Catherine Distler, Valedictory Speech

Author: Catherine Distler


President McAleese, Father Jenkins, distinguished faculty and guests, family, friends, and fellow graduates:

Four years ago, we assembled in this auditorium for the freshmenMass.We were seated then as we are today with parents above and students below. And we were anxious then as we are now about saying goodbye and beginning again. Four years ago we said goodbye to the homes of our childhood and prepared to begin college. Today we say goodbye to the communities we have formed on our own and prepare to begin the rest of our lives. We came to college trying to figure out who we were and what we wanted to become. We leave college with answers to both. How does that happen and so quickly?

The four years we spent here, more than any four years before or after, have shaped us because college was a time when great moments of learningnot just about science or history but about ourselves and this worldoccurred at a rate we will wonder about later in life. We will remember frequent, lucid moments when we actually felt our identities flexing and forming inside of us.

College has been formative, but the formation of our identities did not happen because we spent four years reflecting in an empty room. It happened because we engaged with others and accumulated in vaults of personhood the wisdom and experiences others were willing to share. Particularly in the last months of college, I have realized that my education and my growth into who I have become has been largely, if not entirely, defined by seminal moments, conversations, and truths that I have shared and explored with others.

I can think of many examples: the conversations about politics, labor, immigration, abortion, and faith that happened just as often on quads as they did in classrooms; the professors who included documents like theLetter from Birmingham Jailor theUniversal Declaration of Human Rightsin their course packets; the nights, when faced with death or sickness that we did not understand, my friends and I bundled up in coats and each others arms and trampled through the snow to the Grotto, so that we could pray in a place where the concept of something bigger than ourselves made more sense; the moments in dorm rooms where, in the fallout of failures, successes, losses, and loves, my peers taught me lessons of loyalty, balance, and integrity that I will value for the rest of my life; and the lunch in South Dining Hall freshman year where a friend explained to me the argument his professor had presented that morning to his introductory philosophy classthat every person is responsible for caring for everyone else. I had never heard anything like it before and that lunch, although my friend never knew, changed me forever.

College has been formative, however, not only because we engaged with others but because it encouraged us to engage the world. Some of my most powerful lessons at Notre Dame occurred away from campus: spending time with the kids at theSouth BendCenterfor the Homeless, working with adults with Down Syndrome inCharlotte, teaching in an urban Catholic school inKansas City, traveling throughIndia, and volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity inCalcutta. The lessons I have learned from these experiences have been of a different kind than the ones at Notre Dame. They have been harder lessons, because the world I have witnessed through these experiences and the stories of otherssimilar experiences has been filled with realities that are uncomfortable and grimrealities that I have struggled to understand and that have tested my confidence in the persistence of justice and peace.

I have learned that abject poverty is everywhere. People on every continent sleep on damp soil and under leaky roofs and survive on less than a dollar a day. Malnutrition is implicated in one half of all young peoples deaths. Hundreds of thousands of people die every week from preventable, treatable diseases for lack of drugs that cost less than 20 cents a day. And in the midst of such poverty and disease, the world is becoming increasingly armed and extremist. Religious conflict has become so devastating that in August someone mistakenly yelledsuicide bomberduring a religious procession inIraq, and six hundred people died as they were trampled to the ground by their fellow celebrants trying to escape the threat. InUgandamore than 20,000 children leave their rural homes every night and walk as far as ten miles to the nearest town in order to avoid being abducted or killed during the night by the Lords Resistance Army, which has been waging a war on the Ugandan government for 18 years. The commuter children, as they are called, pack into classrooms, porches, and streets where they sleep for a few hours before rising to walk back to their homes in the morning, dragging behind them their blankets, exhaustion, and unextinguished fears.

The world is messed up. But engaging the world is formative not because it is easy but because it is difficult. Experience, if it is sincere, teaches us most often by knocking us down and demanding, that under the weight of it all, we find a way to stand up.

Brendan Kennelly, a great Irish poet often quoted by U2, has said,If you want to serve the age, betray it. 1 Father Jenkins echoed this sentiment for me in his inaugural address last fall when he said,If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world? 2 I will echo it again today. If we lack the courage to call the world out on its arrogance, injustice, and shortcomings…if we are not brave enough to point out how the world could be better, then the world will never change. But if we engage the world so as to learn its secrets and then betray a flawed today for the hope of a better tomorrow, our impact will have profound potential.

The world is messed up, but it is not fatalistic. Its problems are real, but they are not unsolvable. For the first time our generation is exploring technologies and ethics that will allow us to understand and reverse not only pandemics of infectious disease but also economic and political pandemics of poverty, debt, stratification, and oppression. The solutions we will be charged with formulating are unimagined in scope and rigorous in follow-through. They will demand new equations and resources, and they will require support from an unprecedented number of citizens who will have to pledge their livelihoods for the livelihoods of families and persons they do not know. And the world will be better.

In an article for Parade magazine, the Pulitzer-prize winning author Tracy Kidder wrote that the work a group of doctors was doing to reverse inequalities in health care was based on apragmatic and unsentimental idealism. 3 I highlighted the phrase and pinned the article to my bulletin board. What did it mean? Ordinary idealism isnt something people are claiming a lot these days, and there is an association, I think, between idealism and those who hold naïve and excitable expectations about what the world is and what the world can do. But pragmatic and unsentimental idealism could be a new kindunsentimental because its goals and its resolve to achieve them are neither inflated nor deflated by emotion and pragmatic because it puts forth solutions that are achievable. It refuses to esteem results without the means by which they are to be attained. And although it lauds compassion and action, it draws its strength not from noble ideals but from ordinary people. It believes people are reason enough to want to change this world for the better.

And this is where a Notre Dame education comes in. Although Notre Dame includes all the very best parts of a traditional university, it includes something else as well. Alongside lessons of politics, economics, mathematics, theology, and business, we have been taught social justice, taught to hold up people, their health, their security, and their sustainability as real measures of success and taught to admire policies that make it easier for people in this world and to learn in order to identify and influence policies that make it more difficult.

I have read the Universitys mission statement many times in the last four years, and this, by far, is my favorite line:In addition, the University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice. 4

With our education, we have been given power and with that power the ability to define discourse. And discourse, whether it does so justly or unjustly, defines what the world prioritizes, what the world takes on, and ultimately, what the world will become. As Notre Dame graduates, I challenge you to propagate justice with that power.

You will have power in your professions. When creating new political agenda, developing neighborhoods, making decisions about how health care will look in 15 years, or negotiating business deals, have the courage to consider those who will be negatively affected by your decisions. As military officers, lawyers, teachers, architects, politicians, engineers, and corporate leaders, we will encounter conflicts of all sorts of conscience. There will be an honor and special integrity for those who make a point to bring ethical alternatives to the table and who prioritize something more than the bottom line. Beware of dichotomies that make problems, as well as their solutions, appear too simple. Nothing in this world is easy.Everything is complex, and everything worthwhile takes work. Father Hesburgh is quoted as saying that decisions must be made not because they are easy, cheap, or popular but because they are right.

You will have power in your personal lives as well. As respected members of communities and families, you will encounter daily opportunities to change the world because change doesnt have to happen in the form of global campaigns to be significant or lasting. As parents we can teach our children to be kind, thoughtful, humble of their talents but strong in their convictions and sensitive to the struggles of others. As community members, we can participate in city councils, school organizations, parishes, and alumni clubs. We can support the good work of others, give back to Notre Dame, adopt families during the holidays, and donate our clothes instead of throwing them away.

At the end of the day and at the end of life, the goal is just to be able to say you left something meaningful behind. And whether you do that next year serving in underprivileged areas or with military service, whether you do it in ten years as parents, artists, activists, scholars or clergy, or in 40 years as grandparents and mentors, you will have changed the worldif just your piece of itfor the better.

In 1879, Notre Dame was fatefully burned to the ground. And the story goes that standing in its ashes, Father Sorin looked around and, stroking his white beard, declared that the school should be rebuilt better than it was before. We must do the same: leave this University prepared to engage the world sincerely and, when you find yourself discouraged and standing in the ashes of the realities of this world, declare without hesitation that you care and that you will with faith and courage rebuild the world so as to be better than it has ever been before.

There is a statue of Tom Dooley about 50 feet southwest of the Grotto. The statue is of him standing with two Laotian children, and under the statue is a letter he wrote to Father Hesburgh on an evening months before he died. It is about the greatness of a Notre Dame education. Tom Dooley was a Notre Dame graduate and a doctor who brought medicine and hospitals to the most rural parts ofSoutheast Asia. He was a man who went out into the world and changed the worldnot the whole world but his little piece. While many students have laid their hopes and prayers before the Grotto, I have laid mine before this slightly less common spot. As a young pre-professional, with my hands tracing the cool lines of the glass-covered letter and my mouth quietly reciting his words, I felt both comforted and empowered. I would like to conclude my speech the same way he concluded his letter to Father Hesburgh that evening:[I] wont take any more of your time. But I did just want to communicate for a moment and again offer my thanks to my beloved Notre Dame.

Thank you.

1 Kennelly, Brendan.The Book of Judas1991.Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.

2 Jenkins, Rev. John, C.S.C.Inaugural Address23 September 2005.<>

3 Kidder, Tracey.Because We Can, We Do3 April 2005.Parade Magazine.

4 UniversityofNotre Dame Mission Statement<>

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