Kristen Friday: 2023 Valedictory Address

Author: Sue Lister

Fellow graduates, friends, family, and esteemed guests, welcome to the University of Notre Dame Class of 2023 commencement ceremony. It is an honor and privilege to be given the opportunity to share a few words with you and reminisce, for a moment, on our time as undergraduates. 

The months leading up to graduation have been a time of great nostalgia and reflection. While we have all grown in our knowledge and understanding since arriving at Notre Dame, there was a time in my life when I did not always have a strong voice. As a kid, I struggled to pronounce the letter “R”, which posed an issue for someone named, “K-R-isten F-R-iday.” By the time I reached first grade, I was told to attend speech therapy. Once a week, I was singled out of regular classes and asked to read silly paragraphs aloud that were meaningless in content, but somehow important in improving my impediment. Initially, I was not phased at having to take this extra class. A few other students were in the same position, and I figured it was a normal growing pain some kids had to go through, similar to getting braces or learning long division for the first time. But then I noticed other students graduating in one, two, three years’ time, yet I remained.

I personally thought that I was making progress. However, this opinion was not affirmed externally. By the time I reached fifth grade, I had marginally improved. I was beginning to get to that point in my life of critical brain development, where my mind and personality were maturing at a rate a thousand times faster than my speech. Consequently, I was enrolled in an additional speech class outside of school. Despite attending multiple sessions a week, both in school and in my own personal time, I reached middle school to no avail. At this point, it was no longer a frustration, but an embarrassment. Every other student had graduated therapy classes, and I was the sole one left, struggling to annunciate the name of my homeroom teacher. The following year, my friends joked with me for mispronouncing a word as “fer-mur” in a presentation I delivered, of course not knowing how it affected me at the time. Eventually that year, I was told my speech was sufficient to leave the program. The announcement came with an overwhelming sense of joy, but also a deep sense of reservation: “Was that ALL I needed? Other peoples’ assurance that I was good enough?” I kept practicing public speaking in high school, pushed myself to the limits as we all did, and applied to Notre Dame. Much to my disappointment, I was initially deferred. With swollen eyes and deferral letter in hand, I immediately went back to questions of “Am I really good enough? Do outcomes define me? Am I going to let others decide my worth?”

Speech was just one flaw in my personal experience, but I wonder how many others have felt downtrodden by their imperfections? Having all eventually been accepted into Notre Dame, every one of us was challenged with living up to the expectations associated with entering a seemingly perfect environment where high school graduation speakers, captains of varsity sports teams, and leads in the musical became average. We were thrust into a whole new environment of intense academic stimulation, devoted to pursuing our every intellectual curiosity. We were challenged to take classes for the sake of learning. We were encouraged not just to do assignments for the sake of completion, but rather for the pursuit of general knowledge and free inquiry. It was also an essential time of self-reflection, asking us to decide how our external environments were going to affect us and how we were going to influence the world. One such classmate sitting before me truly embodies this experience. Electrical Engineering student John Sexton was personally affected by his dad’s diagnosis with ALS. Rather than accepting his dad’s limitations, John and his family took it upon themselves to develop a wheelchair controlled by eye movements, voice commands, and other features. John’s idea has since transformed into the startup named “LifeDrive” that will continue to empower those who have lost mobility in their power wheelchairs. John, and the rest of the Class of 2023, have been called to stand for the dedication, passion, and truth behind the Notre Dame mission which aims “to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit with learning becomes service to justice.” Our education posed the opportunity for us to decide how we would look to define ourselves and how to present our skills to the world. And we did not take it for granted.

For many of us, we defined ourselves with a global experience abroad, summers of service, or internships. One of our classmates, Christian McKernan, recognized the adversity his Ukrainian identity and community faced as a result of armed conflict and used his time as an undergraduate to provide support in Poland, aiding hundreds of thousands of refugees as they were displaced from their homes. Another such classmate, Quinton Hayre, was compelled by countries’ lack of access to clean water in the developing world and ventured to a remote village in Fiji to research reliable sources of filtration. And many more engaged in real-life applications of learning ranging from co-ops with Tesla to internships with the British Parliament. But whether that was the case for you or not, I believe it was an instrumental time of new perspective for all of us. These monumental experiences, while pivotal moments in our lives that we will look back on fondly, did not come without risks or uncertainty. It was, perhaps, the first time we lived on our own or fended for ourselves as adults. Maybe it was the first time we were pushed beyond the scope of our perceived limitations, thus raising the bar for our maximum potential. We navigated new cities, language barriers, and unique cultural customs, all without many of the familiarities we have been accustomed to. In taking those risks and venturing into the unknown, we gained a sense of adventure and global perspective that has led to a more expansive view of the world.

That being said, I am confident that not one of us took this journey alone. We, as Notre Dame students, have been encouraged by our peers, professors, mentors, family, and friends to be the best versions of ourselves. I witnessed fellow students going above and beyond to help one another, fostering an environment of collaboration over competition, and risking their own time and personal standing for others. The university, itself, aided our journey in recognizing the importance of an in-person community in the learning process, risking repercussions in the public eye, and furthering our understanding of what it means to be an academic with strong character. Few of us will remember the minute details of research papers or lab reports and assignments that warranted a Friday night in. Rather, what we will think back on is who we spent that time with and the attitude we carried as we sought out deeper relationships with our peers. Grounded by collaboration and compassion for others, we as a collective student body not only grew as resilient individuals, but also as members of a community much greater than ourselves. Notre Dame students epitomize the intersection of intellect and empathy, but not without risks.

Though Notre Dame provided the resources and support to get us anywhere we wanted to go, it was ultimately up to us to decide what that direction would point to. To put it bluntly: NOTRE DAME. WAS. DIFFICULT. But our experience prepared us to understand that LIFE. IS. DIFFICULT, and that accomplishing anything of value requires hard work. It is easy to look in hindsight and brush aside the challenges we faced, now knowing the outcome that we all indeed were able to make it to graduation. But dismissing the many long nights clocked studying for exams or the hours spent meticulously editing papers would be an injustice to the exponential growth and transformation we all endured. Some of us faced difficulties discerning which major to pursue. Some of us struggled to balance the time of a full Notre Dame course load on top of maintaining personal relationships, on top of interviewing for dozens of internships. Some of us may have even put in those hours of studying, contemplation, or job preparation, only to fall short or be rejected again and again. In the end though, it was those growing pains and times of frustration that served as catalysts for development. They taught us how to be inquisitive and seek help as well as how to humble ourselves in the face of abstract and unknown problems. Those risks to invest time and fall short or to work through personal difficulties is what drives us as students towards the highest level of academic excellence and towards critical formation of character.

Now looking back on how we have grown from our wide-eyed freshman selves, we realize how our limitations have stimulated our transformation and have develop our expertise in a multitude of ways. Having made it through four years of strenuous coursework, we are expected to be masters in our field of study. As teaching assistants, project leaders, and future professionals, we are now the ones fielding questions from the inquiring freshman that we once were. Owning our expertise is precisely the risk we carry forward for the rest of our lives and one that we must embrace head on. Even though we are young forces in the world, we have powerful voices and strong opinions that can help others in ways we may never imagine. While we certainly will still have questions going forward as lifelong learners, we should feel confident as Notre Dame graduates that we have grown to become self-assured, independent thinkers with a high degree of emotional intelligence, even with our weaknesses.

Will we stumble more in the future? Most certainly. But our setbacks do not define us as people. I have come to realize that we all have our letter “R”, that is to say, aspects of ourselves that are imperfect. We all wonder if we are good enough. We all wonder, and possibly fear, how others will perceive us. We all come from challenges, obstacles, disadvantages, and hardships in our own way. But what are the benefits of those risks? We, as the Class of 2023, are boldly moving on to become titans of industry with companies such as NASA, Microsoft, Boeing, and Goldman Sachs. Others as mavericks of art and architecture. A select group of devoted men and women as officers of the United States Military. Servants selflessly devoting a year of their lives to volunteer in the Peace Corp or teach with the Alliance for Catholic Education. Future doctors, lawyers, and professional engineers moving on to the most prestigious graduate programs in the world. And I, myself, standing before you today in front of the largest audience of my life, humbled and honored to speak as a representative of this university.

So let me leave you with this. We have been challenged the past four years to broaden our perspectives within the confines of Notre Dame. Now, we are tasked for the rest of our lives with using our skills for the greater good. We have learned the importance of risking failure, of seeking truth, and of taking leaps of faith, all for the purpose of being mindful, strong-willed, and contributing members of society. Only when we keep pushing and trusting in who we really are can we instill change. Even if the world says we stutter, even if admissions does not get it right the first time, even if our jobs and surroundings punch us down, we each individually have infinite value and there is a unique gift in all of us. As we learn to risk showcasing our authentic personality, weaknesses and all, we become a powerful force for good in society. The world will be a better place with our whole selves in it.