Class of 2013 Valedictorian Address
Before I begin, I would just like to say that it is an honor to stand in front of you all, President Sexton, Dean Schwarzbach, Administration, Faculty, my fellow classmates, and their families and be able to represent the Global Liberal Studies Class of two-thousand and thirteen.
We came together as the first freshman class of this fledgling program. We lived, worked, and studied around the globe together. And together we graduate, having built a new piece of this university with a unique culture that promotes individualism but connects us all through a sense of responsibility for the world around us.
Now that’s not to say it’s been easy. I can’t say I really knew what Global Liberal Studies meant when I showed up in Washington Square Park in 2009. But I did like the sound of it… and I’m sure many of you, whether it was in New York, London, Florence, or Paris, felt the same way. It was a new academic program. We all had our questions. We all had our doubts. Yet as one of the core authors of our great works syllabus wrote, “doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.”
I believe the doubts that all of us as students had, along with the willingness of the administration to try new things, made for a singular and auspicious journey. Since it was a new academic program, students were given both the motivation and the freedom to find our own paths. I’m sure our academic advisors can attest to time and time again entertaining questions like: Can I go to China to study counterfeit markets? Can I start a magazine during my year abroad? Can my senior thesis be a movie? And, yes, to all the parents here, that’s really what your kids have been up to for the past four years.
But even though this was our vision of what college should be like, we only had this opportunity for academic exploration because of the faculty, administration, and the parents. You are all here to say congratulations but we’re just here to say thank you.
As exemplified by each of our desires to shape and mold Global Liberal Studies, a can-do, entrepreneurial spirit often hardened by a healthy-dose of self-doubt emerged along this road to graduation. Yet the Global Liberal Studies spirit did not just emerge. It was guided. We were equipped with a group of professors that taught us to think for ourselves. I must admit that I’ve never felt more intellectually liberated than during freshman year when my Writing professor told me she wanted to hear my voice in my essay. You know, at the time, I wasn’t really sure what a criticism like that meant. But as I reflected on that lesson, I slowly began to understand two things.
First, I realized that the notion of the voice wasn’t really about the voice: it was about leaving something on the table. My professor was telling me, “You’re not giving me everything you got. I need your essay to grab the reader and leave nothing behind.” She needed to see virtuosity and to get that you had to experiment; you had to try new things. But that also means, since after all, every assignment has a grade, you’re taking risks by departing from your usual methods—and therefore, you’ve got to take risks to achieve excellence. That’s when I realized the second thing: my professor wasn’t just teaching me how to write or communicate, she was also teaching me to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
This is just one small example of the type of work our professors do. I have plenty more and I am sure each of my classmates has their own similar memories of extraordinary experiences with their teachers as well.
That’s because getting comfortable with the uncomfortable was, in many ways, the heart of our academic experience and the core of our preparation for the increasingly borderless world that we’re about to enter. Our teachers never let us forget that our knowledge should not be limited by arbitrary boundaries but challenged by the vast unknown we had yet to explore. [And did we had a lot of exploring to do.] In freshman year alone, it’s likely you studied art, literature, history, poetry, philosophy, economics, and some Mandarin on the side. That vast array of courses may make some students nervous but we liked it. AND because we were going back and forth from Darwin to Dada we learned to be invigorated by change—not paralyzed by it.
By embracing change and the uncomfortable, we were able to see beyond risks and begin to look for the opportunities that those perceived dangers offered. But freshman year was only the foundation for the change that was to come. The Global Liberal Studies program is structured so that just you get settled into New York, off you to Shanghai, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, or Buenos Aires to start it all over again.
In New York we learned from all these little lessons and once we were abroad, began to recognize “risks” as hidden chances to excel; the biggest risk of all, perhaps, was dedicating one year of our lives to live in countries we knew little about without any idea of what the outcomes might be. Despite the uncertainty we felt, we were still willing to leave and start a new beginning. And what we gained by doing so was fluency in a foreign language, a great new set of friends, and an irreplaceable formative experience.
And now here we stand at the launching pad to the rest of our lives. Once again surrounded by uncertainty. Over the past four years, Global Liberal Studies has taught us how to start new beginnings in uncertain environments. And I think it is apt then, to consider that this ceremony today—our commencement—literally means to begin. When faced with risks and anxiety, as we are now, people generally fall into two categories: thinkers and do-ers. Well, the Global Liberal Studies Class of 2013 is both. And because of that, I know once we walk outside of these doors we will continue to excel in unexpected ways. I am proud to be part of the Class of 2013 and I hope you are as well.
William Layden, Valedictorian, Global Liberal Studies, Class of 2013