Senior Class Speech by Quentin Liren Jeyaretnam ’23
May 28, 2023
Good morning, President Elliott, Provost Epstein, trustees, faculty, staff, parents, families, supporters, and, of course, my fellow graduands. Class of 2023, today, we’ve made it. Today is the day we celebrate all that we have achieved in the past four years, the day that we look back and remember all the good that has passed and look forward to all the good that will come. Today is the day that we finally become graduates of Amherst College.
It is my distinct honor and privilege to be your commencement speaker, though, to be quite honest, I’m still a little surprised to have been nominated. I’ve spent the better part of the past year alone in a dim corner of B level working on a thesis, feeling quite disconnected and forgotten by the world. Well, I say working but what I mean is I’ve been playing unhealthy amounts of online chess, drafting emails to my thesis advisor, Professor Sims, making excuses for why I’d only written two lines of code in a week, and, more recently, mindlessly scrolling through Fizz waiting for someone to say they had a crush on me – fingers still crossed!
That wasn’t the only reason I was surprised, though. You see, I’ve always felt like outsider here. I arrived in 2019 as a 22 year-old, older than some of you are now, from a small, tropical island at the other end of the world. I’d spent two years before that as a soldier in the army, and now found myself in an environment so completely different from what I was used to. There I had grown to love the sweltering, humid Southeast Asian jungles, while here I faced the frigid and unforgiving New England winters. There I arose at 0500 sharp to fall in for morning PT, while here I could sleep in as late as I wanted to (and, on more than one occasion, through several of my morning classes.) There I had every minute of my day planned out for me, my only concern giving and receiving orders according to the chain of command, while here I had freedom and choice – to study what I wanted to study, to spend my days how I wanted to spend them, to become the person that I wanted to be. Frankly, I was overwhelmed.
I found myself missing home, missing that sense of familiarity and comfort, and I felt lost, displaced.
Like all of you, though, I pushed through. I focused on what I had come here to do: to learn, to live, to be shaped by an institution that had shaped so many before me. I was filled with a burning desire to belong, to find my place and quell that uneasy feeling of being on the outside. And so, I followed the usual Amherst routine: I joined 30 clubs that I have yet to attend meetings for, I formed a new group of friends that I haven’t spoken to in three years, and I majored in economics.
In that first semester, things seemed to be looking up. I made friends and was beginning to find community – in CISE with my fellow international students, in Arms with other musicians, and in my dorm and the first-year quad with all of you. I was in a 12-person group chat that seemed to only talk about when to get lunch in the “milk section” of Val. I was also lucky enough to get along with my roommate Liam, who never complained when I would snooze through the first two of my alarms at six in the morning and always generously offered me his mother’s homemade banana bread, which I still think about to this day.
In my coursework, I felt like I was having the quintessential liberal arts experience, studying Green’s Theorem in Multivariable Calculus and the laws of supply and demand in Intro Econ one day and then in my first-year seminar watching opera and reading Voltaire. I learned how to do problem sets – go to office hours and slyly wait for my professor to give me the answers – and how to properly participate in a discussion class – wait until someone else says something smart, say, “To add on to that,” and then with more flowery language rephrase their point.
And yet, I could see that something special was happening to me. Just by sitting in office hours and trying to wrap my head around a question, I was starting to learn to problem solve. Just by speaking up in class, even if in the beginning I had to use that magical phrase and was just building on the originality of another, I was starting to form and express my own opinions. By knowing that participation was valued, I learned to speak my mind and have my voice be heard. I was beginning to figure out who I was, beginning to feel a little less on the outside, like this, Amherst, might be home.
But then in our second semester, things took a turn for the worst. After only a few months of charting our own paths, of finding our own sense of ourselves away from our families, we were forcefully returned to our childhood bedrooms, to Zoom classes and online exams. As much as I was glad to be safe and with my family back in Singapore, I again felt lost and displaced. I had gotten a taste of life at Amherst, and now had to let it all go. How would I find a sense of home, of community, so far away from the friends and professors I cared so much about?
And yet, once more, like every one of you, I pushed through. I found that the Amherst community continued to embrace me, even from thousands of miles away. I called friends, excitedly discussing our eventual reunions. I attended classes and office hours, though now, with the time difference, they were often in the middle of the night – I remember feeling so cared for when Professor Rice offered to meet with me separately each week rather than have me Zoom into an art history lecture at 3 AM. I felt proud to be an Amherst student, to be part of a community that cared so deeply for one another.
In the rest of my time at Amherst, I’ve continued to feel that care – from professors, from instructors, and from friends – and I’ve learned more than I could have ever imagined. Professor Contreras, you taught me that objects in higher dimensions are very, very hard to visualize, but also that math can be incredibly beautiful. I’m sorry to say, though, that while I can prove it exists, I still don’t really know what a Lie group is.
In economics, I learned about the value of comparative advantage and how it underpins our society – basically, identify and focus on what you’re good at. This is, of course, only untrue for Professor Ishii, who somehow knows something about just about everything and is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met – he never lets you forget it, by the way.
Professor Rabinowitz, you introduced me to the expansive world of Russian literature and taught me that it's okay to be weird and even a little bit crazy – Dostoevsky and Bulgakov certainly were. Most importantly, as you never fail to exuberantly remind me and all of your students, you taught me that majoring in STEM was an absolutely terrible choice and that I should’ve focused on the humanities when I had the chance.
So much has changed since I first stepped foot on this campus. For one, I’m now closer to 30 than I am 20 and my hangovers last 3 business days. I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I’ve fallen in love and had my heart broken. I’ve been hurt, and I’ve hurt others. I’ve felt pain and struggle, but also joy, so much joy.
I imagine my experience rings true for many of you. While we might not have all taken the same courses, we share many of the same lessons. We’ve learned that we can comprehend complex ideas and understand that something is true without being able to see it.
We’ve learned to identify our strengths and build ourselves up. We’ve learned to embrace being weird and a little bit crazy, to embrace being an outsider. Most of all, we’ve learned a little bit more about who we are, and about what we can do for the world.
Truth be told, we’re all outsiders. Whether an athlete, a NARP, or the mysterious shadow Amherst, we’ve all been filled with dread at the thought of sitting alone at Val. We’ve all pretended not to care about the marriage pact while secretly hoping to find the one. We’ve all navigated ingroups and outgroups and just plain being alone, staring at the snowy expanse of the frigid and unforgiving New England winter. That’s the funny thing about Amherst: it has a way of welcoming outsiders, of offering us chances to learn and grow, to discover the world and ourselves. A bubble, perhaps, but one that protects and nurtures. A home, if only briefly.
So, as we teeter on the precipice of adulthood, as we celebrate all that we have achieved, remind yourself that just as each of us have made Amherst what it is, so too has Amherst made each of us. Take that feeling, of what it means to have the freedom to think for yourself, to express yourself, and bring it out into the world. Forget the pain, forgive where you can, but keep the joy. Bring what you have learned of who you are to tackle the crises that beset our generation and be a beacon of good in the world. And, whenever you feel a little lost, remember Amherst, remember how you rose to the challenge and came out all the stronger, remember that every outsider can find a place to call their own. Above all, remember that through your experiences here, by learning who you are and finding yourself, wherever you go from here on out, you are home.