Briana Marshall, 2011 Phi Beta Kappa Speaker

16,000 Hours

If any of you have glanced at the back of my left hand over the past four years, you may have noticed the black and blue notes scrawled on its side. Now, this hasty defacement doesn’t convey the importance of these notes: they are the life lessons I feel impelled to remember on a given day. Today, I have written two words that, I think, summarize nicely my four years of ink poisoning at Williams. Let me tell you the story of how they got there. It starts with an orange moon.

Have you ever seen an orange moon? It’s magnificent. I saw one about two weeks ago when I was strolling out onto a beach in Hilton Head with a friend who, coincidentally enough, was fresh out of ASTRO 104, ripe for the harvesting of cosmic information. So I asked him, “Why is the moon this beautiful color?” I have absolutely no recollection of what he said, (neither does he), but it must have been fascinating, because I pressed for more Astro facts. And this response I do remember:

“Briana, (hair flip), I could tell you that universe is 13.7 billion years old. I could tell you that Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe. I could tell you that it takes the sun’s rays seven minutes to reach us at the speed of light. But what ASTRO really taught me was to look up.”

I stopped looking up to stare in surprise at my typically very un-poetic friend waxing lyrical. The hue of the moon wasn’t the only abnormality that night.

And he continued. (Hair flip) “We are so inconsequential. All we can do is enjoy ourlives to the best of our abilities.”

I’m still digesting the astronomical implications of my friend’s unexpected profundity, and I encourage you to mull it over and find personal significance. This Commencement day, “Look up” is inked on my hand because it epitomizes the lessons of perspective, curiosity, and compassion I have learned from the brilliant people before my eyes right now.

Look up. Sure, you need to put your nose to the grindstone sometimes, but don’t wedge it so far in your library carrel that you can’t turn to the stars, or your friend beside you, and remember why you are working so hard in the first place.

Look up from your cell phone as you speed-strut to Paresky and imbibe the majestic purple mountains.

Look up at the potential friends passing by. Don’t miss your future husband because you are busy checking your email. Don’t ignore other people’s smiles or frowns because you are so concerned with your own.

Look up from your plate when you are bemoaning that the chicken is too dry to see the smiling Dining Services lady, working two jobs to support her family.

Look up to your friends, parents, professors, role models. And look with eyes wide open, because the moments when they defy your expectations can be awesome like an orange moon.

But for one moment, I’d like you look down at your programs, where you will see the title for this address is “16,000 Hours.” Now you can all recognize that this makes no sense. It did when titles were due, but then one night under an orange moon, a friend gave me a speech I found more inspiring. Perhaps we can see this title-speech incongruity as an example of seizing the opportunities we find when we look up (and as Williams students we’ve become experts at this) even if 4,000 programs threaten embarrassment. You can cross out the title and write in “Look Up” if you want, but personally, I would write those words on my hand (wave hand).

Thank you and congratulations Class of 2011! You are more beautiful and more inspiring than any heavenly body I have ever seen!

[Text as prepared, not necessarily as delivered]


Back to Commencement 2011 re-cap