|June 15, 2008|
Varun Shetty '08: 'Don't forget the wisdom of our youth'
Lessons learned: Varun Shetty, student speaker, reflects on the transition to adulthood.
Graduating isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite a complicated thing.
Tomorrow, we’ll be moving on. Our protective Union bubble will pop, and the dreaded proverbial “real world” will loom ominously on the horizon.
Starting tomorrow, the meal plans and dining halls go away. We’ll no longer be able to get our mail at the same place we get our shampoo at the same place we get our buffalo chicken wraps (at least until Wal-Mart figures out how to make that work).
Tomorrow, four-day weekends and six-week vacations will seem like distant fantasies, gyms won’t be free, and Campus Safety will no longer have our backs. Friendships will be tested. Relationships might fall apart. “Home” may become a relative term, and perhaps scariest of all, people may stop referring to us as kids.
We’ve graduated before, but never like this. In many ways, we’re graduating from our youth and entering the halls of adulthood, and that is a very, very complicated thing.
So I want take a moment now to remind you of a much simpler scene. It’s a memory that I’m sure most of you have, as I do. I want you think back to when we were kids. If you need help, that was back when it was really important to have a friend who knew how to give a cootie shot, mushroom haircuts were cool and fish sticks were the only form of seafood you’d eat. And one day back then when you were out in the yard with your best friend, lying on your backs on the grass, staring up at the clouds, you might have turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Family photo: Student speaker Varun Shetty is surrounded by his family during Sunday's ceremony.
What do you want to be?
The answers were different for all of us. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a professional basketball, football, baseball or hockey player. It didn’t really matter which one it ended up being, as long as I got my name on the back of the jersey and I got to make the winning play at the end of the game.
As I got older, my answer to that question grew in complexity. I also wanted to be like my dad, whose life has spanned from a village in India to a suburb on Long Island, and who is the strongest and hardest working person I know. I wanted to be like my mother, who sacrificed so much to give me so much, and who taught me what unconditional love truly is. And I wanted to be like my sister, who was always aware that her little brother was watching, and who took her duties as a role model and a mentor as seriously as anyone I know, even when I scratched her face and snapped her head bands.
If you all think back, I’m sure you’ll find similar memories. You had your goals. You made your plans. You knew what you wanted to be.
But then something happened to me, and I think it might have happened to you, too. At some point between then and now, that simple word “be” got replaced by an equally small but far less meaningful word, “do.”
Making a difference: On campus, Varun Shetty was active in a number of Union activities.
What are you going to do after college? What are you going to do with your degree? What are you going to do with your first big paycheck? What are you going to do for a living? What are you going to do with your life!
All of a sudden, all that mattered were actions, and not the actors that performed them. All of a sudden, life was no longer a set of experiences but rather a set of tasks to be completed: one long “To Do” list on a seemingly endless Post-It note. I hope that’s not the lesson that we’ve learned here. I hope we can come away with something more than just that.
If nothing else, our time here at Union has given us an understanding of the way the world is, and hopefully, also a sense of the way things yet ought to be. For me, much of that education came from the personal and impersonal interactions that I’ve experienced and witnessed in the past four years.
My education came from students who reached out to people half the world away when natural disasters hit South Asia.
It came from a group of students who decided that racism and homophobia had no place on this campus, and that one more act of ignorance and cowardice was one too many.
It came from a group of students who decided that this college wasn’t doing its part as a partner in the environment and challenged a new president to share their vision for a more responsible and sustainable campus.
My education came from a group of students who went to New Orleans to see what they could do to change the situation there, and then realized that they were the ones who were forever changed.
These were not items to be crossed off a checklist. These were not simply things that we “did.” These were causes that we had come to embody, and experiences that would help shape who we are.
We realized that we can look at the problems we face as individuals and as a community, and we can look at our own selves in the mirror and understand that sometimes the first step to making a difference out there is to make a change in here.
We can reconcile the wisdom of our youth with our more adult ambitions. We can, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, be the change that we wish to see in the world. We can embody that change, in our actions, in our interactions, in our most private thoughts and our most public endeavors. We can. I know this because during our time here at Union, many of us have. And as we leave this campus, we must continue to do so. The lessons of our youth must not end as we enter adulthood.
One of my favorite books is "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s the story of a grown man who comes to understand the mysteries of life through the unfiltered wisdom of a child. He dedicated his book to “the little boy from whom” his best friend, a grown-up, grew, reminding the reader that “all grown-ups were children once – although few of them remember it.”
It is a beautiful dedication, and it is an important lesson: “All grown-ups were children once.” We are in a truly unique moment right now. We’re standing firmly in the middle of two worlds, between adulthood, and all that came before that.
As you set out toward your goals, I would ask you to take a little time to think about what those goals really are. You’re going to do great things. This college has prepared you well. You’re leaving with a superb education and experiences that will lead you well on the path to wonderful careers.
The more important question is, are you going to be what you wanted to be? Are you going to be someone you can be proud of? Are you going to be someone whom others can trust, and respect? And are you going to be someone whom the next generation can think of, when they lay in the grass and stare at the clouds, and say, “I want to be…”
That’s the challenge that I’m going to set for myself, and I would invite you all to do the same. Graduating isn’t easy, but if we work at it, we can rise to the occasion. And as we do, let’s not forget the difference between “being” and “doing.” Let’s not forget the wisdom of our youth as we grow into adults. All grown-ups were children first. Let’s not ever forget that.
Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2008.