Fairfield University Valedictory Address - May 18, 2008
by Stacey Molski
Good morning Father President, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, members of the faculty and administration, family, friends, and both undergraduate and graduate students of the class of 2008. I am honored to speak with you today on this momentous occasion.
Notice, if you will, that I said "momentous" occasion. Not "significant", not "happy", but "momentous." I spent some time trying to think of the proper word to describe such a moment as this: the day the class of 2008 graduates from Fairfield University and moves onto the quote unquote "real world." It was after sifting through many words that I realized "momentous", "of the moment", in fact, reflected the exact message on which I wanted us to focus. Not only today, in this great moment, but as we continue our lives and educations after Fairfield. We must be fully present in the moment, not momentarily present in our lives.
As busy, productive human beings, we have a tendency to spend most of our days in anticipation or preparation for the next chapter of our lives. This includes - but is not limited to - our educational experience here at Fairfield. Too much of our daily lives are focused on preparation. If you think back to kindergarten, ensuring that you colored in the lines and didn't paint the grass blue and the sky green is to not only develop your manual dexterity but to prepare you for the ability to follow rules and "stay within the lines" of society. Subsequently, elementary school was to prepare us for that fantastic life experience called middle school. I know that in every class in high school we at some point received the lecture about how everything we were doing was to whip us into shape for college, where the real work happened. Now that we've all successfully made it through college, and for some, grad school, it has clearly been geared towards finding us a job and a "future", both obviously very positive things. The only qualm I have about this is that if we find ourselves in these situations of constant preparation, how are we to ever truly live our lives and embrace the moment that we are in, without constantly ignoring the present to dream of the future?
Charles Caleb Colton, a 19th century English cleric and writer once stated: "Men spend their lives in anticipations - in determining to be vastly happy at some period when they have time. But the present time has one advantage over every other - it is our own. Past opportunities are gone, future have not come." Colton hits upon a problem I have always had, and that you may have had at some point as well: postponing happiness for "when you have the time." Well, the time is now. Do not dismiss the past, but do not dwell on it. Do not overlook the future, but do not obsess over it. The present is happening now. It is yours. Your attention, emotions, and thoughts should be on this moment, and on every moment henceforth. Take in your surroundings. Your friends. Your favorite professor. Your ever-so-proud parents. The sunlight. The allergies. The architecture. The gobbling of wandering wild turkeys. The great moment of accomplishment that is your graduation from Fairfield University.
The first moment I recall from Fairfield is nervously walking into Admitted Students' Day and being handed a folder and a pen. The first thing I thought was, of course, "YES free pen." However, on further inspection I noticed that the pen had three words on it, each standing alone and separated by a period. "Jesuit. Personal. Powerful." it said. Fairfield University's motto. As an honest person, I must say I didn't really think much of it at the time, though I found its succinctness and staccato rather amusing. We should all use one-word sentences more often. Seriously. The punctuation forces us to ruminate over each word, though they are linked together to emphasize Fairfield's defining qualities. After recently considering the words more closely, I have realized that they really do sum up the experiences we have gone through and have brought all of us to the moment we share right now. Our time at Fairfield has been a collection of moments all leading up to this point in time, so I feel it necessary to discuss the moments that have gotten us here.
Consider the first word on the pen: Jesuit. Our education here at Fairfield reflects the Jesuit ideals through our diverse education in the liberal arts, our many clubs and activities, and our interaction with the community of Fairfield and beyond. The diversity of the core classes we have taken allows us to not only awaken new interests, but to understand them from a broader perspective through their integration with one another. It permits us to see the world as a whole and understand the things that make its inhabitants' tick. It teaches an understanding and respect for people of all cultures, classes, creeds, and colors. As men and women for others, we can take this core education and transform it into our lives beyond the university in order to change the world for the better. It is necessary to understand all angles of a situation in order to change it.
Our Jesuit education at Fairfield emphasizes constant reflection, one of the most important aspects of our experience here and beyond. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why I decided to write this speech. Through reflection we come to understand things we may not have perceived in the moment as it occurred. Answers are found, yes, but more importantly, new questions are asked. Reflection can lead to a better understanding of the "cura personalis". This phrase - "care of the entire person" - has been tossed around a lot these past four years, especially if you participated in the Ignatian Residential College sophomore year (there's more to it than the free donuts, you see). This overarching Jesuit principle brings us to the second word found on that pen:
Personal. This, to me, is the most essential aspect of our education here at Fairfield, for it is nothing if not personal. I have had many phenomenal professors in surprisingly small classes. Many of us probably take for granted the fact that not only do our professors know our names, but many of them know what we do, what we want to do. We are not just a number. Because of small personalized classes, we were able to have intriguing in-depth discussions about weighty, possibly unanswerable questions such as "What is Art?" We were able to take class trips to various cultural institutions in New York or Connecticut. We developed as persons outside of our classes just as much as in; through sports, clubs, internships, or perhaps by leaving behind all that is familiar to study abroad. These have been essential to our development as individuals. It was during my time abroad that I began to truly live my life and understand the importance of "the moment". I was introduced to this idea through improv here at Fairfield, but it was in England that this manifested. It is important to do the things that you love. The things that make you want to get up in the morning. The things you will remember in ten years. You will always have a busy to-do list, projects to complete, eighty-seven e-mails to return and so forth. These things will get done. Occasionally you just need to step back, take in your surroundings, and do what makes you happy. Partake in your passion. You need to care for yourself as a person before you can care for others.
It is important to deal with others on a personal level. I, of course, do not mean 'personal' as in asking a random woman what she weighs, I mean 'personal' as in 'individual'. Oftentimes people are treated as a group, or, even worse, as a "cause." As men and women for others it is natural to want to help those in need, but it is vital to deal with them as unique people, with individual needs. I challenge you to not only be yourself, but to encourage others to be themselves, as well. The world has gotten increasingly impersonal with the advent of technology. What is meant to connect us actually pulls us farther apart from each other. If you use your ipod walking to class, that's fine, but if you see someone you know, don't just turn the volume down or take out one the earbuds. Switch it off, put them away and take a moment to have a real conversation with a real person. Your ability to affect others is:
Powerful. Everything you do in some way effects other people, even if you don't think it will. You have the power to take the time to make someone's day just a bit better. Or perhaps drastically so. Think about the people in your life who have powerfully affected you, even if just for a moment. When I mentioned this concept to two of my friends, both of their responses were "Oh! I know exactly what you mean!" before launching into a story of their own. One friend was stuck on the side of the road with some sort of car trouble, when someone pulled over, helped her, then left before she could thank them. The other more drastic story had to do with a young boy who was struggling in the ocean and was pulled out by a stranger before the lifeguard could even jump in. After the boy was given CPR, the family looked around to thank the hero, but he had left, as well. These stories certainly speak volumes about the human instinct to help others; nevertheless, despite my friend's reactions, this wasn't quite "exactly" what I meant.
The moment I was thinking of when someone affected me profoundly will probably seem silly now compared to the previous stories, but I believe that is the beauty of it. You see, it is one thing to perform an act of kindness for a stranger when they are in danger, but it is more surprising and actually reveals more about human nature to go out of your way to do something nice for someone on a normal day. My moment occurred when I was abroad in London, in the refectory of my school.
Now, I was never actually "sad" in London, but I had just recently been quite ill and was descending the cozy old wooden stairs when I fell spectacularly and badly sprained my ankle. So I suppose if I was ever less than happy it was at this time. I walked into the refectory one morning after this to get my usual breakfast of chocolate croissants and tea (very healthy), when a chef struck up a conversation with me based on the fact that he liked my David Bowie t-shirt. After asking me if I was at that concert, to which I replied "no" though I politely failed to mention that it was because I wasn't alive in 1978, he then mentioned another favorite artist of his. I thanked him for the tip and said I would look into it, but before I left he seemed to perk up like one does when a great idea comes into your mind, and he said " Actually, wait. You'll be in for breakfast tomorrow, won't you? I'll make you a CD. Just come back and ask for Mike." I really did not think I was going to see that CD, but I went in the next day, and sure enough, he had not only made a CD but had also included a humorous newspaper clipping. "Thought you'd enjoy this," he said. I listened to the CD and absolutely loved it; so I went back to the refectory the next day to try to find this man to thank him for his trouble, but he was gone... never saw him again. I still have that CD; actually, I listened to it the whole time I wrote this.
Clearly, it was nothing of mind blowing importance that this man did. He didn't save my life; he simply put in extra effort to do something for me that he thought nothing of at the time. For some reason this small, totally random act of kindness towards a stranger impacted me to such a degree that I will never forget that man. I guarantee you have had similar experiences. It is these experiences that uplift my faith in humankind when it begins to dwindle. The fact that a near stranger can do something so minute for someone else and yet influence them to such a degree is absolutely amazing. Just imagine what you can do for others if you devote yourself to it. That is power.
You alone have the power to find what makes you happy and to pursue that. Do what you are intuitively drawn to do. Find your passion in life and live it. Don't get too caught up in the trivial things that won't matter in the long run, just ensure that you embrace the things of larger importance. Whether it is your career, your family, your hobbies... Begin with finding your passion, and do not feel like just because you are graduating you must know it now. I'm still trying to find mine. Do not feel pressured to go straight to what society says should be the next phase of your life. If you want to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and participate in service, please do. If you want nothing more right now than to experience other cultures and gain a better understanding of foreign lands, then travel. If you want to begin a career and make loads of money, fantastic. Do it. No matter what your passion is, and what you choose to do when you walk away from Fairfield, degree in hand, know that you will be affecting others in every moment you experience. So use your skills, your passions, your Fairfield education, and your character to continue to be men and women for others. Your time at Fairfield, as cherished and influential as it may be, is only the foundation of your education. Your Jesuit education has enabled you to develop personally so that you now have the power to do what you wish with what you have been given. Do not allow yourself to wait for that day in the future to create your happiness.
As for right now - this exact moment - it is your own. Savor it. Take this moment with you, and all the moments you have created and lived at Fairfield. Moments with your friends, moments in your classroom, moments on the field, or moments in solitude. Take them and use what you have learned here to create new moments that you and others will remember for years to come. That is my challenge to you as we leave Fairfield today, class of 2008. Congratulations, good luck, and as Jonathan Swift said "May you live every day of your life".
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Posted on May 18, 2008