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Dartmouth Commencement 2008

Posted 06/08/08

Address to the College by Valedictorian Jean Ellen Cowgill
Jean Ellen Cowgill
Jean Ellen Cowgill
Listen to the valedictory address by Jean Ellen Cowgill '08, class valedictorian, June 8, 2008 (6:48, 6.6mb)

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

I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you today, but mostly I want to speak to my fellow 2008 classmates. I wanted to make you laugh out loud this morning. Your seat is hard. The sun is hot. You are covered in black polyester. I figured if you had to sit and listen to me, I at least owed you one good laugh. Unfortunately I wasn't feeling particularly funny this week. Anxious, yes. Humorous, no.

So I thought I should say something honest as I listened to the last late-night conversations, I wondered what would I say if I were about to walk out the door of this apartment, this basement, this restaurant, this moment and wouldn't come back.

In confronting such a question, I realized I didn't have anything philosophical, funny or even poetic to share with you before our class scatters. All I wanted to say to each of you over the course of senior week was thank you.

Thank you for astounding me with your knowledge, your wit and your insight. You constantly forced me to question my assumptions about you and about myself. Thank you to those of you who wore ridiculous costumes every week for no reason. You reminded me to be comfortable in my own skin, or something neon. Thank you for second chances and for forgiveness. You didn't expect me to always do the right thing-but you challenged me to try. Thank you for creating a community where I felt safe walking across campus at 3 am. Without that sense of security, I would never have gotten to appreciate the silence of the fog settling on the Green after nights of silliness or study. And thank you for making me feel comfortable to be a nerd. Thank you suggesting late-night pizza at those moments that I really needed it and for the impromptu lunches that ended up lasting for hours. Thank you for the memories that make it so difficult to leave. Most of all, thank you for your passion. Without that, I doubt the rest would have mattered as much as it did. If you have taught me anything, it is allegiance to what one knows one loves.

I wish I could say I came up with that last phrase myself, but, like so many other pieces of wisdom, I owe it to a professor. Early in my thesis research this past fall, I read a statement by Harvard Professor George Santayana that has been ringing in my ears ever since. Writing in 1921, Santayana set out to refute negative statements made about the undergrad's focus on things like parties and drinking (criticisms we never hear today, of course). Santayana countered that reformers actually should try to make the world more like colleges and their students. "The world would then shine with what is called honor," Santayana wrote, "which is allegiance to what one knows one loves."  The world, remade in a college student's image, would shine with honor, allegiance to what one knows one loves.

Now, Professor Santayana may have taught at Harvard, but I don't think the statement could be more Dartmouth. I have seen the truth of it in everything that you, my classmates, have created at this college. You are fiercely loyal to the things you love, and you have translated it into discussion, sports, shows, service and art and to making and remaking campus life. You continually wow me with your courage and honesty in pursuing your dreams and practicing your beliefs. My college memories shine because of the passion you have put into this place.

Of course, Professor Santayana's defense of us college students provokes a question: why not? With our demonstrated loyalty to what we love, Santayana claimed, we could remake the world. So why not make the next ten years as meaningful as the past four? I'm not going to pretend I know how to do that-I haven't even graduated yet. But I cannot wait to see where your passion leads you in the years to come. I am certain you will continue to make me proud and grateful to be a member of the Dartmouth Class of 2008. Thank you for these four years. I will miss you all.

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