Lauren Nevin, 2015 Phi Beta Kappa Speaker
On Commencement Day, it is worthwhile to think about the bright points of our college careers — the friendships we regard as resilient, the memories we consider our fondest. Yet, it is also important to engage in another task: reflecting on the times that were difficult, the times that hurt us. Today, I would like to talk about that experience — the experience of processing our more troubled pasts at Williams.
We’ve all experienced both personal and shared struggles on this campus. Therefore, thinking about our “troubled pasts” at this college means something different to all of us.
For many, it may include a time we didn’t give a friendship or relationship the time it deserved. Or that semester we invested too little in school, or perhaps way too much. When we disregarded struggles at home, or rather, when struggles at home consumed our existence here. Or perhaps, for some of us, it involves a time when we confined our sense of self to merely one or two layers of our identity: whether that was our gender, race, sexuality, disability, or class. And for many of us, our “troubled past,” whether it takes one of these forms or another, may not be confined to the past, and rather, may exist very much in the present.
So even though it may seem undesirable, or even harmful to do so, it is worth considering these difficult parts of our time at Williams on Commencement Day, because contemplating our troubled past is one means to empowering ourselves as Williams graduates.
I encourage all of us to recognize the ability we have to treat our difficult memories intentionally and purposefully — to take our troubled memories and to fold them up into a form we can control and hold in our hands. What relationship do we wish to have with our hurtful memories and how do we intend to fit them within our own personal narratives?
The answers to these questions will be different for all of us.
After many difficult years here, I sought to find my own answers to these questions, and among many valuable approaches, I found one that has provided liberation for me and allowed me to truly enjoy a vindicating final semester at Williams. And that is: Leaving behind not all, but some of the memories from my troubled past here — folding them up and leaving them right here in this valley.
We often hear the phrase “we are our past,” or “our past defines us,” And though this is certainly true, and in so many ways, our struggles do define our identities, that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to carry all of our struggles with us.
We possess the agency to shape and control our troubled pasts in the ways we deem most redemptive, therapeutic, and empowering.
And, if we all exercise this power, I don’t think any of us will look at this Purple Valley again in quite the same way. Though it is a limited and confining geographic space, this campus and this valley also have extraordinary depth. Certainly, that depth allows space for all of us to shed whatever troubled memories here that we want to and need to leave behind.
Yet, there are also aspects of our troubled past that we want and need to keep with us… and the depth of the valley allows space for those too.
So, Class of 2015, remember that if and when we do return to this valley, it will welcome all of us back, and it will reassure us that we need only bear the struggles from our time here that we want to define us, the struggles that we consent to carrying.