Bright and early this morning, GS-ers took their turn at graduating on campus. Led by a band playing hits like “Down By The Riverside,” the group of about 450 graduates walked to their seats. Throughout the ceremony, an early morning fog gave way to a beautiful sunlit day, no doubt a sign of prosperity and good fortune to the Class of 2013. Dean Awn gave his welcoming remark, noting the uniqueness of GS and importance of the institution as it “enhances the intellectual discourse in a very special way.” The audience cheered for GS having the highest number of veterans in the Ivy League. “We are privileged to count you has members of the Columbia intellectual and undergraduate communities,” Awn said before introducing PrezBo.
In his short speech, Bollinger noted that GS is special in that it highlights untraditional students as a centerpiece of education, rather than lumping them in with the rest of the student body. GS grants the university a “sense of institutional humility,” he went on, discussing the graduates’ myriad of real world experience outside of academia. He then introduced Class Day speaker Nicholas Dirks, who is “taking on the very simple task of saving the University of California (Berkeley).”
Dirks centered his address around the fact that GS is “a school made up of unique life stories.” After talking about the history of GS, he got into the meat of his speech: higher education is in trouble and under attack, and it’s up to grads to fix that. Public institutions are competing with higher tuitions and other forms of revenue, student debt continues to be on the rise, and politicians are decrying elite institutions. “We need you…to champion education and remind skeptics of the magic of the classroom,” he explained, saying that it is up to graduates to sway public opinion of the worth and importance of higher education. “Each GS story has unique appeal,” Dirks said. “Keep on telling your stories.”
Next up, Damian Harris-Hernandez, salutatorian #1, gave a humorous speech about his own story and what graduates should get out of their undergrad experience. After explaining that his thesis was on Ottoman detective fiction, he said he knew what we all were thinking: how is he supposed to get a job? But getting a job is “not the point of an Ivy League education,” he posited. Harris-Hernandez talked about the unglamorous moments of his path to GS, like “deliver[ing] fried chicken by bicycle in Williamsburg” and “serv[ing] as a living model of acupuncture students,” yet here he was triumphant on graduation day.
Salutatorian #2 was Tiekka Nycole Tellier, an accomplished ballerina, with a more emotionally charged speech. Like Harris-Hernandez, she talked about the unglamorous side of stories of accomplishment: in ballet, it’s showing up with no makeup, ready to sweat, and sitting in a tub of ice eating a sandwich while sewing shoes. At Columbia, it’s more waking up at 3 am to do readings and staying up all night working on projects. But these unglorious moments “will always feel the most authentic” to the experience. Keep that in mind next time you’re at Butler at 4 am and need some inspiration. It was in these moments that Tellier really pushed to the limits and found herself. She ended with a tearful shout-out to her son Wilson, family and friends, and quoted her grandmother: “it’s a gracious plenty.”
After the graduates received their diplomas, valedictorian Benjamin Shababo told his story of moving from freelance film editor to neuroscience student. Although these sections of his life seem like disjointed parts, he explained that they really flowed from each other. When he first started editing, he paid attention to the perfection of the cuts. As he kept working, though, he realized that it didn’t matter–if the narrative flows, no one will realize if a person isn’t stepping on the same leg between cuts. “The brain’s job was to make sense of things,” which is what brought him to curiosity in neuroscience. In hunt for a real, comprehensive undergraduate experience, he found GS and emailed Deborah Mowshowitz. In Shababo’s experience at Columbia, he found that “life is better and more fun when you let curiosity be your guide.” And in conclusion: “good luck and stay curious.”