Commencement 2023


Sreyan Kanungo '23
Hobart senior speech
May 21, 2023

On August 18th, 2019 at around 3:30 PM, an HWS shuttle bus dropped me off in front of Durfee Hall. I still remember the surreal experience of taking my first look at the quad. I remember telling myself “It really looked more dramatic in the pictures.” I later learned that it was Kevin Colton’s photo magic.

My perception of HWS was born out of three things: the HWS Round Robin (our world-renowned & first-of-its-kind debate competition), pictures from the internet, and figments of my mother’s imagination. It was hard to fathom, at the time, belonging to a 200-year-old institution when the history of my country, Bangladesh, started only 50 years ago.

But, after four years of walking the halls of Stern & Coxe, chatting with Shirley as I entered Saga, watching our National Champion Ice Hockey team play in the cooler, enjoying late-night music & ciders at Lake Drum, and watching the sun rise over Seneca Lake, I feel as though I am no longer an outsider but rather I feel as though I am a part of a family that I would like to reflect with.

So I just want to share two brief reflections with all of you.

My first reflection is on taking risks.

Mark Twain famously said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why,"

From my 4-year journey at HWS, I believe taking risks is the bridge that we have to walk over to find our “why.”

Leaving home for HWS felt incredibly risky: I was leaving my single mother alone halfway across the world, and I didn’t have enough money. In fact, my mother dried up all her savings and took out a loan just to buy my plane ticket, and I had never even been to the US before. Most people back home told me not to go.

“Do not leave your mother,” “Do not take this risk” they said.

But there was a childish optimism inside me that made me commit to HWS, and I thank my lucky stars every single day that I let that childish optimism win.

What that risk allowed me to do was find people, worlds, and support that I never thought I would have access to. I have done things in my four years here that I never, in my wildest imaginations, thought I would do including:

  • I debated across the world, like in Spain for example.
  • I started a company, called UTime, which aims to help struggling college students with time management.

All of us have taken risks to be here, whether it was moving across oceans, taking classes we were petrified to take, doing activities we did not believe we were good at, or asking that special someone out to dinner knowing there is a good chance they might say no.

Our time here at HWS has empowered us to take risks, and my hope is that we all continue to take risks, because, without that, there’s no point in dreaming or believing. Because the biggest dreams and the most critical beliefs require the biggest risks.

In that process, of taking risks and failing, we either found our “why”, or got closer to figuring it out.

My second reflection is about having gratitude toward failure.

I’ve always found my failures to be dearer to me than my successes. Not just because it grounds me, but because it reminds me that I have a long path ahead of me. And I’ve always found that comforting. But I’d be lying if I said it didn't hurt like hell.

I have failed more times than I can count during my last four years at HWS. I’ve failed at least a dozen times more for every success I've had.

I still distinctly remember, right before the World Championships in Madrid, my debate partner and I were failing almost constantly. At the largest national competitions, we lost most of our rounds and did not receive any awards. After months of this and considering quitting, my partner and I arrived in Madrid with a pile of notes from all the rounds we lost. Strangely enough, we felt ready. We wore our failure like it was our armor.

And it paid off, big time. We ranked as one of the best teams in the world.

I also remember being devastated after losing the finals of The Pitch competition, fearing that I might not have the funds to build my company.

Only later, because of the things that I had learned from failing at the Pitch, I managed to raise over 5x more than the prize money that the Pitch had offered from angel investors.

Needless to say, my failures don’t always turn out this way; we all had our share of heartbreaks in college: whether it was getting rejected from an internship, getting a poor grade in a difficult class, losing a game against the rival team, and so much more. But that is what makes us who we are.

When I feel the worst aches of failure, I find it helpful to think about a quote by Nelson Mandela, which goes like this:

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

The inspiration for this speech came from one of my favorite Bangla songs called “Bhober Pagol” which is rooted deeply in decades-old Bengali folk music. It goes something like this:

[Reading in Bengali]

Which to me translates to this: there is a fire in you, that people do not understand, don’t hide from it, do not run from it, because without that fire - we lose the only bit of magic that makes the world beautiful.

Thank you.