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Remarks by Sarah Billmeier '99 at Convocation Sept. 20, 2005

Posted 09/20/05

Sarah Billmeier '99
Sarah Billmeier '99

Thank you President and Mrs. Wright, exceptional Dartmouth faculty, and the class of 2009 for the honor of being asked to speak today. Class of 2009, I wholeheartedly welcome you to the Dartmouth community and congratulate you on your collective accomplishments that brought you to Hanover. In particular I would like to extend a welcome to those of you arriving here from areas affected by hurricane Katrina. Our thoughts are with you in this time of loss and recovery. I know that Dartmouth has been active in their response to this tragedy, and I hope that you are finding the support you need. It is with a twinge of jealously that I think of embarking on four years here. As we celebrate the initiation of your Dartmouth experiences, I will share with you a bit of my own Dartmouth story.

If I look honestly at my life, I can easily say that my disability brought me to the Big Green. At age five, my leg was amputated above the knee in a successful effort to treat bone cancer. While I wouldn't wish my past illness on anyone, it provided a clarity to my life that I never could have had otherwise. My missing leg opened up far more doors for me than it ever shut. I learned to ski at an adaptive program soon after losing my leg, and from there progressed to traveling around the world racing for the US Disabled Ski Team. My disability formed an inner kernel of stubbornness otherwise known as personal motivation. In high school, my coach knew me well enough to know that the way to get me to do anything was to tell me I couldn't do it. I have now given up on trying to prove to myself that I am without limitations, but my ability to enjoy a good challenge remains. Growing up as an amputee also liberated me from much of the body consciousness that afflicts American women. My outer shell would never be perfect - what difference did it make if I didn't look like a model?

Most importantly, I grew up with a profound awareness of the unpredictability of the human existence and with a sense of appreciation for the wonderful, but limited, gift of time. All of us have this same gift and with it the challenge of figuring out how best to spend the days we are given. Defining a path through life is a basic challenge, but something that I am confident everyone struggles with. More than most other times in life, college presents the opportunity to focus on discovering what you love to do or what you find most meaningful. In starting Dartmouth you have the chance to continue to carve out who you are and to determine what makes you happy.

I came to Dartmouth from the protected world of ski racing. Despite having traveled to multiple snowy foreign countries, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and basically had the same goals I did. Dartmouth was my first real exposure to the wide heterogeneity of human backgrounds and interests. Raised in a town of 500 people, I became fast friends with classmates from New York and Beijing. I met people interested in physics, classics, priesthood, law, art...this was a refreshing awakening! Part of understanding how to direct life's journey is based on knowing what the options are. Having been focused on athletics for most of my life, Dartmouth allowed me to see the world beyond. I am happy to see that Dartmouth's commitment to diversity is reflected in your class, with 49 of the 50 states and 25 foreign countries represented. Thirty percent of your class are underrepresented minorities. I am a firm believer that there is strength in diversity and hope you are able to learn from the people who come from worlds different than your own.

Like many of you, I began my Dartmouth experience on a Freshman trip. During our last night at the Moosilauke Ravine lodge I remember listening to an older and wiser upper classman speak. She encouraged us to sample widely from the extensive variety of opportunities offered at Dartmouth and to relish the chance to discover new interests. Relish, not meaning the condiment. I have always remembered that. This is the same message that I will pass along to you, to relish your new Dartmouth experiences. I do have to admit that during my first few years here I worked much harder at exploring the beautiful New England wilderness than I did in my classes. I learned how to paddle and rock climb. I took literature classes and enjoyed drawing in the HOP. I changed my major a couple of times. I don't regret any of this - in fact these are the things I miss the most now that I have focused my life on a career in medicine. Having sampled different possibilities, I was able to be much more confident in my eventual decision to go to medical school and become a surgeon.

Part of the reason I chose to come to Dartmouth was because of the D plan. I took 6 years to complete my studies here in order to balance my twin passions of skiing and education. I still appreciate that Dartmouth's flexibility allowed me to grow as a multi-dimensional person, and permitted me to pursue opportunities outside of Hanover. There is more than one way to travel through these hallowed halls, and the path can be as much of your own creation as you like.

You will soon discover that Dartmouth's real strength is sitting all around you. Your classmates are some of the most intelligent, interesting and all around fantastic people that you will meet. They are truly outstanding. Many of the people in this room will continue to educate, inspire and motivate you long after your graduation.

A Dartmouth education is a multifaceted gift, lifelong and wonderful. I hope that your adventures here are propelled by the magic of discovering new interests, meeting new people and finding your unique place within this community. Congratulations on starting your own Dartmouth journey.

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