Brady Stiller: 2020 Valedictory Address

Author: Notre Dame News

Mr. Crowley, Fr. Jenkins, Dr. Burish, faculty and staff and friends—Welcome to the commencement ceremony of the Class of 2020!

And finally to my fellow graduates, here we are, after 4 years and 2 more, we finally made it! This weekend has been made possible through the efforts of many—Fr. Jenkins, university administration, university staff, & members of our class on the advisory committee—we thank you.

My focus today is on a most intriguing story—a unique, unrepeatable story that will go down in Notre Dame history—the story of the Class of 2020. We can pick up that story from where we left off. The date—March eleventh, the year twenty-twenty. We received a very memorable email from the president of our university. It stated—“Dear Members of the Notre Dame Community, . . . Beginning Monday, March 23rd . . .,  all in-person classes will be suspended, to be replaced with virtual instruction. . . As spring break concludes, students are strongly encouraged to stay or return home rather than return to campus.”  We all can remember where we were upon receiving these memorable words. We were disbanded almost unknowingly, sent off without much choice to return to campus and without closure, many of us to face some of the most difficult times of our lives with our undergraduate years on Notre Dame’s campus behind us.

Those months were some of the strangest of our lives. After celebrating a virtual commencement ceremony, many of us started our careers or enrolled in a graduate program, not in person as we would have expected, but in a remote setting. But even in the midst of these strange times, these past two years have also been marked by some of the most exciting and accomplished moments. Some of us have launched a promising career applying years of schooling and internship experiences, some of us have gotten married and perhaps have already brought a new Notre Dame football fan into the world, some of us may have gone to areas of need in the world to offer our gifts and presence to fellow humanity, others of us may have completed a master’s program and have graduated before we have graduated!

But if we go back to the beginning of our Class’s story, we might start off with Welcome Weekend. Six years ago as freshmen, you may recall how we left our communities back home to become initiated into a new community through strange Welcome Weekend rituals. We saw the world open before us as we joined new clubs and took classes that inspired us. Our lives began to take on the sound of Mr. Brightside, Canticle of the Turning, and “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame.” During our sophomore year, we commemorated the 175th anniversary of our university as many from the Notre Dame community hiked the trail from Vincennes, Indiana to Notre Dame. We saw the completion of Notre Dame’s “largest building initiative,” the Campus Crossroads project, which would make available a brand-new student center, classrooms, and office spaces to facilitate student life. As juniors, we witnessed one of the best football seasons in Notre Dame history—an undefeated 12 and 0 regular season. Despite the hot football winning streak, our campus cooled down in January. We experienced the environmental phenomenon that we called “the polar vortex,” with temperatures reaching 40 below zero with wind chill, the coldest day on campus since 1943. Still in good spirits, our class celebrated with family and friends at Junior Parents Weekend. Finally as seniors, we became leaders and role models for the underclassmen as RAs and club presidents. We cherished the privileges of being Notre Dame seniors, especially throwing marshmallows at our last home football game and wearing that pair sticky pair of shoes for the last time ever. Of course, the final months of our senior year were marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring us to continue our education through virtual learning away from our beloved campus.

These troubled times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have evoked again and again for me,, deep memories of my home city, New Orleans. The story of New Orleans is one of both celebration and suffering. Mardi Gras unites the city as rich and poor alike pour out onto the streets for festivity and parades. However, New Orleans is also a city whose memory is full of suffering and loss. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, sparing the homes and livelihoods of only a lucky few. My family’s home was among the nearly million houses damaged, having been flooded by 5 feet of water. I still remember the night my family evacuated. We packed a few bags with clothes to last a week or two, and we piled into one car, thinking we would be returning in a few days. But when we were watching the live footage and updates on TV, and seeing the helicopter footage showing water gushing over the broken levees, the city and neighborhoods turning into a lake, and local residents standing on their roofs waving to be rescued, we knew we would not be returning. It took many years for my family to process the loss of nearly everything we owned in a matter of days. But even in the midst of great loss, the city of New Orleans arose stronger and more united, restored from the help poured in from all over the country, and with more courage to fight for what matters most and for those most in need.

My experience of Hurricane Katrina, as well as our class’s experience of being sent home during our senior year, reminds me greatly of Notre Dame’s story. Like our stories, Notre Dame’s story, beginning in 1842, is one of hope. We remember the account of Fr. Sorin looking out on the snow-covered campus with the only building being the log chapel. Fr. Sorin wrote these familiar words in a letter back to France in 1842: “This college cannot fail to succeed. Before long, it will develop on a large scale. It will be one of the most powerful means for good in this country.” In the next few decades, the young university would welcome students and gain new buildings, until the Great Fire of Notre Dame in 1879. Nearly all of campus burned down, leaving the students without classrooms, dorm rooms, a dining hall, and a library. It seemed that Fr. Sorin’s prophetic letter about the success of this university would be all for nothing. Even if a few buildings remained, grief would settle in as Fr. Corby – then president of the university – sent the students home until the fall semester. Certainly, seniors were in that number, sent home in April of their senior year with their campus in ashes. But the story of Notre Dame does not end here, for Notre Dame was founded on hope. Four days after the fire, Fr. Sorin, as if recalling his first feelings of hope when arriving to the future place of this university, boldly proclaimed, “If it were all gone, I should not give up. . . Tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.”  Working 16 hours a day, laborers got their hands dirty, forming millions of yellow bricks from the mud of the lakes. They rebuilt all that had been lost, just in time for classes to resume in the fall.

I think Fr. Jenkins was right when he connected the Class of 2020 to the Class of 1879. On one level, these two graduating classes will forever be associated with a major crisis in Notre Dame’s history. The years 1879 and 2020 will from here on evoke the memories of a destructive fire and a pandemic. But we share something more than a tragedy with the Class of 1879. We share their legacy of hope. We, Class of 2020, have found ourselves in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Up to now, the embers have been hot. The bricks are still cooling. The grips of grief may still be around us. But—our class has inherited a legacy of hope. The story of Notre Dame has its roots deep in the Congregation of Holy Cross, which has had a spirituality of hope from the beginning. Fr. Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, encouraged his fellow priests and brothers with these words: “But we do not grieve as [people] without hope . . . For there is no failure the Lord’s love cannot reverse . . . All is swallowed up in victory.”

Times of crisis evoke incredible opportunity. Over the past two years, we have been faced by countless temptations to shrink from danger, to give up on our dreams, and to lose hope for our world in the face of conflict. But the best stories are those in which a great conflict arises, seemingly impossible to overcome, yet heroes rise up in the midst of danger at the opportunity. This has been the story of the Church—the great saints rise up in times of crisis. This has been the story of America—local and national leaders have rallied the American people in times of famine, war, and illness. This has been the story of Notre Dame—from Fr. Sorin rebuilding the campus from ashes, to Notre Dame alumni who, as we speak, are responding to our world in need.

Today, Class of 2020, we celebrate the great honor and privilege that it is to be graduates of the University of Notre Dame, joining the many thousands of alumni who are fighting for what matters most and for those most in need. Everything that we have gained in our four undergraduate years—knowledge, friendships, memories, skills, developed talents—no crisis can take away. The only way that a crisis can take away what we have gained is by our own dismissal of the opportunity before us. From here on, we have the privilege to fulfill the mission of our Notre Dame education, “bear[ing] fruit as [our] learning becomes service to justice.” There is nothing that our education has not prepared us for.

When the world sees our class in the years ahead and recognizes the character and spirit of the University of Notre Dame made manifest in our example, let them say, “Now that’s the Fighting Irish.”