The Strength of the Hills
Middlebury College Commencement, May 24, 2009
Good morning President Liebowitz, trustees, honorary guests, faculty, staff, fellow students, families, friends, and the Class of 09. I think I speak for the entire class when I say thank you to everybody for being here to celebrate our graduation. Faculty and staff of the College, thank you, for your patience, experience, and knowledge. You have been here for us since convocation four years ago, and I'm not surprised to see so many of you here today at commencement.
I can't speak for all the times between then and now, but I remember convocation well. Ever since that day, one specific scene has remained very clear to me; looking up towards Mead Chapel as I followed the class procession ascending the hill of the main quad, and feeling uncomfortable. Uncomfortable not only because I was a wiry kid from Missouri stuck in a procession of roughly 630 kids who all seemed to feel just a little more relaxed than I did, but because as I walked up the hill, I could not wrap my mind around the inscription that assumes keystone importance atop the focal point of our campus.
The writing on the entablature resting upon the grand Roman columns reads:
The strength of the hills is his also. The strength of the hills is his also.
And as I read this quote over and over I couldn't help but get more and more confused, and less and less comfortable, to the point where I was grappling with whether these venerable hills were the Adirondacks or the Greens, which led me to realize I didn't know which were which, and the downward spiral continued. So now, anytime I see a kid walking around campus with a map, walk sheepishly into the wrong classroom two weeks into the semester, or go to Ross dining hall for dinner when its clearly Taco Fiesta in Atwater, I try to think about how I felt walking up that hill, helplessly staring upwards at those bold words and remember, with as much empathy as I can muster, just exactly what it feels like to be a freshman.
I'm happy to say that I'm standing here today, a graduating senior, and feeling completely comfortable. I'm comfortable because I understand now, at least in my own way, the meaning of that inscription. The life we live at Middlebury has taught me the meaning of the strength of these hills, and that is exactly the value of a Middlebury education. By that I don't mean $201,600, but I'll pause anyway for anybody that feels inclined to thank his or her parents once more. Rather, the strength of the hills is the ability to think critically, and for ourselves. It's the power to produce great work, and the capacity to balance that work with the things we love outside of the classroom, and soon, the workplace. The strength of the hills is the legacy left by the students that came before us who set the example for students like us, and the knowledge that we have set the bar for students in the future. The strength of these hills is the relationships we've built with professors, staff, and alums, with people we have met along the way, and with each other. We would not be the adults we are now, nor would the strength of the hills be as formidable a force without these relationships. And finally, as a confluence of all of these variables, the strength of the hills is the accomplishments we have made along the way, and will make in the future.
Speaking of accomplishments, I have to say, the strength of these hills, and the power it has endowed in us, is often times devastatingly crushing. It's an understatement to say that living and going to school with you all has been a humbling experience. As a class we are amazing athletes, unbelievable artists, incredible organizers, engaging mobilizers, and difference making activists. Students of our class have received a variety of post-graduate fellowships and scholarships, including a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for research abroad, a St. Andrews Society Fellowship for study in Scotland, two Compton Mentor Fellowships, four Kathryn Davis Projects for Peace Fellowships, and three Fulbright Scholar Grants.
Our sports teams won 19 NESCAC championships and seven national titles. We've been awarded 51 all-NESCAC honors, 81 all-NESCAC academics, 20 all-American awards. And I couldn't possibly do justice to the volunteer and environmental efforts, and the variety of achievements in the arts with a few lines in this speech.
To think about all of the accomplishments our class has achieved over the past four years, during the process of acquiring the tools Middlebury provides, it's scary to think how much more humbled I will be as our class makes its mark outside of Midd. I don't know how much more humbling I can take, but I do know that every time I read one of your books, see one of your films, or hear about you in the news it will soften the blow knowing two things; you all like Madonna as much as I do, and as a function of that, I saw you take your shirt off at a Late Night Dance Party in McCullough.
So as our Middlebury careers come to an end I urge you to reflect upon those words suspended above our heads on Mead Chapel. Think about how you have obtained and become a part of the strength of these hills. The strength of the hills might also be his, but, after spending four years here, I'm convinced that the strength of the hills is primarily ours. The skills we have learned here will be with us for the rest of our lives so use them. Remember to take full advantage of life, like we have all done here at Middlebury, and I have no doubt that you all will continue to humble me.