streicher


Justice Alan C. Page, Father Malloy, distinguished guests, faculty, family, friends and my fellow members of the class of 2004:p. If youre anything like me, youve been very anxious lately. When I think for too long about things to come, Im struck by this desire to do something rash in order to stop this whole experience from ending. Like stockpiling ramen noodles, bribing a freshman to slip the daily Observer under my door, and then barricading myself in a cinderblock dorm roomsuch is the Fantasy of the Eternal Undergrad that I entertain during my most angst-ridden hours.p. Im having some trouble explaining such intense worryIve gone through the graduation rite once before. But after some thought, I can only attribute this heightened anxiety to the lack of an informational pamphlet. Upon finishing high school, we were lucky enough to get this kind of debriefing. Our would-be university wanted to let us in on all that would happen during the next four years; so they answered the classic FAQs, asked a few alumni to provide testimonials, shot some full-color photos, and bound up the entire abstract in a neat, little navy-blue booklet with the wordsNowhere else but Notre Dameprinted in gold on the cover.p. Had things transpired entirely according to the blue booklet, we would be gazing fondly at our degrees, sighingWhat I truly cherished about my four years was that impressive faculty-to-student ratio.But this is not the caseno pamphlet could have predicted our own testimonials, which are fingerprint unique, incredibly honest, and fraught with so much emotion that we wouldnt ever be able to get them down on paper for all the laughing and crying. And our favorite snapshots have nothing to do with sunsets over the lake or the façade of the main building; theyre of us, together, and its bittersweet to look at them because they leave us wondering if well ever again smile so naturally, if well ever again be in such good company. But even if the blue booklet couldnt anticipate the magic particulars of our college experience, the five golden words on its cover managed to answer the most vital of our FAQS, the kind that we posed only to God and ourselveswhere in the world do I start? Where will I feel most complete? Where can I expect the extraordinary to happen? Nowhere else but Notre Dame.p. Im still waiting, but it looks like the real world isnt going to send out any sort of informative brochure. Even more alarming is that the entire interrogative mood seems to have been turned against uswe used to be the ones with all of the questions, but now were constantly getting grilled about where were going and what were going to do. The trouble is that weve still got a lengthy list of our own FAQs, the most pressing of which is simplyWhat is it truly like out there?Unfortunately, its becoming increasingly difficult to figure out the answer to this question on ones own. Though it has never been seamlessly defined,realityis being misrepresented more often and more drastically than ever.Distortion of realityis a charge that were drawing against the media, politicians, and even government agencies.p. Though definitely on the lighter side of this issue, one of the most salient examples of all this fact-fudging is reality television, Americas new pop-culture addiction. For the first time in history, weve all been granted a greater exposure to the real diversity of mankind, and weve got reality TV to thank for it. Cast members of every race, culture, and sexual orientation have been sharing their stories with all generations of Americans. The problem is that this new order of small-screen entertainment is misleading, masquerading as a vision of contemporary reality. I know Im young and inexperienced, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that my typical day in the real world will not be marred by crazed, mudslinging roommates, nor will I wake up worrying that I might get kicked out of my house unless I out-sing, out-run, or out-eat someone with an unusual first name.p. What does concern me about reality TV is its portrayal of the individuals involved.These are real people, and the network executives present them to us as such. But its clear that these personae have been doctored. Their imperfections of character have been either grossly exaggerated or cropped away. Even worse, theyve let the producers define them in the narrowest of terms. They bring their namesCoral, Simon, Abeand they are given rolesthe angry one, the gay one, the crazy one. A single adjective issued for each identity. This, then, is the reality theyre proposing, that life will eventually lace you into your very own selfhood-straightjacket, limiting your character to a singleness of purpose.p. However, we cant criticize reality television for pigeonholing people into such simplistically defined identities when this is symptomatic of an actual trend. Think about itwe do feel much more comfortable growing narrow than growing out. Allowing oneself to spread forth, like a civilization covering more and more territory, is an extremely scary prospect. We dont necessarily want to see our boundaries or makeup change, so we choose simplicity over complexity of character in exchange for peace of mind.This inclination is undoubtedly related to our obsession with security, whether it be the financial, social, or homeland kind. And we are no less worried about security of identity. To that end, we ask ourselvesWhom is it safe to be,we opt for one of the accepted, uncomplicated alternatives, and begin cutting down on our secondary interests accordingly. We want to know how to appropriately respond when interviewers demand that we describe ourselves in one word. We want to be introduced to others quickly and easily, with the graceful flourish of a hostess who knows to say,This is Sarah, shes a writer.We want to walk around knowing that somewhere, on some desk, theres a stack of business cards with our name on it, bearing witness to our pursuit of a distinct, specialized existence.p. Since the undergraduate experience is characterized by such an overwhelming scope of interests, causes, and endeavors, this narrowness of identity seems foreign to us. Sure, we chose majors, minors, and concentrations, but by devoting ourselves to scores of different activities, we prevented those terms from encapsulating us. I mean, how many times were you told,Youve got a lot on your plate,Youre overcommitting yourself,orYoure really stretching yourself out.And perhaps we wereweve dedicated our time to friends, projects, and service. Weve left a little bit of ourselves in stadiums, lectures halls, meeting rooms, and theatersin all the different haunts that, put together, make up a unified vision of home and self. Though fatiguing at times, stretching ourselves to such a great breadth never felt so good.p. Ive resolved not to end this address without sounding the traditional valedictory cry, so let this be said: go boldly forth, and make the real world a better place. However, I feel less confident about telling you how to make that impact. If the real world ever did issue a handbook, thats the kind of information it would provide. Granted, it would be a lot less precise than Notre Dames; there would be no club listings, course descriptions, or suggestions on how to get involved; only big, gray boxes and pages filled with question marks. But if I had to guess at the golden words on its cover, Id bet they read something like this: come what will, do not let the uncertainty stop you from pursuing all of the many undertakings to which you feel called. If we were to stop doing so, the tensions that once pulled our character so big would slacken, and we might just snap back to something narrow and diminutive. We will be given titlesinvestment banker, chemical engineer, freelance journalistbut these should be mere points of departure. School may be over, but involvement need not end simply because the sign-up sheets are harder to find and the termextracurricularno longer applies; we can still get that intensely alive, uniquely college sensation by living big on an extra professional level.p. In short, we must vow not to let graduation be the end our formative years. If we make that promise to ourselves, when we contact each other years from now to exchange our life stories, these will be real, rich, and multi-dimensional. They will defy classification by genre. Some will be written from abroad, from foreign keyboards, but the typos and strange characters will only make them more fascinating. Others will be told in installments, since we will be rushing off to do remarkable things. Still others might be printed and published. But the simplest way to describe our life stories is just to say that they, like us, will be devastatingly interesting.

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