This website is no longer being updated. Visit Dartmouth Now for all news published after June 7, 2010.
Good morning President Wright, Distinguished Faculty, Honored Guests, and, of course, Dartmouth students:
My name is Michael Arad, though right now I could probably be convinced otherwise; I am a nervous public speaker. When President Wright asked me to give the convocation address I told him that my lowest grade at Dartmouth was in public speaking; I don’t know why, but he seemed to think that that was not too important. Presidential prerogatives.
I stand before you – faculty, staff, students and members of the Dartmouth family – with great humility. I have found my life transformed during the past few years, especially the last year, in ways I never could have anticipated. I think that Dartmouth can be a catalyst for change in your lives, and I think that if you let it happen, you will find out that you really have no idea where you can go, which is actually a great thing. You are about to discover new worlds.
I can tell you that uncertainty is somewhat terrifying. My first term at Dartmouth I took an Astronomy class in the Physics department, a Stage Management class in the Theatre department and something else – I don’t remember. My parents were terrified. My lack of focus and direction was of great concern for them. What was I doing they asked? I don’t know what I was doing. Skimming through the course catalog was like looking at a picture menu at Denny’s too late at night. Everything looked good and I was probably picking the wrong thing.
It didn’t help that out of the entire student body only 3 people had signed up for Stage Management. That did not help at all. However this first class I took at the HOP led to so many wonderful things that I can’t imagine what my life at Dartmouth would have been like without it. By the end of that term I had come to know so many students and faculty members. Finding out that there were few opportunities for freshmen to direct, produce and star in the Drama’s Department three quarterly productions, I helped found the “Freshmen Players”, and with money from our class council we put together an enormous cast and crew of freshmen and staged Woody Allen’s God at Collis. We put on three shows to full houses during Winter Carnival and we brought down the house. We had no idea what we were doing, so it was a good thing it was a comedy involving students in togas.
In many ways that was typical of the experiences I had at Dartmouth. They were new to me. I learned so much, and often not within the confines of a course. Living in New Hampshire was new and novel, being away from home was great, getting up and going to sleep whenever I wanted to was great. Living in America, that was pretty new and great. Getting a 2.7 GPA my first term was not.
After my freshman year I left college to serve for three years in the Israeli army at the height of the first intifada. As you can imagine it was a difficult experience. I am glad that I had a year of college behind me before I began my service. There were moments of isolation and beauty in my service, and moments of loneliness and despair. In many ways I was not mature enough for the experiences I had to face, but nobody I served with was either. Returning to Dartmouth from the west bank was a jarring and surreal experience. The transition was somewhat tempered by the fact that many of my friends were still around. The popular five-year plan. Many of you will discover it.
Being back at Dartmouth was difficult. This place will be difficult for all of you at some time or another. If it isn’t you are not doing something right. It will be difficult academically, it will be difficult socially, it will be difficult financially (I am still paying back my student loans) and it will be difficult emotionally. The valedictorian of my graduating class told us at graduation that the reason none of us knew her was because she spent four years either at the library with her books, or at the gym, on the stair master, trying to deal with her eating disorder. The year before that the valedictorian speaker used the graduation pulpit to excoriate his classmates for their treatment of gay students at Dartmouth.
Dartmouth can be a liberating and a confining experience. Upon my return I felt a need to focus my direction of study, especially when the registrar’s office demanded that I declare a major. I had always thought I might go to law school, partially out of interest, and partially out of expectations I had grown up with, my own, and those of others. I am sure that many of you already think you know what you are going to do at Dartmouth. I have no doubt that there are many future doctors and lawyers and bankers here. And the world does need more. I think. Being a government major allowed me to have my cake and eat it too. I got my ‘pre-law’ major, cleared the deck, got all my requirements out of the way quickly and then had a full year left to pursue courses in any area whatsoever. Religion, Art History, Literature, Studio Art. I was free to take anything I wanted.
I was lucky to discover architecture during this last year of college, and I was consumed by it instantly. I spent almost every minute of the term holed up in a studio at the HOP, and only took brief breaks to get food at the cafeteria across the hall. I got very sick that term. Eating and sleeping are important things. Don’t skip them.
I was also lucky not to get into the law school of my choice the first year I applied. It was during this senior year that I applied to law school in Israel, thinking that though architecture is great, it isn’t for me. I did not feel talented enough or brave enough. At graduation I appeared to be rudderless, heading back down to Washington DC to work part time at the Israeli Embassy. After about a month of that I decided to just switch to plan B. It helped that Melanie, my girlfriend and future wife, and fellow alumna, didn’t find life in Washington to be the answer to any of the questions that she was asking. Oh yeah, watch out, your future spouse might be sitting a few rows away from you right now.
Plan B was heading west, to spend almost a year in Colorado, applying to graduate schools and working as ski-bums. It was an irresponsible and impulsive act. I think you should all behave irresponsibly every once in a while. How is that for a convocation address? Better now than at graduation. I ended up going to Architecture school after all, having to finally decide between law school and life in Israel, which I could easily imagine, or Architecture school and life in the US – which was a good deal fuzzier. It was a difficult decision, and meant saying no to many things – primarily to being close to my family and my country.
Architecture led me to New York. It was there three years ago that I witnessed the attacks on September 11th. I was terrified by what I saw. From my apartment building I saw one of the planes crash, and soon thereafter I was downtown, blocks away from the site when the South Tower fell. My reaction to the events of that morning was immediate and visceral. I hurried downtown to find Melanie, who still works a short distance from Wall Street. In the following days I joined other New Yorkers in silent and impromptu vigils. I wandered late at night, sleepless, through New York, in parts of the city that seemed to have suffered an extended war. I felt a strong bond being forged between my city and me. A city I had lived in for years but a city in which I had always felt like a visitor. Months later I was still haunted by what I had seen and I felt prompted to think about the design of a memorial to commemorate the events and the city’s response.
One thing I didn’t ever expect was to be put in a position of importance in the struggle to rebuild New York and commemorate the loss of these lives. It is a frightening position to be in, and it has been a very difficult year for me because I have found myself responsible for a design that inevitably has come under criticism, not by people who are opposed to it, but by a multitude of people who would like to improve it even further. Some of these people are right, there are improvements that could and should be made, and I have strived to respond to suggestions in a constructive fashion. Other suggestions are in my opinion misguided and I have had to find the right way to convey that. All of my critics and collaborators are well intentioned.
On my way up here from New York I was delayed at the airport, and I found myself reading the 9/11 commission report at the terminal bookstore. I was struck by the concluding paragraph of the preface, the Chair, Thomas Kean, and the Vice Chair, Lee Hamilton wrote ‘We came into this process with strong opinions about what would work. All of us have had to pause, reflect, and sometimes change our minds as we studied these problems and considered the views of others. We hope our report will encourage our fellow citizens to study, reflect - and act.’
As I read this I thought again of the difficulties I am facing, and the difficulty of knowing when to reconsider one’s position in light of an exchange of ideas and opinions with others. I could think of no better way of concluding my comments to you today than to encourage you to do the same with your brief stay here at Dartmouth. Hold your opinions strongly, but be open to the exchange of these ideas with others, and then take your convictions and do something wonderful and constructive. Study, reflect – and act.
Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.