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Study, Reflect, Act

Convocation Address by Michael Arad '91

[Architect Michael Arad '91 was selected earlier this year to design the World Trade Center memorial.]

Good morning...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 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.

Michael Arad '91
Michael Arad '91 (photo by Joe Mehling '69)

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 theater department, and something else I don't remember. My parents were terrified. My lack of focus and direction was of great concern for them....

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 department's 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....

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....

Upon my return [to Dartmouth], 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 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 [wasn't] for me. I did not feel talented enough or brave enough. At graduation, I appeared to be rudderless, heading back down to Washington, D.C., to work part-time at the Israeli embassy....

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 U.S., 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 9/11. 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 [my wife] 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 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....

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.

[Full text of Michael Arad's speech]

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Last Updated: 7/24/18