Sarah Zager, Valedictory Address, 2013

Recipient of the Dewey Prize, awarded to the member of the graduating class who presents the most creditable oration in point of composition and delivery at the commencement exercises.

 I’ve been here before. At the end of the day I first visited Williams, I asked my mother if we could take one more walk through the campus. We had finished a tense dinner at Spice Root, and it was just beginning to get dark. We wandered to Science Quad, where this platform was still up from commencement a few days before. As I walked, I thought back at the difficult freshman year I had just finished at the University of Pennsylvania. By the end of the year, I found that I hungered deeply for a small and diverse community where the liberal arts and self- reflection were equally valued. Looking out at those empty seats, I felt as if I were peering in to a dark, empty shell of a community, which might have been a truly wonderful place if I had seen you in full color on a day like today.

As I climbed that hill toward West College I heard my father’s voice in my head. “It’s like that Marshmallow experiment. If I give you one marshmallow, you can eat it now. If you can wait a few minutes, I’ll give you two.” He wanted to tell me that things would be better if I returned to Penn for a second year. But, I interpreted the parable bit differently. The inner strength it took to resist the first marshmallow allowed me to look outward toward a new place where I would fit in, where I would find my second marshmallow.

When I finally arrived at Williams, people seemed strangely excited to talk and think about this place they loved so deeply. While Penn had at times felt like an unruly ship with no one in particular at the helm, Williams was inhabited by people who were convinced that they could collectively steer the college simply by reflecting more carefully about what it means to be “At Williams.” I felt that I had found my marshmallow.

Over time though, the temptation to think about life “At Williams” rather than simply “in the world” began to alarm me. This inward gaze can keep us from encountering the profound need that exists in the world; it can keep us from fully appreciating its diversity; and it can keep us from thinking of ourselves as citizens of the world and not only of the social, economic, and ideological circles in which we are most comfortable.

Like many of us, I began my Williams career reaching out into the darkness. Once we arrived, we spent a great deal of time looking inward at this place. As we leave, I am reminded that we must look outward again. In some ways, this constantly shifting gaze feels disorienting, even frustrating; it lacks the comforting satisfaction of the second marshmallow. In another sense though, this kind of disorientation is precisely what we set out to find here–a self-critical liberal education does nothing if it does not question its own point of view. The most gratifying marshmallows come not from “fitting in,” but from interrogating our points of view and having the patience and intellectual courage to change them.

Tonight, after everything is packed up in science quad, I’ll take one more walk through this campus in the dark. Once again, I will find myself looking at this place as somewhat of an outsider; no longer a student, but not quite ready to part with the sweetness and joy I found here. My fellow classmates, I hope that we leave Williams having learned the importance of looking inward. I also hope, that as we go on many more walks through the dark, we remember the importance of looking outward as well. If we are patient, and perhaps a little bit lucky, we will indeed spot the next marshmallow somewhere in the darkness.

Sarah Zager