Valedictory Address

by Enrique Schaerer

Prepared text of valedictory address :

Dr. Gregorian, Fr. Malloy, distinguished faculty and guests, cherished family and friends, fellow students:

A beloved American poet, Robert Frost has challenged us to be mindful of our neighbors. The question is, how do we live with one another? How do we build relationships of respect and trust? I want to talk about community and diversityabout the fences that isolate us and the bridges that bring us together.

In his poemMending Wall,Frost disputes his neighbors belief thatgood fences make good neighbors.He wonders,Why do they make good neighbors? … Before I build a wall Id ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.When a person builds a barrier, he not only walls himself in but also walls others out. He stops communication. He ends relationships. He undermines community.

Since the end of the Cold War, people have begun to tear down walls. They rolled back the Iron Curtain inEastern Europe. They demolished the Berlin Wall inGermany. They ended apartheid inSouth Africa. All around the world, people began to question the old wisdom:good fences make good neighbors.Instead of erecting new fences, people began to build bridges. Here in theUnited States, the Supreme Court ruled againstseparate but equal,as seen in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.Europeexpanded the European Union and introduced a single currency.China,Thailand, thePhilippinesand others formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Internet technologies fanned out across the globe, bringing together enthusiastic minds from far-off corners of the planet, literally with the stroke of a button.

If the wall was the symbol of division in the Cold War, the Internet has become the hallmark of integration into a new world orderperhaps the greatest bridge to community ever built. For me, it is a window to the outside world, always open to friends in distant placesBaybars in Turkey, Nacho in Spain, Michal in the Czech Republic, Francois in Belgium and Taka in Japan. … These bridges have made our world more interconnected than ever before in the history of humankind.

Notre Dame has helped me learn that we are part of something bigger than ourselves: We are members of many different communities. When explaining the importance of solidarity to the team, former Notre Dame head football coach Lou Holtz would hold up his open handpalm exposed, fingers spread apart. Individually, he would say to his players, you are like these five fingersisolated from one another, each pointing in separate directions. Not surprisingly, there is little strength there. Holtz would then curl his fingers into a ball. United, he would say, the fingers form a powerful fist, a force to be reckoned with. His point was simple: Divided, we are weak. United, we are solid. We are steady. We are strong. Time and time again, my professors in theCollegeofArtsand Letters would articulate this message. In the Mendoza College of Business, where professors praise the entrepreneurial spirit and emphasize individual initiative, there is also a general recognition of group power and social responsibility.

Despite the progress we have made in recent years, fences remain. Stereotypes linger. Divisions persist. We have seen it here at Notre Dame. Since our freshman year, we have heard complaints that Notre Dame is too homogeneous, not mixed enough to prepare its students for the increasing diversity of American society.

For many students, such concerns did not seem real. For me, things were different; I was different. The need for diversity was clear to me from the moment I stepped onto campus. Dressed in my public-school, cross-country sweatshirt and jeans, I watched as other students strolled out across the quad. They all seemed dressed in J. Crew. A Costco phone card tucked tightly into my back pocket, I was surprised to see so many students with cell phones in hand. Maybe thats when I first realized I was different. Or maybe it was when I began to meet some guys in my hallMatthew, James, Peter, Michael and Paul. Did they all have biblical names? Even my name was different.Enrique…huh, thats an ethnic name,someone pointed out. Perhaps he thought this was news to me. Another person joked,I didnt realize anyone lived inNevada.

But Im not entirely different from everybody else. Im Catholic and hardworking … on my good days! Almost all of us are fanatical about Irish football. Beyond that, the contrast is sometimes sharp. My parents are accomplished immigrants, my heritage ethnically eclectic and my upbringing not as privileged as some. Raised in mostly homogenous communities, some of my Notre Dame friends had little meaningful experience with diversity.There was this one Cuban-American guy that went to my high school,a classmate offered my freshman year. But my classmate never had to stick up for my childhood friend Marcus, slandered by some white kids on the playground just because he was black. He never had to comfort my friend Neil, forced to live with grandparents when his father was laid off. And he never had to restrain himself when some ignorant kid barked at him,Go back to your own country!

Fear. Distrust. Ignorance. These are the walls that stand in the way of diversity. Sometimes, perhaps unwittingly, we put our faith in fences rather than bridges. We get caught up thinking in terms ofusversusthem.The mainstream walls outthem,the minorities, while minorities wall outthem,the mainstream. These are no-win scenarios. They reinforce division and create tension. Most importantly, such fences deny the reality of our situation. Here, especially within the Notre Dame family, there is nothem.Theres justus.

Everyone is welcome. If we are to be a genuine and sincere community, we must look beyond the stereotypes that blind us. We need each other. We dont have a person to waste. Whether its racial, religious, ethnic or gender based, diversity has always been a tremendous source of strength. Diversity of thought is a vehicle of change. In this countrywhich we proudly call acountry of immigrantsdiversity has been a fountain of creativity and ingenuity, an engine of innovation and progress. It enhances our cultural wealth and adds to our collective strength. Just ask James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds . He says that including many different perspectives is crucial to the accuracy of any prediction. In most cases, heterogeneous groups perform better than homogenous groups. Diversity, he argues, is what makes the crowd wise.

At Notre Dame, diversity offers the same promise. The University first admitted women as undergraduates in 1972. Today, how could we imagine this place without our female classmates and peers? Though women and men may be different in some important respects, I disagree with Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who suggested that females and males have different mathematical and scientific capabilities. I believe our capabilities are similar. At the very least, co-education at Notre Dame has introduced new perspectives onto our campus, enriched the discussion in our classrooms and … made it easier to find a date to the dorm dances!

Now, the University must not shrink from its responsibility to embrace new forms of diversity. And as graduating seniors, we must not lose sight of the value of such diversity. Tolerance may not be enough. We tolerate pain. Pain ? At its best, diversity should be not painful but transformative, something we celebrate because it opens our minds and stimulates our community.

As a Notre Dame family, we need to question the supposed wisdom that divides us. Indeed, many of us have already begun to work for diversity. To attract talented minority applicants, the Office of Admissions with support from the University administration hosts a Spring Visitation Weekend. Asian Allure, Blak Images and Latin Expressions have become campus-wide events. Our student government took up the cause of community and diversity in a recent Board of Trustees report entitled,Issues of Equality: Creating a Welcoming Environment for All.This is what the Notre Dame family ought to be more about.

Once we welcome a diverse community, we see that labels likeminorityormainstream,likedisadvantagedorprivileged,dont matter. We are who we choose to be. We are the people we have being waiting for. I challenge us all to use our gifts to build bridges, not fences. As Robert Frost wrote,Something there is that doesnt love a wall.Let it be us. Let it be the Notre Dame graduating Class of 2005. Let it be the whole Notre Dame family. Let us be agents of change. Let us build bridges. Let us shape minds and move hearts. Let us embody the responsibility a Notre Dame degree confers.

As graduates of this prestigious University, we must answer to a higher calling. To us, a college education must be about personal growth, about learning from each other, about building bridges and about serving our neighbors. As César Chávez said,The end of all education should surely be service to others.Indeed, our education does not end here; our service has just begun. The work of community and diversity remains unfinished. We can wait no longer. Together, we can be the entrepreneurs, the architects, the engineers, the poets, the writers and the visionaries of a better tomorrow.

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