Middlebury

Student Speech by Thomas Maxwell Nardini '08

 

Middlebury College Commencement, May 25, 2008

Thank you all.

I did not always feel at home at Middlebury College. There was a time when I found this school intimidating, even terrifying. I remember driving up to college with my father the fall of freshman year. Nearing the end of our trip, we passed a road sign that read "Middlebury-10 miles." My Dad merely gestured nonchalantly at the marker, but at this instant I was struck by our impending arrival. I felt stunned, distant, surreal. My body stiffened and I began to sweat. I started wishing that the drive could be just a little longer, just a little longer as I tried desperately to savor my last remaining moments before this thing called "Middlebury" hit me in full force.

Four years later, we, the class of 2008 and our Feb friends, are celebrating our successful completion of Middlebury College. And, as we did not succeed on are own, we are not celebrating on our own. We are joined today by literally thousands of people who have each played a part in our reaching this exciting point. First, seated behind us are our dear friends and families who, throughout the more stressful days of our college careers, helped us to keep things in perspective by reminding us that we had lives beyond Middlebury. You told us that you loved us and you showed us by always being there. We would not be here today without you. Second, flanking us on either side are our outstanding professors. A friend of mine once described Middlebury as an "intellectual playground." If so, then you, professors, built this playground. You do this not only by teaching us how to think instead of just what to think, but also by giving us the freedom to explore those topics of greatest interest to us. You encouraged us to shape our own academic destinies by grounding us in the basics and then supporting our individual innovations. We are eternally grateful for your fierce commitment to our educations. Finally, dispersed throughout the crowd, as well as up here on stage, are the members of Middlebury's dedicated "staff," which includes the custodians, cooks, deans, administrators, public safety officers, and many others. The general responsibility of the staff is straightforward, but by no means simple: keep Middlebury College running. And, they do this job incredibly well. Thank you so very much to each and every staff member.

Now, to the centerpiece of this occasion: the utterly fantastic class of 2008 and our utterly fantastic Feb friends joining us. To those of you who, despite today's pomp and ceremony, are simply terrified about graduating, let me say that I completely empathize. With this in mind, allow me to share a quick story. In my first class at Middlebury, my freshman seminar professor passed around a photograph that showed a group of freshly hatched baby sea turtles inching their way toward a daunting, gargantuan ocean. My professor commented that, at the very start of our college careers, he imagined that we felt a little bit like those sea turtles. At least in my case, he was completely right. And, I took comfort in his understanding. (Later, I was not so comforted to learn that only about 5% of baby sea turtles survive to adulthood.) However, we are celebrating here today because we have made it. Still, beyond Middlebury's campus lies another daunting, gargantuan ocean. But before we dive in, let us each just take a moment and personally reflect on some of the highs and lows of how we got to this point.

Think about a moment in the course of your years at Middlebury when you succeeded-when you penned the last line of your thesis, when you threw that all campus "rager," when you made your first college friend. One successful moment of mine was when I was elected student body president. Of course, I like to gloss over the fact that I ran uncontested. Think about a moment when you did not succeed, but through the love and support of your friends, your inner courage, and the strength of the hills you kept striving to do better. For me, one such moment was when I quite literally failed. That is, I received a flat "F" on a Spanish test. Think about a time you were embarrassed. I can think of many, but one in particular sticks out, and all of you were there to share it with me. It was late one night during fall semester when I accidentally emailed my essay for Introduction to Biblical Literature to the entire student body. Think about a time, to borrow from Professor McCardell's lexicon, when you "chose responsibility." And, think about a time when you didn't, but your roommate was kind enough to bring you water and tuck you into bed. All of these moments, both the good and the less than ideal, are meaningful parts our Middlebury experience and we will remember them for the rest of our lives.

Having touched on a mere few of our countless experiences, let us spend a moment more considering the people with whom we have shared these experiences. The flag on this stage and those suspended from Voter Hall represent the 48 states and 40 countries that the members of our class call home. They are a testament to Middlebury's diversity and they say a lot about our community. However, these flags do not begin to tell us just how diverse of a community we really are. They do not tell us that 18% of us are domestic "students of color," with another almost 10% being international students. They do not tell us that over 45 percent of us are on some form of financial aid. They do not show that we participate in more than 150 student organizations, ranging from the Student Investment Committee to Quiddich. These flags do not indicate that six-hundred and eleven of us are members of the Facebook group Middshift, which is dedicated to achieving carbon neutrality. Nor do they indicate that a smaller (but no less significant) number of us are members of the Facebook group: "Every Time Middshift Sends Me an Email, I Take the Elevator." The fact is, in our community, we have members from so many, many walks of life. And, these flags do not tell us that such diversity is both a blessing and a challenge. It is a blessing because we live and learn alongside extraordinarily bright, informed, and passionate individuals. I can hardly think of a more impressive sight than watching my fellow students actively discuss just about any topic-from the Giants versus the Patriots to George Bush versus the World. The challenge, on the other hand, is that, emboldened by our own opinions, we sometimes forget to listen to alternate points of view. In doing so, we denied ourselves the opportunity to tap the vast wells of knowledge of our fellow classmates, and gain a fuller understanding of the topic at hand. This is why, in our best moments, while we may not have always seen eye-to-eye, we looked each other in the eye. We listened to and respected one other, even while vehemently disagreeing. And, once in a while, we realized that we were actually wrong. If you remember one thing from your days at Middlebury, remember a time when you were wrong. After all, if you have the courage to admit when you are wrong, you will never be afraid to stand up for what you truly know to be right.

One day, I will again be driving up to Middlebury. I will pass the College's 10-mile marker and again be struck by my impending arrival. This time, however, I will be overwhelmed not by trepidation and anxiety, but rather by an eager longing, as if for an old friend with whom I will soon reunite. Thank you.