Commencement 2011 - Senior Class Address
By Eleanor Simcox Swensson ’11
First off, I want to take this opportunity to say congrats to all of my fellow graduates. For many reasons, I am extremely proud to stand today as a part of this class of 2011. We made it — here’s to all of our tomorrows.
I also want to say thank you to our professors, friends, and families for everything they have done to help us get this far. Your love and support mean the world to us, and will continue to be a source of light in dark places, needed strength during strife and shared joy in our successes.
Now, let’s get down to business.
I have to admit, when I received the news that I was nominated to speak at our graduation, I was shocked. I had never thought of myself as the “typical Denisonian”. For starters, I am a southerner, a Christian, a non-Greek, and a political moderate. I am a double major in Creative Writing and Religion, and an active advocate for gay rights. I am fiercely independent, have never worn UGG boots and would usually rather talk philosophy or watch a Disney movie with my roommates than party in the Sunsets. But, as I made this list of what I considered to be different from the average student here, I realized I had overlooked a significant quality of the Denison class of 2011: We are a-typical.
For us, the past four years were anything but predictable, anything but average. From our first semester on the hill we have been reminded again and again that the only constant of the Denison student body is its variability. We are a community characterized by change. Clashes between students and administration, rallies at the flagpole or outside of Doane, fiery Bullsheet exchanges, budget cuts, policy changes, progressive action or frustrating stagnation — we have experienced it all. In one way or another we have each felt the cyclical nature of conflict and peace, resistance and compromise.
Because of this constant movement many people, myself included, have said that Denison is now facing the difficult task of defining its cultural identity. This to me is not unlike the challenges we will face in the very near future. We are leaving the comforts of college life at a volatile time. Beyond the hundreds of steps that separate Denison from the “real world” there lays political polarity, economic downfall, and widespread social injustice. How can we step surely into such a place? How can we, a class of a little over 500 college graduates know that our voices and our actions will make a positive change in our world. Simply put, we can’t. But that lack of certainty is by no means a reason to remain stagnant or to give up. Throughout our post-collegiate lives we must always maintain the value of diversity around and within us. We must have faith that the variability of life is not a threat from which to hide but a challenge we should aspire to meet.
It is exactly this kind of dynamic experience that has made our time at Denison both profoundly challenging and greatly rewarding. We have learned that adversity is an opportunity to increase our strength as much as it is an exposure of our faults. And through it all, we have seen the benefits of diversity within a community as well as the importance of diversity within the self. The concept of internal and external variability has been addressed by many writers, scholars and leaders over the years. For example, the great American poet Walt Whitman writes in his piece “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large I contain multitudes.” These lines have always resonated with me and serve as a model of how I want to exist in the world. I never want to be satisfied to be singular, to fit myself into a comfortable pigeon-hole that blocks out the beautiful, challenging chaos that differing view points can provide.
This is not to say we shouldn’t have some things to ground us. As I mentioned earlier, our professors, friends, and family have been and will continue to be great foundations for us to return to. In addition to these personal relationships and a sense of community, I have found strength and inspiration throughout my life in two quotations in particular. The first of these is from the Old Testament book Micah, chapter 6, verse 8. In this verse, the prophet lays out an elegant explanation of the nature and purpose of faith. He asks, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” The second is an excerpt from Truman Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. In a brief definition of the complex phenomenon of love, Capote writes: “The brain may take advice, but not the heart, and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries: weight and sink it deep, no matter, it will rise and find the surface.” Both of these simple sentences have served as constant reminders for me that while diversity and adaptability are crucial elements of life, if the core values of love, justice and kindness are not maintained, it is all for naught. Without a genuine love for those different from us, our academic preparations, our leadership experience and all our other collegiate accomplishments will not fully translate into our futures.
As each of us cross this stage and move onto whatever strange and wonderful adventures lay ahead, I hope we can keep this wisdom with us: there is no normal, there is no typical, and that simple fact is full of promise, challenge and inspiration. My hope for this class, here at Denison and at all other colleges and universities, is that we may always strive to contain multitudes.