May 17, 2009
Good morning trustees, President Gearan, administrators and faculty of the Colleges, and all my fellow classmates and their families and friends.
Identity. As a college student, there have been many key words that I’ve heard used in both academic and social settings but none seems to have as many possible meanings as this one. Despite the lack of clear definition, this concept has been a cornerstone of my studies. So how, after four years, would I define identity? I would like to answer this question by sharing with you some of the ways in which HWS has affected my identity. I share my personal experience with you, but in doing so I recount my own version of a story that could be told by each of you within the context of your own experience on this campus and in this city.
While those of you who know me now may not believe this, I was a very different person in high school. I was socially awkward, lacking in self-confidence, and maybe kind of weird … I could discuss the finer points of my coin and stamp collections, but I’m hoping to still have friends at the end of this ceremony, so I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say that I was completely different from the Brendan that you have come to know.
I arrived on campus ready, as I suspect many of us were, to claim a new identity. I walked into Orientation decked out with a Mohawk and eyeliner, acting like I owned the place (never mind that I was scared half to death), and from that day on, I have been a “new and improved” person. I came out of the closet, something I would never have dared to do in high school, and I developed that sense of self-confidence that I had lacked. What allowed me to develop and maintain this new persona? Without a doubt, it was the incredibly supportive community found here at the Colleges. If you had told me four years ago that I would be addressing all of you at our Commencement, I would likely have had a heart attack, then decided that it was surely a bad joke. But here we are, I’m still breathing (at least for now) and I have the confidence to speak in public… things have certainly changed.
The point is that with all that has evolved over the last four years, the HWS experience was the common denominator that made this transformation a success, for me and for all of us in the Classes of 2009.
Even the parts of our lives that might seem constant are steeped in our experience at the Colleges. From the day we arrived on campus, we got the message that HWS is a community that values service. The validation of service learning has affected us all deeply. Seeing first-hand the impact HWS students were able to have on Geneva’s children through the America Reads and Jumpstart programs, I have seen countless examples of your desire to reach out and touch the lives of others. I could say that all of this drive to help others comes from within us, but it would be inaccurate to downplay the roles played by offices like the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning and individuals such as the President and Katie Flowers in giving us these opportunities to help others.
We have also learned to appreciate the incredible value of difference. The Peer Education program that is so unique to these Colleges, and the hours many of us have spent in Intercultural Affairs have given us an understanding of varied life experiences that we never would have gained elsewhere. These are parts of me – of all of us in the Classes of 2009 – that have been reinforced and nurtured in our time here, and that will continue to grow even as we leave this beautiful campus and go forward on our own unique journeys.
HWS has not only given us a desire to be involved, it has also shown us how to do so effectively. Many of us were involved high school students, but nowhere near to the degree that we have been in college. If you need proof of this fact, just go check out a list of clubs over at Student Activities! While this has at times had disastrous effects as we struggled to balance course load and an extracurricular schedule (I’m sure Dean Capraro remembers the 5 AM emails and the never-ending crises), we have been able to make the most of our time here because of that involvement. As we go forward, I believe that our identities as involved individuals will shape our lives in ways that we can now only imagine.
The most important element of identity instilled in us by the Colleges, though, is that of family. We have the families we grew up with, the ones that nurtured us until we came to Geneva, and the ones that we gratefully and lovingly acknowledge today as we prepare to move on.
But we truly are a family of our very own here at the Colleges, which is what makes Commencement such an emotionally conflicted event. We never would have imagined that Deans would be calling us to check in and make sure we were doing well handling our semesters, or the head of the Health Center calling to check on our health. I never dreamed I would have an entire house (the best house, mind you) full of guys that I am proud to call my brothers. This school has been our ultimate “home away from home,” and it is an experience we will never forget. How could we? HWS has become a part of us. In the crowd in front of me, I see the faces of my future wedding party; faces I will see at my children’s baptisms and birthdays. In my mind, I carry the advice of mentors who will guide me in life, and the insights of countless professors that I will quote for years to come (and also Dean Capraro’s phone number… just in case). In my heart, I carry the knowledge that none of us will ever truly leave this place. It has become a part of all of us, the unifying identity that makes these Colleges so truly special.
So in the end, after thinking long and hard about it, I realized that I already know the meaning of identity.
The American educator and author James Baldwin said, “an identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.” Your identity is shaped by what you learn, by the people you meet, and by the things you do along the way. This is why HWS has been so instrumental in shaping our identity; at every turn, we have found the best of all three.
Thank you so much.