Senior Reflections: Essays by four members of the Class of 2007
Elizabeth Alyn Doerschuk '07
As I've reflected on all of the amazing opportunities Denison has given us both inside and outside the classroom, I realized that one of the most important things that I have learned in four years of college is that I don't know anything for sure. After carefully devouring each book and seeing the world from every available angle, at first I was terrified to acknowledge that our breadth of knowledge is miniscule, and worse, the more knowledge we glean from our education the more we will realize how little we know about the world around us. The thought of entering the world so grossly unprepared is scary.
I did not feel this way when I came to Denison. In fact, I was proud to say that at the ripe age of 18, I was a master in my world. But my life at Denison has had a much different message for me. Denison has offered us countless opportunities to volunteer, to see the world around and beyond us to travel abroad. Through DCA programs and volunteer organizations, we have viewed unnecessary suffering in our community. Research opportunities and seminar classes gave us the chance to dig deeper and learn more about the problems we saw. Though these situations were enlightening, we have walked away from them with the burden of trying to figure out how to use our education to help the world. We have been cursed with the ability to consistently question tradition, to analyze each situation, and to work without ceasing to make our society a better place. We have seen the hungry, the poor, the oppressed, and have been possessed with the frustrating urge to help.
Our education has made us passionate slaves to impossible causes and our thirst for knowledge will never be quenched because it's not supposed to be. The world is not a place to be mastered and we can never settle into the warm coziness of knowing - the consistent sanctuary of being positive that knowledge does not change. Because of our liberal arts education, we can't ever rest in the known because it doesn't exist. However, this passion is not a curse, but a blessing. Our eyes and ears hear and see the world longing to change. Our minds are destined to wander through the opinions of great authors and teachers without finding one true solution on how to change it. These are the blessings of our education? Yes, because today we realize that we are not just students, but learners and the world is our classroom.
We are equipped with the sincere ability to never take the world for granted. It's true we will never be able to stop thinking about the things that need to change in our society. At the same time, though, we will never be able to accept those things. Because we realize that we are small and inept, we know we have a lot of work to do and we will never be bored. We have become life-long learners, friends, charged to work tirelessly and to challenge the society around us. Though it is scary and hard, the greatest gift Denison has given us in this pursuit is one another. We have a network of people from all over the world who know how we feel. They can assure us that the vacuum we feel inside of us, the frustrating space that was supposed to be filled with all of that knowledge - that place is where we will always feel fulfilled because we will never fail to learn something new.
Never let go of the insatiable need to know more and to work harder. It may feel like a more difficult road to follow, but it leads to miracles. Denison has prepared us to revolutionize so many facets of our world in science and humanities, theatre and art. I know that I look forward to witnessing the numerous miracles you will create in your lives and in the lives of those around you.
Jeffrey Steven Mervosh '07
Four years ago, Commencement Day was only a hazy figment of my imagination, and it is hard to believe that it is already time to leave. Over the last few months, I, like many of you, have thought heavily about the past and the future. From where I have come, and where I have yet to go. I've realized something that I think is both obvious and profound: I did not make it here alone. Whether through tacit encouragement or overt assistance, every single one of us is here today not only of our own merit, which is indeed significant, but also due to the support of individuals all around us. Parents, teachers, mentors, Denison professors, friends — the people in our lives who provide an example, who believe in us even when we ourselves doubt, and who instill in us the faith and courage to achieve. What better time is there to say "thank you"?
I often jot down quotes that I hear or read in daily life that remind me of what I believe to be important. The words left by those who have walked before us should be heeded well, if not for their wisdom, then at least for their experience. I'd like to share with you several of the quotes that I have collected while at Denison, as I feel they are significant when thinking about the Denison experience and the prospect of the future.
During an especially difficult German lesson, Dr. Gary Baker paused, and, after gathering how lost many of us were, gave us an important life lesson in English. "An education," he said, "should be uncomfortable. If it's comfortable, then you haven't really learned anything." At every moment, Denison has challenged us. Learning to look at the world from a new perspective is difficult, and can often be uncomfortable. But it is also a true sign of intellectual growth and maturity. A liberal-arts school's task is to bombard the mind with opposing viewpoints and teach us how to be adaptable in critically consuming them. But the Denison experience is about something greater than mere memorization of fact. It is about learning how to learn. What greater gift can an institution grant a young mind?
We are musicians and actors, poets and scientists, scholars and researchers, Greeks and geeks. We have interned at Fortune 500 companies, we have studied abroad in South Africa, we have been named all-Conference in lacrosse, and we have researched myopia in mice. We are Denison, and we are graduates. We have been helped by those around us, and we have been molded by this great institution. Now the future looms. What will we do with the preparation that Denison has given us? I propose this. I found the following words in an appendix to my favorite book by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. He delivered a commencement address some years ago to a bunch of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates not unlike ourselves, and his message has since become the maxim by which I try to live my life. "Never separate the life you lead from the words you speak." Each of us has goals, dreams, and aspirations. Go reach them. Each of us would like to make a difference in the life of someone else. Go do it. If we all make a commitment to living by our word, we truly can begin to change the world.
Many of you had the chance to see Paul Rusesabagina speak at Denison last March. Paul said something that night that has stayed with me since. "We cannot change the past," Paul said, "but we can improve the future with the limited tools and words we have been given." Those limited tools and words are significantly less limited as the result of a Denison education. We have been given the preparation to help. Where once we followed the steps of others, looking to their words and encouragement to keep going, now we are followed. Now our words are the quotes that will inspire a new generation. What legacy will you leave behind? What encouragement will you give to others?
If there is anything you should do here today, it is this. Think about your past. Think about your future. And ask yourself two questions. To whom do I owe a "thank you"? Identify the people; say those two words; send them a card; give them a hug. But above all, let them know that they are appreciated. Now that I'm here, how can I help? Whether by working to change the world for the better, providing an example of success for those who follow, or by actively passing on your own tacit knowledge about life to a youth, do something of which you can be proud. Do something that shows your gratitude to the people and institutions that have helped you succeed. Go make Denison proud.
Jacob Robert Neiheisel '07
It was in searching for words of wisdom from which I could craft this message that I happened upon a chapter in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. In this chapter, a short selection from the book Cat's Cradle, the book's narrator and main protagonist, is a writer who is talking to a woman in a bar about a number of topics, as one often does, but in particular about the subject of the commencement speaker at her high school graduation. The commencement speaker — a scientist, the woman recounted — impressed upon his audience the notion that many of the world's troubles would be solved if only people were more scientific. Science, the speaker intoned, "was going to discover the basic secret of life someday." And in Vonnegut's fictional world, it seemed, science had indeed discovered the secret of life, as the bartender told them about a recent newspaper article that reported science had found the secret of life to be a kind of protein.
Vonnegut's intention with this scene, one presumes, was to illustrate how patently ridiculous it is to believe that anything as complex and multifaceted as the human experience could ever be reduced to such an extent. And like my fellow graduates who drank deeply from the well of the humanities are likely to have reacted to such a speech, I recoiled, as Vonnegut no doubt intended, at the thought that anyone could claim to have distilled all that is creative about humankind to a protein. I am certain, however, that Vonnegut's scientist also would have elicited a negative reaction from my colleagues in the sciences as well, for we have all spent the last few years of our lives immersed in the liberal arts.
Some of us may have done so because we truly did not know what we wanted to do with our lives. Others may have come to Denison with a clear goal in mind, doing everything that they could do to specialize and focus their skill set in anticipation of the impending demands of the job market. But I suspect that the majority of us chose the liberal arts out of a desire to take all knowledge for our province in an earnest attempt to find unity in areas of seeming discord; to formulate enlightened opinions on many subjects; to learn simply for the sake of learning.
For underlying Denison's mission as a liberal arts college is the unspoken belief that the pursuit of knowledge is an end in itself and not a means to some higher goal; that scholarly inquiry into the arts as well as the sciences is essential to the development of the human person. Indeed, we here are truly blessed. Not only because we now number among the better educated in our society, but because we have had the privilege to dwell in the ivory tower, if only for such a brief time. We truly have lived in a city on a hill while at Denison — a beacon offering all who follow its light the methods necessary to grasp the interconnectivity of the sciences and humanities; the means to recognize that all scholarly pursuits have at root a common sense of rational criticism. I learned this lesson well in an honors biology class on the biological origins of human nature. In addition to the fascinating things that this class taught me about evolution and the scientific endeavor in general, it made clear to me certain things about myself. Equal parts hard science and philosophy, that particular biology class helped me to realize that I was driven not by any particular approach to learning, but by the questions that the various different approaches to scholarship sought to answer. I understood, in many ways, what Rilke meant when he implored us to "try to love the questions themselves." And as students of the liberal arts we are perfectly willing to blur the distinctions between the academic disciplines and embrace the notion that the most interesting of life's questions must be explored from a variety of angles. And as a liberal arts institution, Denison believes so strongly in the commonalities between the many different forms of learning that etched in stone at one of the entrances to our fair hill is the following maxim: "Languages are no more than the keys of sciences. He who despises one, slights the other."
In leaving this hill however, we are likely to be asked to slight a number of pursuits in the name of specialization, whether in graduate or professional school or in the job market. As evidence of such pressures I offer the sheer volume of talks and articles to which we have all been witness by this point that have advised us as to ways in which we can market our liberal arts degrees to prospective employers — ways in which we can sell our exposure to the many varied forms of knowledge as a desirable trait and convince others that the breadth of one's knowledge is equally as important as one's depth.
Earlier I referred to Denison as an ivory tower — not in any pejorative sense of the term — but as a title of great respect. For this hill may very well be one of the last places that we reside where it is taken to be self-evident that many-learning is to be valued, and the earnest pursuit of multiple forms of knowledge to be cherished. And in the face of this challenge I offer to my fellow graduates an exhortation to always hold dear the liberal arts, and recognize that the Denison experience does not end upon leaving this ground, but that it is a life-long endeavor. With that I wish you all the best in finding your own secret to life — even if that secret turns out to be a protein after all.
Laura Naomi Pippenger '07
Here's a little bit of home spun wisdom:
In 1920, Robert Frost wrote a poem about roads less traveled. He wrestled with the choice between two roads, one of which was well beaten and the other which was green and overgrown, but not unused. He was wise to choose the second. This is the path that many of us avoid because it is sometimes bumpy and pot-holed, twisting and turning at sharp angles and at unexpected moments.
At the risk of reusing and over-quoting this oft referenced poem, four years ago, we, the class of 2007, chose the path to Denison. Some of us were sure that it was the right one, though certainly unknown. I had chosen the road that took me one hundred and eleven miles from my driveway in Dayton, Ohio to my dorm room at Morrow House in Granville. We were told that it was not the destination that mattered, but the journey on which we were embarking. The destination, most certainly at that time, was graduation in May of 2007. We looked four years into the future and saw bright, energetic, passionate young men and women ready to take on their world.
Sophomore year the road was under construction. Negotiating those orange barrels and detours, we learned that we are not graded on how hard we work. We are graded on the quality of the product. We are graded on participation and thoughtfulness, rarely on effort. By this time we had all had at least one day of major disappointment, a day that began before eight o'clock and continued through disappointing test scores and lab grades, difficult paper topics and concepts. There were times when we wanted to quit, when we were upset and frustrated. But we learned so much, conquered those difficult subjects and achieved success. We worked hard, but soon learned that we are not graded on how hard we work.
As juniors we had learned to keep our eyes on the ball. See the ball. Hit the ball. But which ball?! We kept our eyes on the many balls, on academics and community service commitments, on sports teams and religious life, on national politics and study abroad options. Our eyes were everywhere. As many juniors struggled to find a study abroad location that fit their needs and interests, I chose the study abroad road to Bangladesh. But, with bombings in the capital city just before Thanksgiving, I decided to take a detour to Ghana, West Africa. Excited to be on this unfamiliar path, I set my sights there — eager to begin a new chapter, embark on a new adventure.
We went from mere hours to trips that took whole days. I went from one hundred and eleven miles to a separation of four time zones. As we exited Denison's path, we seemed to drive parallel for a semester, and for most us it meant giving up all immediate control of our surroundings. I liked this road and was content to travel it even as I looked forward to the route back to Denison, a Denison that I knew would be different upon my return.
The roads of Denison are like a highway where opportunities run like entrance and exit ramps. We took the road to Denison, exiting for free lectures and concerts, summer internships and basketball games. Reentering the highway, we set the cruise control for a semester, detoured to Ghana and France, Australia and Mexico. Hopping back on the Big Red Expressway, with a rest stop for summer jobs or research, and then back on to graduation, we have moved at a rapid pace. Four years have sped by. Now we're exiting again and this time we're entering the larger highway, the highway of the wider world.
The road may have been full of potholes or it may have been a smooth ride. Mine has been all of those things, literally and figuratively. The roads in Ghana are filled with holes that are big enough to swallow buses, and the roads of Denison are sometimes equally as pot-holed. We encounter unexpected challenges, sometimes stumbling on academic subjects, problems in community organizations, student clubs, or our campus jobs. We sometimes feel like we're stuck in traffic.
Though we are not guaranteed that the road we travel will be smooth, isn't it the bumps and the hills that make the ride interesting, if not worthwhile?! Where is the road headed next? Because as a senior, I know that it's not the destination. It's the journey!