Delivered at Notre Dame’s 169th University Commencement Ceremony, held May 18, 2014, in Notre Dame Stadium
Mark Santrach, 2014 valedictorian
Rev. Hammond, Father Jenkins, distinguished faculty and guests, beloved family and friends, and fellow graduates, we gather today to lay a cornerstone. As the first stone laid upon the foundations, a cornerstone both commemorates a building’s establishment and orients and projects future construction. We do the same today. We celebrate both the culmination of our academic achievements and the commencement of our futures. After an incredible journey, we find ourselves at the crossroads of extraordinary talent and unbounded opportunity. Today is the first of many days that we will recall our time at Notre Dame with the nostalgia of alumni. It’s also the first day we accept the responsibilities and expectations that come with that honor. Commencement is a time for acknowledging this transition, to recall the foundations we’ve built here at Notre Dame and to envision the auspicious futures they promise.
Before receiving the invitation to present the valedictory, the only thing on my mind regarding graduation was what I’d be wearing on my head. As you can see, my peers in the School of Architecture have marched an impressive assortment of buildings into the stadium today; there’s even a functional lighthouse! These “crowning” achievements serve as a reminder that traditions are the foundation of our experience here at Notre Dame, and those traditions begin with Freshman Orientation.
As we drove onto campus for the first time as students, the feeling in our stomachs reminded us that this wasn’t quite home yet. Recall the fear of meeting your randomly assigned roommate, and the magical moment you realized you might just become friends. Recall the hasty goodbyes to parents, and the sudden and surprising realization that you already miss them. Frosh-O united us in parodied pop songs; awkward, sweaty handshakes; late-night serenades; and, most memorably, Domerfest. As if our lives had been hitched to the mechanical bull in Stepan Center, we watched our worlds become a blur as we were thrown from our comfort zone. In the wake of the whirlwind, we met our best friends, joined six too many clubs and discovered which toppings we liked best on our unlimited supply of fro-yo at the dining hall. We even found our favorite place to do our unlimited supply of homework.
In the first weeks of class, we were already immersed in our liberal arts education. Notre Dame’s academics, like our beloved football team, rival those of the top universities in the nation. Each of us came to Notre Dame with impressive academic records, yet each of us has been humbled by the intellectual intensity we have experienced here. In addition to requiring a broad understanding of course material, our professors challenged us to apply our knowledge in today’s environment. I still recall Father Groody’s freshman seminar class in which we learned about Catholic Social Teachings and then debated them in the context of U.S. immigration policy. Or this spring break when I worked with fellow architecture students to preserve a small Florida town by documenting local architecture for the Historical Association. The academic rigor may be what makes our diploma so valuable, but it’s our acquired curiosity to seek knowledge and apply it that makes our education truly worthwhile. Despite the late-night study sessions, the countless cups of coffee and a piggy-bank’s worth of quarter-dogs, the intellectual intensity actually inspires us to leave Notre Dame as scholars for life.
A few of our traditions are painful: We brave the cold on Siegfried’s Day of Man, run into a frozen lake in the Polar Bear Plunge, and take punches for Bengal and Baraka Bouts. I speak from experience when I say it really hurts to take a left-right combo to the gut. My boxing opponent also graduates today; and I just wanted to say thanks for taking it easy on the head, Dan! The punches may hurt, but that pain is temporary, and we endure it because we’re a part of something greater than ourselves. On the Day of Man, we defy the cold so that the homeless of South Bend can have a warmer winter. In the Plunge, we bear the icy waters to raise money for education efforts in Nepal. We stand the pain because we are the Fighting Irish. So much of what we do at Notre Dame is for a purpose larger than ourselves, whether that be our friends, our community or a stranger on the other side of the world. This theme of selflessness is intrinsic to our Catholic identity.
The spiritual foundation at Notre Dame is unparalleled by any other university. It takes just one evening visit to the Grotto to realize there’s something special about the way it glows at night, the silhouette of a stranger kneeling in reverence, and the heat on your cheeks from a thousand petitions radiating into the night sky. The Catholic tradition binds us and guides us, but most importantly, it inspires us to action. We learn that practicing our faith means serving others. Our ministry takes us all around the world from Appalachia to Africa, and teaches us humility, gratitude and the power of love.
These traditions make us strong; intellectually strong, physically strong and spiritually strong. As we reminisce about our traditions, we realize how strongly they have molded and transformed us from high school seniors into young professionals and lifelong scholars. We acknowledge the beginning of this transformation when we started to call Notre Dame our home. We recognize how our treasured traditions unite us as one student body. In this stadium, we stood after every football game arm in arm to sing the Alma Mater, and we have one final opportunity to do that together on this special day, which brings me to the present.
Today we set our experience at Notre Dame as our cornerstone. These golden years will be the rock upon which we build our lives, our careers and our families. Our trajectory is established by what we have accomplished here and the ideals that have been instilled within us. So, I ask you this question: “What will we build?”
In imagining the future and all its possibilities, I look to my own graduation cap. I chose to model a dome that inspires me nearly as much as our own Golden Dome: Brunelleschi’s dome of the Florence Cathedral. I cherish this structure for its embodiment of extraordinary imagination, ingenuity and no small amount of faith. Completed in 1436, it remains the world’s largest masonry dome to this day and is twice as tall as our Golden Dome. What’s most impressive about this structure, however, is not the scale; it’s the audacity of the architects to plan for a dome that, given the technology of the time, was impossible to construct. After nearly a hundred years of building, all the walls of the cathedral had been erected, but the building stood incomplete without its dome. To find a solution, a competition was held that challenged some of the greatest minds of the Italian Renaissance. Brunelleschi’s winning entry employed ingenious and unprecedented engineering strategies, and within 20 years, the cathedral was crowned and completed. With Brunelleschi’s imagination, the impossible became possible. I mention this story for one reason: The magnificence of this cathedral is due to the architects, builders and engineers who dared to defy the so-called “impossible.” Every collaborator ventured to propose something that was beyond what was expected. The design transcended the bricks and mortar of the structure and came to represent the pinnacle of human achievement at the time. This same spirit is modeled by our forefathers at the university.
Notre Dame was founded by a champion of the impossible: Father Sorin. With an unhindered vision, Father Sorin built this great university in remote northern Indiana. In 1879, just as he was seeing his dream become a reality, a fire consumed the Main Building, essentially the entire university at the time. To the Holy Cross community, he said, “I came here as a young man and dreamed of building a great university in honor of Our Lady … But I built it too small, and she had to burn it to the ground to make the point. So tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.” With fire-hardened bricks cooling beside the kilns, Father Sorin promised that the University would be ready for classes in the fall, and in just one summer, he saw that the entire university was reconstructed.
In our time here, we have come to embrace Father Sorin’s indomitable will. It’s our blessing and burden to carry this dauntless will with us, and impart it upon those we love and serve. When we exit this stadium today, we cross the threshold between student and alumnus — between academia and the so-called “real world.” Our challenge as we leave Notre Dame is to maintain that spirit: to never be satisfied with the status quo, to fear a life of mediocrity more than to fear failure, and to fulfill Father Sorin’s dream that Notre Dame would become “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.”
This year, we’ve witnessed a number of women at Notre Dame model our challenge to champion the impossible. With the Forum on Women in Leadership, we need look no further than our own university for contemporary precedent. These incredible individuals are laying new cornerstones from which we all can build. Jacqueline Novogratz, this year’s Notre Dame Award laureate, left a successful career on Wall Street to start her international nonprofit fund, Acumen. Ms. Novogratz redefines charity by investing in leaders and companies that dare to serve the poor in empowering and dignifying ways. Even closer to home, Notre Dame biologists Dr. Nicole Achee, and Dr. Neil Lobo, received a $23 million grant to fight mosquito-borne diseases. As leaders of the second largest research grant in Notre Dame’s history, they fight to save lives through the development of revolutionary spatial repellants. Gen. Ann Dunwoody, a distinguished panelist in the forum, commanded nearly 70,000 individuals in 145 countries. She made history when she became the first woman in the U.S. military to achieve the rank of four-star general. These women not only dreamed big, they accomplished big. They had the audacity to apply the ideals they graduated with to the real world, and possessed the dauntless will to see these ideals inspire tangible differences. As these incredible women impart their indelible legacy on humankind, they become our teachers and role models. Yet we will face new challenges in an ever-changing world.
We must ask, “What will a champion of the impossible look like for our generation?” The spirit of the times is ours to change. The codes are ours to write. The mysteries of the human body are ours to discover and the most remote corners of the universe are ours to explore. As we look to our future, we must realize it’s time to channel our inner Father Sorin, our inner Brunelleschi, Novogratz, Achee and Dunwoody. My friends and classmates, look within yourselves: Which of you will dare to engineer a dome of unprecedented scale? Which of you will solve the puzzle of Alzheimer’s disease or harness gene therapy to cure cancer? Which of you will bring peace to warring nations? And which of you will conquer social injustice by empowering the vulnerable?
Class of 2014: The cornerstone has been laid; in the words of Father Sorin, “Tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will build bigger and better than ever." Thank you.