Senior Class President Meredith Willis' 2011 Commencement Speech
When thinking about a theme for my Commencement speech, I came up with a few competing ideas: I thought about Wisdom. I thought about Courage. I thought about Achievement.
So I’m going to talk about mistakes.
It seems an odd topic for such a celebration: yesterday afternoon we honored some of our successes in academia, athletics and accordion. Later today, we’ll come across the platform to receive our diplomas and shake hands with President Oxtoby. If anything, this speech should be focused on the positive aspects of our education, friendships and growth we’ve experienced over the past four years. The reason I want to talk about mistakes is because they were also a necessary part in getting us to where we are today: graduating from Pomona College.
Mistakes come about in a variety of ways: sometimes by accident, sometimes through forces you’re unable to control, but the mistakes I’d like to talk to you about, Class of 2011, are those we all make when we take risks.
This past year, we saw the introduction of Pomona’s fundraising campaign, Daring Minds. It recognizes the chances Pomona students have taken in their academic and extracurricular lives to enhance their learning and living experiences. The word “daring” in the title implies risk: for some of us, the risk was embedded in going the extra mile in our studies or our athletic performance; for some of us, it was in building communities. For some of us, it was applying to college, for some of us, it was agreeing to share a dorm shower with nineteen other people in freshman year. We all took risks and made mistakes along the way, but this Commencement is evidence of the fact that we all got up, dusted ourselves off, and tried again. As we leave today, I’d like to encourage you all to maintain that attitude, and I’d like to do that with some words of wisdom from some friends.
Kirkegaard said, “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” The Class of 2011 witnessed historical events that could only have been achieved by risking a great deal: right before many of us walked through the gates in 2007, Nancy Pelosi was elected as the first female speaker of the House. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first African-American to be elected President of the United States. In 2009, Steve Jobs launched the Apple iPad. In 2010, Senate repealed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy; and, perhaps the most momentous occasion of all, in 2011, a little girl with a big dream released her single “Friday” on YouTube. All of these are achievements – on national or personal levels – and represent the fact that risks must be taken if we are to evolve in our diversity, technology and tolerance. Making mistakes is part of the process: losing yourself because you couldn’t bear to lose your footing for a moment cannot be our goal as we go out into the big, bad world.
Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried something new.” The author James Dale detailed some famous mistakes in his Book The Obvious: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; the Beatles were turned down for a recording contract by Decca Records. John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by sixteen agents and a dozen publishers. Had these now-famous names not persevered, the world would arguably be lacking a great deal of talent. Going out on a limb and succeeding is something to be admired, but keep in mind that there are a lot of limbs you may have to climb in order to achieve your goal. Antonio Machado said, “Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.” Don’t let the clear-cut road distract you: something that worked for one person will not necessarily work for another. Those who have power over you may not be convinced that you can get that extra basket to win 87-86 or sing “Hey Jude” or write The Firm. But they could easily be wrong.
Zachary Scott said, “The only thing you live to regret are the risks you didn't take.” If I can leave you with one thought, I’d like it to be this: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Your families and friends will congratulate you on the achievements that led to you getting to your seat today, but keep in mind that along the road, you made mistakes, and you will make more after you leave here today. Keep taking risks, keep being daring minds. As Kanye West, with the help of Daft Punk and Nietzsche, sang in the year of our matriculation, “That that don’t kill me will only make me stronger…I know I got to be right now/’cause I can’t get much wronger… work it harder, make it better/do it faster, makes us stronger/ more than ever ever after, our work is never over.”
Making mistakes is part of the process of daring, discovering and, eventually, achieving, and when you look back, you might realize that they were never mistakes at all but just alternate pathways to other achievements. Keep daring, Class of 2011. Ask questions, Google everything, and keep in mind Marilyn Monroe’s words: that “What the hell?” is always the right answer.
I wish you, the Class of 2011, all the best in the risks you’ll take and the mistakes you’ll make in the paths you’ll create by walking. I also wish you, fellow graduate Kristin Raphel, a very happy birthday. I look forward to seeing you all again in the future, and hearing about how daring you’ve continued to be.