Each year, students compete for the honor of being chosen as the student keynote speaker at Commencement. Each submission is excellent and choosing a winner is difficult. We share submitted keynotes from four students here. They indicate the breadth of experiences a Denison education encompasses.
Hello Class of 2023, hello parents, faculty, friends, mentors, the people making sure the jumbotron screen to my left is working nicely, those that mapped out this space so that we could gather during such a special time.
I want to take this opportunity for us all to take a breath, sit, and find some shade if needed.
We’ve all come a long way to get here, some have taken a plane, for others it was a long car ride and a couple stops at McDonalds drive thru. And for some of us, it’s taken four years. So, thank you, everyone for being here today.
This past January, I had the privilege of hearing Nobel Peace Prize winner, Maria Ressa, speak in New Albany, Ohio just 20 minutes away. She’s an investigative journalist and a champion of the freedom of expression in the Philippines as well as internationally. Toward the beginning of her speech, she said something that struck me.
“You don’t know who you are, until you are tested.”
The day before, Maria Ressa had been acquitted for tax evasion after a four-and-a-half-year legal battle in the Philippines. She said that the cases she has fought and won are attempts to harass and intimidate journalists into silence. She had tears in her eyes while she spoke.
“You don’t know who you are, until you are tested,” she said. I believe that Ressa’s wisdom can resonate with all of us no matter what situations we are in. I am going to apply her words to the class of 2023’s college experience in 3 essential ways.
- You don’t know who you are until you are challenged.
- You don’t know who you are until you feel that urge to leave your comfort zone.
- You don’t know what you’re capable of, we don’t know what we are capable of, until we lunge into that space we have been called into.
1. We don’t know who we are until we are challenged because that is the moment we see if we step up, how we step up, and how we support each other.
During our sophomore year, we saw the challenges that a worldwide pandemic could have on our small, close-knit campus community. But we also realized how worthwhile it was to connect with each other, to put on our winter jackets and brave a colder evening around a bonfire to catch up with our friends and meet new people. And if we couldn’t gather in-person, we found other ways. Denison’s HERE US production displayed the talent of Denison students of color in the form of a professional, beautiful video. Clubs put on Q & As with renowned performers, politicians, and leaders of the world. Class of 2023 faced the problems and managed to not only make the best of it but be creative in the ways we maneuvered around it.
Onto number 2, You don’t know who you are until you feel that urge to leave your comfort zone.
I remember being 12 years old, and my hands shaking when I had to speak to a new person. To avoid that feeling of being frozen, I learned to avoid: talking to new people, leading teams, and speaking in front of large groups of people. Yet somehow, at every turn of my life at Denison I have been drawn to journalism and the study of the human mind, psychology. At first, I tried to resist.
But at the end of four years, I see these were the things I was meant to do– strike up conversations with members of the surrounding community, talk to professors and ask questions at psychology talks. I was meant to be pushed out of my comfort zone to learn people’s stories and tell those stories.
There’s something unique about Denison that rests in the relationships professors foster with classes and students, the discussions of topics across departments, living in a place where students care about what they do or care about finding out what that is. Here, you are exposed to the arts, to the sciences, to the fundamental study of why we are the way we are, and where to go next.
Notice when your gut is asking you, begging you to do something. I’m sure it has happened at Denison, and it will happen again. It’s telling you something important, listen.
Now onto number 3, taking that leap. You don’t know what you are capable of, until you listen to what your gut is telling you and do it.
I’ll be honest, leaving Denison will be hard. We won’t get to walk 5 minutes to our friend’s apartment, we won’t get to share ice cream at the dining hall, grab a few people to watch Denison beat Kenyon in soccer, or be greeted by Swasey around the bend of President Drive at the start of the year. I will miss being able to meet with professors for class, career ideas, and life advice.
But I do feel that it is our time to learn more about who we are and see where else that will take us. Some of us have completed the first college degrees in our families, some have completed arduous senior research, some have applied to grad schools, others are starting our first full-time jobs. So many of us have built meaningful friendships and relationships. And all of us have gotten four years closer to the lifelong process of figuring out how we want to live and be.
In the coming years we will all step into an unknown, new place– out of our comfort zone. I hope, even with the fear of unreadiness, that we test ourselves. I hope we submit the application, talk to that person, I hope we speak up for our dreams because they are worth speaking up for. In this way we will learn just how much we are capable of in this world. I think we will find it is much more than we ever imagined.
As a high schooler, advice I consistently received when searching for a future university was commonly “when you step on the campus you’ll know.” I had no idea. My first visit to Denison was on a dark and heavily rainy day - I could barely see the buildings or the beautiful view one gets when looking out from Slayter. From the tour, I knew I would complete an application - academically, it made sense, and I remember particularly liking my guide and Curtis West dining hall. But I was by no means sold, having seen campuses lined with palm trees and stunning outdoor spaces that in Ohio were impossible and nonexistent. Who wouldn’t want to go to a place like California for the best four years of their life?
Months later, returning back to Denison for Admitted Students’ Day, I was greeted with a cold, snowy campus, not too different from the climate of my hometown in Evanston, and certainly not a palm tree in sight. I took another tour, met more students, and, this time, went to eat in Huffman dining hall with my mom. Around three o’clock, I went to see President Weinberg speak to the potential Class of 2023. It was the first time I had ever heard, on my countless college visits, panels, and tours, someone say that they don’t want these college years to be the best four years of our lives. Instead, President Weinberg said he wanted our college experience to be the four years that can prepare us for the best version of our lives. Four years to make formative friendships, learn as much as possible in a supportive, academically holistic environment, and most importantly, develop and grow personally, finding our true self.
A unique viewpoint, I had never heard someone speak of the college experience this way. College is supposed to be the “best four years of your life”, isn’t it? Once we graduate, we’ll get stuck behind a desk, hearts hurting as we see posts of the D-Day performance next year and longing to be back in the tiny dorm room you once shared with your best friend. True, we’ll miss Denison. Our favorite professors, lunch with friends in Slayter, a sunny Saturday on the IMs — whatever favorite Denison traditions you have will certainly be yearned for at times. However, that was not President Weinberg’s point. Of course, he wanted us to enjoy Denison, but the idea that this was our peak, and our “best four years”, is far from the truth. In the midst of our education and development, we are only at the beginning of all the amazing things that are to come after college.
Throughout this incredible collegiate journey, we have received a nuanced view of the world through a renowned liberal arts education. However, aside from the uniqueness of President Weinberg’s theory, Denison is also unique from other liberal arts institutions as the people here sincerely make the place - a lesson I quickly learned during my time here. As I said, as a Midwesterner, I hoped to go to college practically anywhere but the Midwest. I begged for palm trees, a change of scenery, tolerable weather. But the relationships I have made here, from friends to sorority sisters to professors and to Slayter workers, have shaped me into the graduate I am here today, and I am sure the relationships that you have made have had the same effect.
The support that is present on Denison’s campus is radiant and invariable. Consistently, even throughout this concluding semester, I am stunned by how much Denison cares. For instance, my friend Renee, whom I met when she worked in Slayter but now works in the Library, consistently has brought my friend and I snacks and gifts (that she usually crafts herself) ever since we met her our sophomore year. My history senior thesis advisor, Dr. Young, who not only helped me to grow in my potential path to become a historian, but invested so much time into my project, boosting my confidence and encouraging me each time we met. These are only a fraction of the people that have made my Denison experience the four formative years of my life and have helped me to see how, indeed, the people make the place. I’m sure all of you, listening to me now, can think of people in your Denison experience who have similarly impacted you.
So, as we move forward into a world of unknowns, it is important to remember these two lessons: Denison was not, in fact, the “best” four years of your life, and the people - of any future setting you may be in - make the place. Maybe you have your dream job lined up and are going to start working in the coming months. Maybe you are taking a year off to travel. Maybe you don’t even know what you are doing in the coming weeks besides moving off our beloved Hill.
Whatever the case may be, I challenge you to move forward with all the cherished memories of Denison and everything you have learned, but not to look back on it wistfully nor with jealousy towards a past self. Look at it as the steppingstone that got you to tomorrow, next month, next year. Go to events like Denison Everywhere and our class reunions. But also know that just as the people made the place here at Denison, new people will continue to make new and exciting places for you in the future. Not just at your job, but at your new city, your new chapter of your new life. And then, we can come back, connect with our people from this chapter that is now closing, and share about the exciting years of our lives that are still yet to come. Congratulations, Class of 2023.
Good morning everyone. I would like to take this time to give a warm welcome to all those who join us on this day of celebration. Welcome to President Weinberg, to faculty and staff, our family, and friends and to those who should be here with us today but who instead we carry in our hearts.
I stand before you all, my fellow graduates, in disbelief. This is it. The day we have been thinking about and imagining in our heads for the last four years. We are no longer teenagers. We are about to step into a world where eating ramen for breakfast is looked down upon, where “going downhill” doesn’t mean brunch at Aladdin’s, and where “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton actually becomes relatable. Now, as terrifying as this is, we must find comfort in the fact that we are starting this new chapter of our lives in the same way that we started our time at Denison: together.
In the fall of 2019, we packed our bags and got ourselves ready for the journey of a lifetime. Some of us traveled thousands of miles to a college that we had only ever seen through a screen; others, traveled even further coming from distant lands such as Granville, Ohio. Regardless of where we were from, we had all chosen Denison to lead us into adulthood. Now, I don’t think I truly understood the significance of the decision I was making at 17 years old, when deciding which college to go to. As a first-generation international student, the word “university” was only correlated with academics in my head, and whilst Denison did offer me a world class education, I had not anticipated just how important my time outside of the classroom would be too.
During the first day of Aug-o, my orientation leader sat my group in a circle and asked us to write down a few words that defined who we were. I remember not really knowing what to write. For years I had been told who I was by my friends and my family. So much so that I, myself, had not developed my own definition. Yet here I was, thousands of miles away from anyone who knew me. I was a blank canvas once again, and I was ready to experiment with color. A sentiment I’m sure many of you can relate to.
On this tiny hill in the middle of Granville, Ohio, we have had the freedom to grow into the best versions of ourselves. Over the last four years, Denison has given us tools we needed to develop our own agency and autonomy. Be it through our academics or co-curricular activities, we have become the architects of our own lives. As Denisonians, we have learned to meet any challenges with the utmost determination and resilience, whether it be a difficult research paper, a national championship, or a global pandemic.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that our first two years of college were extremely difficult. For the first time in our lives, we were discouraged from in-person connection, our faces covered with little pieces of cloth, and our classrooms deserted. At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine that things would ever return to normal. Yet, ironically, it was in this time of social distancing and isolation that our class began to come together. We developed a whole new appreciation and understanding for the word community.
We worked together to ensure that we kept each other safe and discovered new ways in which we could connect. We transformed East Quad into our safe haven, with picnic blankets, music, and food. We spent the warm days exploring the bio reserve, and the cold nights wrapped up by the fire pits - face masks did wonders for a cold nose in December! We found ways to keep both our campus, and the track team, running: Athletes wore fancy face masks at practice, theater majors traded the Sharon Martin stage for the football field, and the burpees did the 24-hour show fully masked, which kept covid at bay, but not our acne. The registrar may not have had a COVID 100 class to offer, but our liberal arts education had prepared us to problem solve at the drop of a hat. Together, through our love of learning, we made it work.
I found a quote recently that I had written down in one of my classes’ freshman year, and it is timely, as we reflect on the past four years at Denison… it said: “Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.” You would think that the philosopher who wrote this did so with Denison students in mind. For here on The Hill, it is not merely our proximity which makes our relationships strong, it is the fact that we extend ourselves and get to know and love one another. We are always ready to lend a hand to those who need it, and we do so enthusiastically. We are a community of strong minds and big hearts. We are a community who cares, and this is exactly what the world needs more of.
So, as scared as we all are about what comes next after graduation, I think it is safe to say that Denison has given us all the necessary tools we need to meet these new challenges head on. Our college years will not be the best years of our lives but rather the foundation on which we create our best years. We will meet every challenge that comes our way with the utmost resilience, determination, and enthusiasm, just as we always do. And if we ever feel alone? We must simply remember that we have a whole community at our fingertips who are willing to help us or even just sit down and have a cup of tea, or coffee for you Americans. And the next time someone asks me to write down words which define who I am, I am able to do so using just four: I am a Denisonian.
I would like to start, if I may, with a quote written by Tom Hayden while reflecting on the tumultuous political climate of the 1960s. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
I think if we reflect on the last four years, we are right to be just a little bit uncomfortable. A global pandemic, political divides deeper than they have been in a very long time, a cost-of-living crisis, and so much more all give us reason for pause. Yet as we remember our time here, I know that we will also be sentimental about late nights laughing with friends, studying with classmates in the Nest, stories shared over a Bandersnatch milkshake, and so much else. The emotions of these memories lead to a certain sadness to be leaving it all behind, and therefore, a certain discomfort. But I think that the things that have prepared us to take on the emotions of today have also prepared us to take on the challenges of the rest of our lives.
Whether or not we have realized it, one thing has guided our day to day lives here on the hill: Denison is not just a place. Denison is all of us; it is a community of people wanting to learn, a moveable feast of sorts. Our first spring semester, we were dispersed across the globe but nevertheless we continued what is now a 190-year-old tradition of learning in community with one another. Those “COVID semesters,” if you will, were a trying test, and they taught us a few lessons.
The first of these lessons is that the people are what matter the most. President Weinberg reminds us regularly, and I have to agree, that “relationships run deep at Denison.” It is the people gathered here today that make Denison what it is. Without the people, these would be but empty halls. While the setting is an important part of our memories here, it is not the most important part. Both on this hill and off of it, Denisonians have tackled big problems — whether it be the Debate Society bridging partisan gaps, new Green Team initiatives to alleviate climate change, groups like Mission 34 spreading mental health awareness, or any other number of issues that we have addressed. Lock a group of Denisonians in a room and I guarantee you will end up with a solution to a trying problem. Think of the ways that we all gathered over those first two, highly unconventional years: zoom calls, group chats, email chains, and more. While we were without a physical meeting ground, we were not without community. In short, Denison as a place is meaningful because of its inhabitants.
The second big lesson follows from the first: we have the ability to bring the power of this place with us anywhere. Our community does not have to end when we walk away from this hill today, and I hope we will not allow it to. Though we have created many great memories here, the experiences we cherish can be recreated anywhere. Going forward, we will continue to pass on ideas, solve problems, learn from each other, and share more laughs, more smiles, and more joyful moments together. As we remember what we have gained here, I hope we will worry less about leaving this particular gathering place, and that we can let go of our discomforts about the world “out there.”
The final lesson is the most important one. We have the tools to build meaningful communities anywhere we may end up. Doing this, I believe, is the true mark of a Denisonian and it is how we will leave our impact on the world. Our ability to build strong connections is the springboard for all that we have done and all that we will do in the future. We must now go out and take up new spaces, like the ones we took up here, so that we can build communities around the things and ideas that matter to us. Throughout our time together, we built a community around the liberal arts, sports, music, theater, politics, and so many other things. We have what it takes to forge those relationships again, and again. Fostering true human connection is how we made the most of a unique college path, continuing that tradition is how we will dispel some of the discomfort we face now.
Class of 2023, I believe in the power of us. Our power to do amazing things for the world, to make an impact in everything we do. Every day over the last four years I saw this power manifest in awesome ways in part because we are no strangers to discomfort. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and I thank you for the community you have helped to create at Denison.