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Dartmouth Commencement 2008

Posted 06/08/08

Address to the College by Valedictorian Nicholas Christman
Nicholas Christman
Nicholas Christman
Listen to the valedictory address by Nicholas Christman '08, class valedictorian, June 8, 2008 (7:15, 6.6mb)

Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, family, friends and classmates.

Last time I was home, my mom said to me: "If you speak at graduation, please don't say anything dumb or offensive."  My dad didn't bother with advice.  He knew that he'd contributed half of my genes, meaning that, if you let me talk for five minutes, I'm almost guaranteed to say something dumb and offensive.

Here we are: Commencement.  The name itself is an ominous reminder that we have futures we cannot ignore, futures we must, well, commence.  But I don't have much to say about the future.  You don't need me to tell you that we have great potential, that we will leave our mark on the world, that we are future doctors, lawyers, politicians, and a dozen floors worth of Merrill Lynch employees.  You certainly don't need me to give you advice.  Half of the people I've met here are bright, motivated, and moving linearly in the direction of their ambitions.  Everyone else has made at least one friend in the first group, so I think that means we're all okay.

I'd rather reflect a little bit on my education at Dartmouth, and, specifically, on how my perception of education has changed.  Someone famous (or at least observant) said:  "Nothing worth knowing can be taught."  Clearly, we learn a lot.  The question is: what actually sticks?  At this point, half of us probably couldn't even name the classes we took this spring.  The things that stick, I think, are those that we teach ourselves.  The things that stick are those that we pick up by observing and interacting with the people around us.

Let me give you an example.  Prasad Jayanti, a professor in Computer Science, is widely recognized as a great teacher in the classroom.  This year, I worked on a thesis with him.  Among the most important lessons I learned were many that Prasad didn't explicitly teach to me, and they don't show up in the final paper.  For instance, I've seen the value of being truly present in each moment.  A busy person, Prasad often has only ten minutes to spare.  When he gives you those ten minutes, he gives you full attention, full energy, full everything, and those ten minutes really make a difference.  I've seen how enthusiasm fuels accomplishment.  Prasad can tell you that there's beauty in a computer program, and he'll state his case so passionately and so convincingly that you try to create similar beauty in your own work. Prasad is from the southern part of India, and through him, I've glimpsed a different and wonderful culture.  But let me warn you: be wary of south Indian pickles-they're so spicy that they almost made my eyes bleed.  That's another lesson Prasad let me learn on my own.  The example I gave was a professor, but students have contributed as much, if not more, to what I have learned here. 

When someone asks what makes Dartmouth unique, "the people" is a reflex answer.  I've said it before without knowing precisely what I meant.  This is what I meant:  you challenge me, you make me laugh, you inspire me, you bring me down to earth, you make me better.  You are my education.

There is one last thing I would like to say.  In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, comes "unstuck" in time.  That is, Billy Pilgrim bounces haphazardly from one point in his life to another, reliving each experience over and over.  Reflecting on Billy Pilgrim's plight, Vonnegut writes, "If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice."

Memory makes each of us Billy Pilgrim.  Memories of teammates from soccer, memories of professors like Prasad, memories of you, students of Dartmouth.  These memories, these relationships carry us forward.  Thank you for so many nice moments.

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