|Marshall Nannes ’09|
May 24, 2009
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Good morning family, faculty, staff, honored guests and especially graduates. I’d like to begin by thanking you for giving me the opportunity to speak before you at our graduation. I’m honored to be here and very grateful for this privilege.
Every Tuesday at 9 a.m. this semester, as I have since freshman year, I stood out in front of the Wilson Admissions Building welcoming anywhere from one to 40 families of eager high schoolers to a tour of the college. I would introduce myself before setting out on a tour that I’ve given so often I could probably do it while walking backwards.
Any one of you who has caught a word or two of a passing tour will know that they aren’t perfect representations of life here. But it is interesting to imagine what our class would have heard had five years ago had our own prospective tours been brutally honest.
“Welcome to the freshman quad, the geographic and historic center of campus,” we’d have heard. “All freshmen live around this space in brand new, beautiful dorms... except for you losers stuck down in the mods.”
Or, later, “Over there, you can see the Triangle. Housing construction will reduce this hub of social life on campus to a line segment by your junior year, and a mere point by the time you are seniors. But don’t worry; all of the dorms will be completely renovated just in time for you all to leave.”
Or maybe, “This weird building is Stearns Steeple. It exists only to wake James and Stearns residents with its bells early on Sunday mornings. It was formerly part of a church, so—contrary to popular belief—it was not erected as a tribute to Amherst’s all-male past.”
You may be surprised to learn that none of these lines made their way into my tours.
I liked being a tour guide. The $8 a week it paid helped me to cover my tuition. I loved waking up at 8:15 in the morning after going to bed at 2. But I think what kept me coming back all semester was the opportunity for reflection that the tours offered me as today drew ever closer. Graduation-induced euphoria aside, I think the simple truth is that many of us had grown jaded in the final weeks and months of the semester. We were sick of the party scene here. We had already taken every class in the English Department, at each of the Five Colleges. We were sick of getting sexiled, especially since we all had singles.
But during a tour, complaints like these would just fade away as I was surrounded by families who would give an arm and a leg to be here. I spent an hour a week with these complete strangers who would literally slip me a $20 bill at the end of a tour (which they promptly retracted when I assured them that I had nothing to do with admissions decisions). Each week, I tried to compress my four years at Amherst into a short narrative compelling enough to convince them to spend their college years, and their college tuition, at Amherst instead of somewhere else. Try as I might, I just couldn’t distill my entire college experience into a mere hour.
Take housing, for instance. When the tours asked about dorms, I took them into Charles Pratt and let the space speak for itself. They felt as I felt when I walked into Appleton in the fall of 2005, amazed at the size and beautiful condition of the dorm. This feeling was replaced with seething jealousy as soon as I saw the James and Stearns which had been denied me, just as James and Stearns residents cursed their own freshman accommodations upon seeing the Titanic staircase in the lobby of the newest dorm. I think my mother, upon seeing Chuck Pratt for the first time, summed this feeling up best: “Alright,” she remarked, “now they’re just showing off.”
But five minutes in the dorm, and the tour and I left. That’s it. Can any of us here today condense the friendships, anecdotes and mishaps of their past four residential years into five minutes? The first dorm meeting with your RC, when everybody sang “Happy Birthday to Laura Vincent” on her very first day of college? Your first call to ACEMS to report that same RC passed out on your floor? The intramural softball teams which still, senior year, draw people to play for their old freshman dorm? None of this makes the cut for the tour, but all of these experiences enriched our time here.
Or, if the tours asked about advising at Amherst, they get a 20-second answer about small class sizes and the like. There’s no time to adequately describe the student-faculty relationships that make this place famous. I can’t fully explain my first real meeting with an Amherst professor, John Servos in the History department, who sat me down in his Chapin office during that first week of orientation. He asked about my academic interests in history and beyond, talked about my family and chatted about the seminar he would be teaching that semester. Professor Servos, always the advocate of a broad liberal education, also told me that he would not let me graduate without taking both German and geology. Four years later, at a thesis defense in front of Professor Servos with neither German nor geology on my transcript, I was glad to see that he’s not the kind of guy to hold a grudge.
If the tours asked about the food, I lied. I just lied.
These tours, obviously, are thus incomplete pictures of the Amherst experience in which you and I have shared these past few years. The intangible attitudes, relationships, and experiences that have made me proud to be a part of this school simply can’t all be included. Yet still, the most talented high schoolers in the country line up day after day, eager to learn more about this place and hoping to join it. These are families that walk into Frost and call it “beautiful.” These are families that naively take my advice to try Val’s cuisine, and somehow enjoy it. With our complaints about food and jobs and classes mounting, it’s refreshing to see such optimism. These are families that love Amherst in a way many of us had forgotten how.
Yet, if history is any guide, we will start remembering very soon. One week from today, Amherst’s esteemed alumni will gather at the fairest college to renew old friendships and to curse coeducation. It is their fondness for this place that brings them back year after year, and, thankfully for our president, that fondness also keeps our alumni giving rate so high. Those on the outside looking in – alumni and visiting applicants – remind us why we loved Amherst enough to come here and why we will miss it sooner than we think.
As commencement nears, liberal arts graduates love to joke about their lack of employable skills and the questionable utility of a B.A. Yet Amherst’s esteemed alumni have come from situations just like our own. They too were once thrust out into a cruel and unforgiving world armed only with a bachelor of arts degree and a trusty wooden cane. They too had multitudes of passions but few concrete career ideas. Yet they took their so-called “useless” or “unemployable” degrees and somehow put them to work, and emerged as the movers and shakers of this world: as presidents of this and other nations, as members of our congress, as judges on our bench and as shapers of the world today. And I have no doubt that this class will take these degrees and go on to do the same. I can’t wait to return to an Amherst reunion to see a classmate’s name inscribed on the Nobel Prize wall of what I hope, by then, is a thoroughly renovated Frost Library. And, after learning finally that a music degree just isn’t as sought-after as I had hoped, I can’t wait to start looking you all up in the alumni database to beg you for jobs. These degrees weren’t useless for our alumni. Rather, they inspired interdisciplinary thinking, encouraged a willingness to question conventional wisdom and signified the ability to think critically about academic, political and social issues. I am sure these degrees will serve us equally well.
I’m quite aware that Amherst is not perfect. Problems persist even at this institution, whose sterling academic reputation has earned it the nickname “the Harvard of Massachusetts.” No year has better shown us those problems than this one, as the realities of the world beyond our campus forced us to question our academic priorities and our very mission as an institution. Our bubble was shattered, and it continued to be shattered every time a class was dropped from already crowded department or every time funding disappeared for a job we had sought. But no mantra throughout human history has proven truer than Abraham Lincoln’s own “This too shall pass.” The financial blessings of this decade which allowed Amherst’s vast physical and personnel growth disappeared this year, but the tough times we find ourselves in now, while undeniably difficult, will prove to be just as fleeting. And I have no doubt that a college that draws the likes of my peers and my teachers to its campus will weather the storm.
Even in these imperfections, we can find valuable lessons. To the economics majors, who suffered through large classes, overstretched advisors and understaffed departments: You’ll be making six figures at Goldman next year while I deliver pizzas from out of my parents’ basement. You win. We know now that there are actually students out there who would lament the closing of our residential trailers. We know now that only a brief swine flu panic is needed to turn Seligman, the former home of Health and Wellness, into an axis of Hell and illness. And we know now that yes, Williams College is a Horrible College, but when a kid like your sister goes there, it can’t be that bad of a place.
So, in our last minutes before becoming alumni, let us look back and hastily remember how good we’ve had it. Nowhere else will professors go to such lengths to help, educate, nurture and inspire their students. I think of the experience of Professor Klára Móricz in the music department, who happily answered seven thesis-related emails a night from my perennially stressed roommate. But if you need help on a report at your job, I’m sure the CEO won’t have weekly office hours. He or she won’t read your drafts. Your best chance to discuss it may be simply to run alongside a golf cart and shout questions between holes. Nowhere else will we walk such immaculately maintained grounds, where freshly mulched flower beds, neatly trimmed lawns, and breathtaking mountain vistas are so common they are often taken for granted. We will soon realize that perhaps nowhere in the world is there a more beautiful running path than the one that winds through our wildlife sanctuary. And sadly, nowhere else will people tolerate our complaints about a five-minute walk from our homes to our workplaces.
So I must draw this speech to a close, since every minute I speak here is one less minute to pack before we are kicked out of our rooms. But as you go forth to distant corners of the country and the globe, take these diplomas and put them to work. Do something that fires up your passions. Do something that gives light to the world. Do something that makes you famous, so I can brag that I knew you back in college. And please, for Tony’s sake, keep those alumni donations coming.
Congratulations, Class of 2009.