Commencement 2012 - Graduating Senior Reflections
Samantha Virginia Driver '12
B.A. English; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
We came to Denison because we had a goal: not simply a graduation, but an education, and today marks the accomplishment of that goal. Our path towards this moment has no doubt been a tumultuous one- full of achievements and struggles, late-nights and early mornings- but it has been worth it every step of the way. Today is a day of celebrations and congratulations for four years well spent. However, our work is not done. While we may be leaving Denison’s campus, our time as Denisonians is not over. Rather, we will always be Denisonians, regardless of where our lives take us after graduation. Graduation simply brings us a different set of responsibilities to fulfill on behalf of our school. After spending four years learning and living at Denison, it is now our responsibility to share our Denison education with the world.
We have all used Denison’s liberal arts curriculum to expose ourselves to an invaluable breadth of knowledge during our time here. We have learned about the way the world works. We have learned about how things came to be the way they are, as well as what the future might hold. We have learned about different cultures, religions, and ways of looking at the world. We have learned that social justice is something we must continuously fight for. And, perhaps most importantly, we have learned that the fight for human equality is one in which we are all invested. This education is a privilege and an honor that transcends any monetary value, and it is our responsibility as graduates to use the knowledge we have gained to make the world a better place. Thus, while not every graduate of the Class of 2012 will become a teacher, I hope that all of us will become educators.
Because to educate does not always mean to stand in front of a classroom full of students and direct a lecture or a discussion. Rather, the act of educating can take many forms, and it can be carried out no matter which direction your life takes. You can educate through involvement in your community, perhaps using your knowledge from Denison to serve as an informed and instructive leader. You can educate by bringing your knowledge from Denison into play in business, helping to advocate for ethical and sustainable practices. You can educate by becoming involved in grassroots political organizations. You can educate through involvement in after-school programs as a tutor or a volunteer. You can educate through involvement in such groups as Big Brothers Big Sisters. You can educate through publication. You can educate by donating books to public libraries. You can educate by reaching out to someone who is different from you, breaking down the barriers in our society based on distinctions such as race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. You can educate by sharing the knowledge you gained at Denison with your family and friends. And, when the time comes, you can even educate by taking the timeless advice of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to teach your children well.
And while it will be easy to get wrapped up in the daily ups and downs of our own lives, we must ultimately remember the responsibility we have as the recipients of this powerful education. Americans hold dear the belief that everyone deserves access to a quality education; however, the truth remains that many people still lack the necessary opportunities and resources to access one. This is why we must take it upon ourselves to help make knowledge available to as many people as we can. However, we must also have the humility to recognize that four years in college does not mean that we are done learning. Rather, we must remember that we still have a lot to learn from other people, regardless of their educational background. An important part of educating is learning, and we must do both if we hope to make a difference.
When I first came to Denison, I was a first-generation college student, citizen merely of the small town where I was raised. The boundaries of my world ended at the border of my state. When I came to Denison, I immediately began expanding my horizons through learning, an activity that I hope to continue for the rest of my life. I now consider myself a citizen of our nation and of our world, a citizenship that I believe is necessary for everyone if we hope to ensure peace in an increasingly global future. Knowledge has made all of the difference in my life, and it is my sincerest hope that all of us can make that world of difference for someone else. Because only through knowledge can we hope to overcome a history that has sought to divide us based on artificial distinctions. And only through knowledge can we all begin to work together.
And while this may seem like a daunting task, just remember that our presence here today proves that we are more than up to the challenge. We have spent four years gathering knowledge and cultivating skills. We have taken classes in so many departments that sometimes it is hard to keep track of them all, and every one of them has exposed us to a whole new way of looking at the world. Our extracurricular involvements on campus have taught us to become successful young leaders, as well as how to balance the many responsibilities of a busy schedule. And, on top of all of this, we have made some of the best friends of our lives. After doing all of this in only four years, who is to say that every one of us can’t change the world?
To be a Denisonian is not merely to be educated; rather, it is to be an educator. And when we leave here today and go our separate ways into the future, we carry with us an education that can change things for the better. All we have to do is share the knowledge we have gained over the past four years and continue to learn what our fellow humans have to teach us.
Remember: just because the world is a big place doesn’t mean that we can’t make a difference. Congratulations, Class of 2012. Let’s go change the world.
Kale Ethan Hills '12
B.A. Political Science and Cinema; Kansas City, Missouri
As a member of Denison's improv comedy group, I have learned that one of the most important guidelines for a successful improv scene rests in the idea of justification. Each choice that you make needs to have intention, something that moves the scene forward. I mention this because I want to cut to the chase. This speech and all of the ceremony surrounding our graduation are, in essence, about justification.
So. Why not call it what it is? It is my job to reassure just as much as it is to congratulate. Reassure you that Denison and even college itself was a worthwhile endeavor. I can't blame you for feeling a little uncertain. A recent Pew Research study shows that tuition costs at institutions like Denison have more than doubled in the last 30 years. The unemployment rate in America hovers around 9%. And people still smile and say, "That's nice…what are you going to do with that?" when you tell them you're a creative writing major.
As Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post put it: "A college education is not an investment in your future if you are taking out loans just for the college experience…It's not an investment if you aren't researching which fields are creating good-paying jobs now and 30 years from now."
This is the part of the essay where justification comes in. I'm supposed to respond to Ms. Singletary's charges with a thorough, well-reasoned rationalization for the liberal arts. And the simple truth is that I can't. No one can.
Another guideline that makes for successful improv is the idea of 'show, don't tell.' That is, it is much more compelling to watch a scene with active characters than one in which they simply describe what they would do. So, when I say that I can't explain to you what Ms. Singletary misses, it's not because no good justification exists. It's because the justification for our education must not be said but acted out. It is how you spend today and all of your tomorrows. Or as the poet Mary Oliver put it 'what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.'
Rather than expect me to justify your college education, I find it a far better task that I ask you to justify your own. Now let me be clear: whatever we do will surely be enlivened by our experiences at Denison. I know this because Denison has already changed me and the way I interact with the world. I know this because of straw wrappers. Bear with me…
One afternoon I was rushing through Slayter and was confronted by one of my greatest pet peeves: empty straw wrappers. In Slayter there is a soda fountain-Or should I call it a pop fountain? The proper name for a carbonated beverage remains one of the greatest ongoing debates of higher education, and while I cannot tell you what it ought to be called, I can tell you with greatest confidence that it is not just a 'coke.'- At any rate, until this semester the soda pop machine had everything you could need right next to it…except a trashcan. The nearest trashcan was a monumental ten feet away. Consequently empty straw wrappers accumulated nearby on a regular basis.
Grabbing the pile of straw wrappers that day, I discarded them and huffed, "Who would just leave their wrapper out like that?" In retrospect a bit of a gross overreaction, but to me this was tantamount to letting a pile of trash accumulate on the coffee table in your living room. It was that day, however, that I realized that not everyone views Denison as a home or has laid roots here in the same way that I have. It is the case, however, that everyone has roots and everyone has straw wrappers. Take Michael DeSantis, for example. Michael, I have no idea who you are, only that we have 46 mutual friends on facebook. I have no idea where your roots are. I have no idea what your straw wrappers are, that is, what in the world you unknowingly impact or neglect. I know only that being human, you do so and that even withstanding a number of differences, by the very nature of our being here today, some of our roots overlap and some of our trash will be the same.
Roots and wrappers like the obligation we develop by living in a bubble of privilege during a global recession. Roots and wrappers that come from the 2009 DCGA budget fiasco that taught us what it means to be discerning moral agents actively engaged in a democratic society. And even lessons of what happens when one is less discerning…that is, naked week. It may not be to Ms. Singletary's standard, but the truth is I would not have these roots if it weren't for my experience at Denison. And I feel justified in my time here for that reason alone.
Fellow graduates, if there is anything that I wish to leave here today, it is simply to understand that. Dwell in this moment not as proof of what your education says about you but as the beginning of what you have to say about yourself: your justification-a day in which, as such, the past, the present, and the future each deserve their due in turn.
To the past, I say thank you. Thank you to the Denison community, family members, and others who cared for us and compelled us to the heights we have achieved. To friends like Sarah Starner, Sarah Jose, and Gus McCravey, who should still be here today. It is not just the limits of my own vocabulary that render me inadequate to express the deep debt of gratitude that we owe.
To the present, I say how good is it to simply be. 127 credit hours later, we the Denison class of 2012, can rest in the happy reality that we are graduates. We have accomplished it. We presently are what we set out to be.
And to the future I say, that if you need a justification for our education, then just keep watching. Because we will do it again.
Robert Flanagan Moore '12
B.A. Philosophy; Bexley, Ohio
As a generation, we stand at a peculiar point in history. While we were lying in cribs drinking baby formula, across the ocean in Europe communist regimes were falling and thousands of people were taking sledgehammers to the scar on Germany’s face known as the Berlin Wall.
We lived our childhoods in the 1990s, a decade of rapid economic growth marked by bight-eyed capitalistic optimism. The cold war of forty years had finally ended and the mantra of freedom had won out over the dogma of totalitarian communism. Our parents bought us gameboys and we indulged in television programs like Spongebob Squarepants, delighting in our ability to be carefree.
But on a cold day in September of 2001, all of our lives changed. Suddenly, the 21st century had begun, and the unrestrained optimism of the 1990s was wiped away by a decade marked by two wars in the Middle East, a recession followed by another recession, and the deep angst of a country that seemed that it could not crawl out of this slump.
But our lives went on. We didn’t let the pessimism of the time defeat us, but instead we worked hard in school, joined clubs, and applied to college. I remember the joy I felt when I opened my acceptance letter for Denison on a March afternoon, and I’m sure we all remember the feeling that we had as we drove onto campus for the first time in August of 2008 to begin our college years here.
Denison has been a place where we have been able to escape some of the more intimidating parts of what we like to call “the real world.” Our food, housing, and utilities are all paid for with a simple initial cost at the beginning of the semester. We live in a beautiful, rural town with a low crime rate. Between stimulating classes, strong organizational life, and a vibrant social atmosphere, Denison has insulated us from many of the problems that people outside of a college atmosphere have to deal with.
Denison students truly want to squeeze every moment of their college careers for all they are worth. They want to take every class, be in every club, and party every weekend. We are emboldened by a culture that surrounds us with go-getters and is saturated with opportunities at every corner. Dr. Kennedy put it very well when she told me the thing that sets Denison students apart is that Denison students don’t settle.
But we can’t let that spirit stop at graduation. Yes, we’re in a bad economy. Yes, the outside world can seem daunting. But we can’t let that hold us back from carrying on what we’re doing here to our lives after Denison.
I have a friend who graduated a couple of years ago and then took one of the first jobs he got offered. It wasn’t the perfect job, but he was looking for security and took it. His advice to me the other day when we were catching up over the phone? You guessed it: don’t settle.
The average college graduate now holds a total of eleven jobs over his or her first twenty years after college. Now isn’t our time for security, now is our time for adventure.
And we’re the best-prepared of anyone for these new challenges. According to a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 89% of employers believe that universities should be putting more emphasis on oral and written communication. The degree that each of us will hold by the end of this ceremony won’t expire upon a change in career. A Denison education is about lifelong learning, and as long as new problems continue to arise, this world is going to need people who are willing to think in new ways.
And that’s the problem we’ve seen over and over again. We have answered a 21st century terrorist threat with a 20th century occupational response. We have treated the economic troubles of the 2000s with solutions from the 1990s. The 21st century needs specialists, but it also needs people who can think outside the traditions of the past to find the solutions of the future.
It’s people like us who are going to find these solutions. We have the skills. We have the opportunity. We just have to make sure that we don’t give up that special spirit that makes us Denisonians. We just have to make sure that we never settle.
Jerome Arthur Price '12
B.A. History and Black Studies; Rahway, New Jersey
Almost four years ago, I clearly remember taking a trip down I-70 with my family to Denison. Moving from an East Coast city to the village of Granville, it seemed as if I was instantly transformed from the liveliness found in almost any American city to cornfields, and lots and lots of cornfields. Turning off the Granville exit, I turned to my older brother who gave me the look that said, "Are you sure this is where we're suppose to go?" You could only imagine the look on my face—of a kid from the East Coast who began to realize he would now be living in the Midwest for the next four years of his life.
But, along the way, I took a deep breath and realized, like many of us that Denison has represented the training ground to understanding and engaging in a wide range of ideas. The rich experience of our liberal arts education provided the impetus for personal growth and development, whether in a research seminar or along Academic Quad. Those moments have pushed and prodded us to consider the impact we could potentially have on this generation.
Two men, fresh out of college would eventually unlock their potential and impact a generation. As new, idealistic, driven, yet inexperienced teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg were eager to create transformational change within their individual classrooms, which resided within some of the hardest hit communities in the nation. And then, they met Ms. Harriet Ball, described as a Houston, Texas elementary school's "star teacher." Ball was a no nonsense woman who stood just over six feet tall and reminded her students each day that her classroom wasn't Burger King, they wouldn't "have it their way." Ball had a love for teaching that compared to no other and spent a number of years within the classroom motivating her elementary school students to achieve and excel beyond expectations. "You've got to read, baby read," sang a class full of third graders. Mrs. Ball's students were singing about math all while creating rhythms during reading time. Levin and Feinberg couldn't believe their eyes and were very hungry to change the world, starting with their classroom—arriving to school early, leaving late. Routinely, Levin and Feinberg would sit in the back of Ms. Ball's classroom—taking in all of the spontaneity and energy that seemed to consistently capture the imagination of a group of elementary school students.
What Levin and Feinberg quickly realized was that there was no a secret sauce to teaching. There was no formula that any of their students were learning in a math or science that could be applied as the solution. They realized that Ball's whit, drive and determination for her students to succeed and surpass expectations was something that she personally brought to the table. It lived within her. Levin and Feinberg would eventually go on to found the Knowledge if Power Program (KIPP), a revolutionary college preparatory charter school in 1994. What I know for sure is that the stories of countless KIPP students, who would move from low income communities into to the Ivy League would not have been possible without the inspiration of an educator, that tall no nonsense woman, Harriet Ball.
I am convinced that educators like Mrs. Ball lives in each of us. Ok, so we may not all go on to become teachers and inspire our students. I get that. We may not all become well-respected politicians like Senator Richard Lugar. And, we may not all leave Denison and found a multi-billion dollar company, like Facebook, that reaches across the globe to the hands of people without the luxury of running water as Mark Zuckerberg did. But, if we look deep down inside, there is something that drives us each day to get up in the morning and work harder. Steven Spielberg once said, "Everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame." What I know for sure is that that fame may not always reach the masses. Touching one life—whether it's within a classroom, while on a walk through a park, on the job or even within your own neighborhood—may just be enough. Class of 2012: Take a deep breath. You are great. You are all leaders. Your life matters. Unleash the greatness that is within you. If not you, than who will?
But, what is also so great about of our lives at this moment is the reality that transformational leadership encompasses all fields and has no boundaries. Cory Booker proves the point. Growing up in an affluent Northern, New Jersey suburb only before entering the Ivy League, Booker subsequently became a community organizer in an infamous Newark, NJ housing project, Brick Towers. Today, Booker represents Newark as mayor, a city that has become synonymous with the term "renaissance" almost overnight. Moments after receiving his college diploma, Booker noted the advice of his grandparents who said, "Never forget that you could learn as much from a woman on the fifth floor of the projects as you could from one of these fancy professors—then would come the wisdom. In everything you do, stand up. Stand up for who you are. Stand up from where you come from. Stand up and tell your truth. Let your life be a testimony to the essence of who you are."
And so, in just a few hours, we, the class of 2012 will leave this place for the last time as students and I ask that you consider something. Consider committing yourself to something greater than yourself. Ms. Ball passed away just one year ago but her legacy continues to live on—as thousands of children, many of whom the world had given up on continue to defy the odds, enrolling into top colleges and universities across the nation because of KIPP. You don't have to search or look far to discover what you were put on earth to achieve. The naysayers and pundits will criticize you for your actions. But always remember to find out what you were put on earth to do and seize it. What I know for sure is that your destiny lives within you and is eagerly waiting to be unlocked. Take a deep breath. Stand up and unlock it class.
Steven Fred Profitt '12
B.A. Political Science; Carlisle, Ohio
One day after our Foreign Policy Formulation class, Dr. Andy Katz told a few of us students: "your 20s are the most uncertain time in your life, because you don't know what you're going to do, where you're going to do it, or who you're going to do it with." We all fell silent – so much for a rousing inspirational speech. Nevertheless, his point is well taken, and no graduation speech can answer any of those questions for us, so I'm not going to even try. Instead, I'd like to talk about some lessons I've learned at Denison that I believe would serve us well moving forward. My thoughts can be summed up in a single word: courage. My hope and my challenge for our class is that we exercise the courage to cross lines of difference in the pursuit of personal growth.
Just as plants need sunlight to grow, we need education to become fully mature individuals. At Denison, we aspire to become "autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens in a democratic society." I think of the liberal arts experience at Denison as a process of collision, struggle, and refinement: colliding with beliefs, lifestyles, and ideas that challenge us, struggling to reconcile those differences with what we believe to be true, and ultimately becoming refined into greater maturity. This process came alive for me at Denison in a multitude of ways. Through my involvement with Denison Religious Understanding, I learned about different perspectives on matters of religion and spirituality. These conversations challenged me to understand why I believe what I believe, and my Christian faith has grown considerably as a result. Furthermore, through studying Greek and Arabic at Denison, I discovered that language is not just a distinct way of speaking, but moreover a lens through which to view the world. These experiences were formative for me, but I can recount even more instances of refusing to take risks because I was afraid of exposing my true self to others. I would see an opportunity to talk with someone about a statement they made, for example, and turn away from it because I was afraid of being rejected by that person, knowing that my beliefs differed from theirs.
Too often we are unwilling to engage the process of collision, struggle, and refinement because we're afraid of what it might mean to question our most deeply held beliefs about who we are and what life is all about. We believe it's too much of a risk to cross certain lines of difference, whether race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, or others. But then again, the greater risk than opening ourselves to diversity is avoiding it. Yes, we can choose to surround ourselves with people who are just like us, only listen to perspectives that reinforce what we believe, and never step outside of our comfort zone because we're afraid, but in doing so we sacrifice far more than we gain. We may not know who we'll become or how we'll change if we face our fears, but we know that we cannot grow unless we do. As the poet William Arthur Ward said, "The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing…may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live."
To bring this all full circle, I think back to our induction ceremony – it was a gorgeous August day on the lawn of the campus commons behind Slayter. President Knobel was charging us to make the most of our Denison experience as only he can. I was an ambitious, eager first year student ready to hit the ground running. As I reflect on the countless ways I've grown since that day, I had no idea as I began my Denison career just how little I knew about myself and the world around me. And the same is still true for us all of us today: we don't have life all figured out and, more than that, we don't even have ourselves all figured out. But we do have the opportunity to grow if only we are willing to step outside our comfort zone and risk crossing lines of difference.
As Dr. Katz said, life after Denison is uncertain for all of us, but of this we can be certain: the quality of life we experience along the way will depend upon our choice to let fear control us or to overcome that fear with courage. First, we have to be completely honest with ourselves, striving to understand why we believe what we believe and remaining open-minded about the possibility that our beliefs could change. Furthermore, we must earnestly seek to understand the values, beliefs, and experiences of others – even when those values, beliefs, and experiences differ from our own – out of respect for their dignity as fellow human beings. This requires courage: saying no to fear and yes to growth.
My classmates, I challenge us all to cross lines of difference so that we may achieve mutual understanding with others and become refined into ever-greater maturity. May our courage be rewarded with abiding joy and lasting fulfillment in our journey beyond Denison.
Shuangqi "Joy" Wang '12
B.A. Sociology/Anthropology; Shenzhen, China
I never thought about pursuing a college education outside China until one day, when I was in the sixth grade, my aunt gave me this book that tells the story of a Chinese girl studying at Harvard University. Reading the book allowed me to learn about education in America and changed my mind about my future. Although I already forgot all the things about Harvard that I thought were so cool, I remember the decision I made after finishing the book and the determination I had. I told my parents that I wanted to attend college in the U.S. I wanted to be, what we called in Chinese, a Harvard girl.
I did not know anything about liberal arts education until a study abroad agency suggested it to me. After all, at that point, I was still thinking about becoming a Harvard girl. The woman from the agency told me that if I did not know what I wanted to major in, if I wanted a quality undergraduate education, and if I needed scholarship, I should look into liberal arts colleges. I did. Two months after the conversation, I submitted my application for Denison.
Denison accepted me and I was excited about this unknown journey. I was so excited that I checked the Denison website almost everyday. I signed up for the Service Orientation, bought all the stuff I would need and thought I was fully prepared. Unlike many others, I worried little about speaking English or making friends with non-Chinese people. After all, I had brief conversations with American people when I was in China, and they told me my English was good. Yes, I was unbelievably naïve. So of course, never had I imagine that I would cry so hard on the second day at Denison that I did not think I would ever make friends in America. I wanted to quit school and go back to China. That night, I talked to the only other Chinese student on campus, who was an upperclass woman. She told me that everything would become better eventually. I trusted her, and fortunately I did. D.C. was beautiful, and I made friends who shared similar interests with me. Eventually I was able to feel confident with speaking English and to participate in conversations with Americans in a less awkward way.
And then school started. I was a double major in Economics and Communication. I never heard about sociology or anthropology until my first-semester communication professor suggested us to take a sociology/anthropology class. It sounded like a good suggestion, but I waited until my sophomore year to audit the soc/anth intro class. However, that class changed the direction of my life. After sitting in the class for a week, I fell in love with the subject and officially registered for it. By the second week, I became a sociology/anthropology major.
Soc/Anth opened my eyes to the world. It introduced me to different cultures and societies, to how societies function, and how people think and behave differently. It changed my way of thinking and eventually the way I choose to live my life. My father and I used to argue a lot about Chinese politics. I was tolerant of my government but he was extremely critical. Before becoming a Soc/Anth major, I never appreciated his critical attitude towards the government. His political opinions seemed too extreme to me. Growing up in a group-oriented culture, I was raised to be tolerant of others, and, therefore, I associated being critical with “bad”. What’s more, I was even more uncomfortable with being critical of my government in front of non-Chinese people, because I was afraid of confirming their negative stereotypes of China by criticizing the government. However, taking soc/anth classes at Denison led me to realize how criticism moves a society forward, pushes the government to improve and become better for its people. A society cannot move forward if no one points out its problems. Therefore, I began to appreciate my father’s criticism of the government. I did research to investigate China’s poor human rights records in a critical way. I felt comfortable with criticizing China.
It is still hard to believe that my American college experience is coming to an end. My experiences at Denison changed me much more than I expected and these changes happened in more aspects than what I have mentioned. Now when I try to use the critical thinking and analyzing ability gained through liberal arts education, deconstructing my life, I realize that I could never plan for what would happen. I wanted to be a Harvard girl, but I came to Denison. I thought my English was excellent and I would have no problem making friends with non-Chinese, but I could not help making grammatical mistakes when I talked in the first week, or even now, and I did not have enough common subjects to talk with American students during the first several months. And then I thought I would never have friends at Denison, but luckily I was wrong on that. I also wanted to be an economic and communication double major, but graduated with a sociology/anthropology major. I did not appreciate my father’s political criticism, but I am becoming more and more critical, more and more like him. However, me having problems planning or anticipating my life was not really what I want to focus on here. What we should pay attention to is the interesting fact that no matter how much life surprises me, I was always fine, or even happier, in the end. I’m not the best planner in the world, but I also think we are a little too young to plan our life. Some of us already know what to do after graduation, but many of us do not. Few of us can foresee what we will be doing after the next five years. We may have to change jobs often. We may need to live in another place. We may have new people coming into our lives. We may have to leave things that we don’t feel ready to leave yet. However, with an open mind and confidence, we will be happily surprised by where life takes us to. This ending is a little cliché—I know. I didn’t plan for such an ending when I started writing this speech. However, I do not think it is a bad ending just because people have already said similar things before. It can be a good start for our life upon graduation.
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