Video: Senior Class Speech

May 26, 2019

Selected by her peers to give the senior class speech, Helena Burgueño had this advice for her fellow students about their post-Amherst lives: “You don't have to have everything figured out today, and you definitely don't have to know how you feel about leaving this place.”


Audio file


I think it was about time for my dad to find out that I was going to be commencement speaker. Hi, papa. I'm not going to look at you anymore, though, because I'm going to cry.

Thank you, President Martin.

For those of you who don't know me, my name is Helena Burgueño. If you want, you can also call me Helena Burgueño, but I'll be honest, I really don't love it when you call me Helena Burgwayno.


When I introduce myself, I am doing so, in part, to say hello for the very first time to all of the parents and friends and family that are here to celebrate with us today. But I am also saying hello for the very first time to many of the members of my graduating class.

Hi there.

Class of 2019, I know for a fact that when my name got announced as senior speaker, there was a pretty decently sized chunk of you that had no clue who I was. But that's ok. That's actually the reason that I decided to run for speaker in the first place, because I really wanted to talk about how much it blows my mind that in the whole history of the universe, there is this very, very limited number of people who can honestly say, "I graduated from amherst college in may of 2019," and yet some of us have never even seen each other's faces before.

I love to think about the fact that for every single moment that I was somewhere on this campus, whether I was lugging film equipment to and from fayerweather, or going for long walks on the bike path, or half-heartedly lifting the 10-pound weights at the gym.

For every single one of those moments, there were over 400 of you out there doing completely different things in completely different places, unless it was quesadilla night in val, in which case at least 350 of you were, for some reason, waiting in the traditional line at one time, in spite of the fact that you had unlimited access to tortillas, cheese, and a warm panini press. I've never understood that.

But at the same time that each of us has experienced our own, distinct version of amherst, it feels like we should think of ourselves as a group. If you think about it, the class of 2019 has been through a lot together, because amherst has been through a lot in the past four years.

We were brand new at amherst during uprising, we witnessed the birth of the mammoths and the death of the socials, we saw the most enormous mound of dirt I have ever seen in my life transform into a new science center. We developed the perfect breakfast smoothie recipe, only to have our blenders taken away.

But you know what? I think that last one was for the best, let's be honest.

That last one was for the best. Do you remember those people who overdid it with the frozen mango and then ended up carrying eight cups of their own custom smoothie around on a tray? But you see, that's what I'm talking about when I say that we have a lot of history as a class, because - that memory from our first year? - that's a 'vintage Amherst' moment now.

So in many ways, this is not the same school that we applied to. And I can't speak for all of you, but for me it's been hard to be in a place that's constantly changing when I myself have been going through a new identity crisis on a daily basis. So, I don't want to romanticize my time at amherst. Because this was not easy. And not easy means something different for each of us,

Here's a test -- and I need your help with this -- please raise your hand if you ever felt personally victimized by sophomore year.

Yeah, see?

I may not necessarily know you, but let me tell you, I feel you. Sometimes, I think back to this one particular day during my sophomore year when I was so completely overwhelmed by everything that I just turned off the lights in my room and ate an entire box of graham crackers in the dark. And when I think of that day, I genuinely can't believe that I made it to this moment right here - because when you're eating your feelings with graham crackers, that's a major low.

But acknowledging hardship doesn't devalue the entire experience of being here. If anything it makes today feel like more of a celebration because for one reason or another we made it through. In spite of the fact that there were actual minutes and hours that eventually turned into days in which I was perhaps genuinely unhappy here, I can now look back and say, "I had a kind of miserable sophomore year." And having that perspective, knowing that, even in the most incredibly trying times, I will someday be able to reduce my whole experience down to a sentence if I need to, that's how I survive.

It doesn't erase the hardship or the very real feelings that are attached to it. It just makes everything seem so much more manageable. Each of us, for example, can sum up the past four or so years into four words: "I went to Amherst." and maybe, for some of us, that's all we'll want to say about this place after we leave here, but, for me, that sentence feels notably incomplete. It lacks all of the details that made being here so significant - because, no matter what your relationship to Amherst College is like, your experience here was almost certainly that: significant.

"I went to Amherst."

I wonder what lies beneath the surface of that sentence for each of you. We may each have our own, individual stories about Amherst, but I have a feeling that there are some common themes:

An education: one that allowed you space to grow, encouraged you to question what you perceived as fact, and sometimes made you choose between sleeping, taking a shower, and completing the moodle post for your 9 a.M. Class on time.

A place: this little campus, the colors of the Holyoke range in October, the thrilling return of the Adirondack chairs the instant the temperature goes above 6o degrees.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, people: the faculty and staff who reminded you that, on top of being a student, you are also a human being, the small, subtle acts of friendship that carried you through your graham crackers days, the gallery of faces that belong to people who share your space but maybe not your community.

The specific details: the who's and the when's and the where's, those are different for each of us. But we all have a transcript of classes that changed our way of thinking, a map of the places that we occupied, and a list, like the credits at the end of a film, of all the people that have made this day possible. Maybe we've all just been writing variations on the same basic story this whole time.

"I graduated from Amherst."

I know that this school has forced us all to get into the habit of adapting quickly to change, but leaving Amherst is a big change, so it feels important to me that we recognize that.

So, in the tidal wave of family photographs and catered sandwiches and moving boxes that is about to hit you the second this ceremony is over, I hope that each of you allows yourself a moment to feel like you're in limbo.

You don't have to have everything figured out today, and you definitely don't have to know how you feel about leaving this place.

As someone who has needed to have at least a few thoughts figured out in order to give a coherent -- though perhaps overly-philosophical -- commencement speech, let me tell you, it's harder than you might expect. How, for example, do you describe how excited you are for what is to come when you're painfully aware of all that you're leaving behind? Or how does one convey genuine gratitude towards this college for the unique and life-changing opportunities that it has provided while remaining honest about Amherst's flaws, and failures, as an institution?

How do you describe the sensation of feeling multiple, distinct emotions wholeheartedly, but at the same time? This goes beyond bittersweet, so we all need to give ourselves time.

It's okay to take more than a minute to adapt to this particular change - although, for the record, you do have to be cleared out of your dorm room by 5:00 pm tonight, so maybe do some thinking while you're packing.

For me, when I think about graduating with all of you, I'm thinking about this moment in history that we all just happen to have shared by virtue of being in this very particular place at the same time.

I'm thinking about the fact that, before stepping onto campus for the first time, I didn't know a single one of you existed. And now, I look in front of me, and I see friends and a whole lot of strangers. Also, that one guy that I always run into on a-level frost. You may or may not know who you are, but I do.

I'm thinking about all of the people that have come and gone during our time here, the friends and classmates that have taken leave or transferred, the friends that we've had to mourn, and we how much we miss them.

I'm thinking about the impact that we've had on one another, how every single one of us has helped someone else to grow, even if it was in some small, unexpected way, because it would be impossible not to.

I, for instance, will never forget the day that I walked into val as a meek, innocent first-year and saw a classmate take a fistful of lo mein noodles, stuff them in a napkin, and then shove that napkin into his coat pocket and leave.

And, I'm like 93% sure that this man doesn't remember that moment at all, but I think about it all the time. So when that fateful day came that I needed to steal a ton of roasted sweet potatoes from Val to make a Friendsgiving pie, who do you think was the wind beneath my wings?


As I boldly decided that my only option for smuggling them out of the dining hall was to fill my coat sleeves with sweet potatoes instead of arms and walk out like this?

[cheers and applause]

And finally, when I think about graduating from college, I'm thinking about one of the things that makes me most excited about my post-Amherst life is the possibility that I might bring some of you into it with me.

I'm thinking about seeing you in completely different cities, on completely different coasts, and inviting you over to my impeccably decorated apartment to make guacamole and mojitos.

And in between bites we'll talk about our new lives and our cute co-workers, commiserate about the struggles of making friends in the world outside the bubble, brag about finding an affordable apartment with not one, but two windows!

And then, maybe, towards the end of the night, when the guacamole starts turning brown, we'll reminisce about Amherst. We'll gossip about who ended up getting married to who and share a lot of oh-my-gosh-I-forgot-about-that's and spend at least an hour debating whether or not facilities actually used soy sauce to melt ice in the winter.

As a side note, if anybody can definitively confirm or deny the fact that facilities uses soy sauce to melt the ice in the winter, please come find me after the ceremony and help me put this to rest once and for all, I am begging you.

So, class of 2019, I have no inspirational quotes or words of advice for you all.
Just a whole lot of thoughts and gratitude.

Because, maybe, way down the road, we're going to look back and realize that our years at Amherst were the happiest of our life—but I certainly hope not.

That said, this has been a memorable and significant chapter, one that we've unknowingly written together - and I'm grateful to all of you for that, even if I've never seen your face before.

Thank you.