Soper Merrill Prize Winner Speech to the Class of 2011

Mary Phillips '11

Thank you, Dean Reynolds for that warm introduction. It is an honor to have been chosen to speak today. Sitting before me are many people whose voices are worth hearing and whose contributions to this campus are significant. I am talking not just about the faculty, staff, and administrators with whom I have had the privilege of working, but also about my fellow students. In the last four years I have been continuously impressed by the energy and commitment of my peers.          

During spring break my freshman year I learned just how great Hamilton students are when I hopped into a twelve passenger, college-issued van with nine strangers. We were headed to volunteer at an elementary school outside of Wilmington, NC as part of Alternative Spring Break, a Hamilton program that sends students throughout the Southern US to do community service. Although I have now been on three trips, led them twice, and sat on the executive board, I’m going to be honest with you; my post-mid-term exhaustion, coupled with anxiety at the thought of spending a week with strangers meant I almost didn’t show up for that 7 a.m. departure.           

I would have missed out on so much if I had chosen to stay at home. Not only was the week a blast, but I would go as far as to call it inspirational. I learned something from every person on that trip. As we worked and lived together for a week we shared our life experiences at Hamilton and beyond. Our conversations were by turns passionate, honest, curious, and hilarious, and they sparked in me a desire to spend my junior year abroad, find a stellar internship, continue service work, and more. When I returned to Hamilton, it was with the firm belief that we are a top-tier institution not because of the size of our endowment or our beautiful, historic buildings, but because of the quality of our students.     

Many of my fellow graduates have never gone on Alternative Spring Break, but have no doubt been a part of other Hamilton groups that foster strong connections. I am confident that while in the classroom, or on the playing field, or in a dorm common room, nearly every member of the Class of 2011 has had a moment when they looked around and thought to themselves, “Wow. There is nowhere else I’d rather be right now.” The power of that statement is a testament to the strength of our community.        

But membership in this community comes with responsibility. We have a dual role to play. Not only are we here to learn, but we must count ourselves among those whose ideas and actions shape the culture of Hamilton. If our friends and peers are some of our most influential teachers, then surely we serve as their instructors as well. We have a choice as to the nature of our influence. As we saw last Sunday night at Senior Formal, individual actions can have widespread consequences. I consider myself privileged to have lived alongside many students who have an acute awareness of the weight of this responsibility. They have used their influence to show the rest of us how our community could improve. Hamilton students are the ones who make Hamilton better. Members of our class have said that sexual assault, homophobia, and hate crimes in our midst are unacceptable. They have urged me, and all of us, to think carefully about our assumptions, words, and actions.         

I want to take just a moment to acknowledge the tremendous influences of the “grown-ups” in our lives. In the caffeine-infused cloud of stress surrounding finals I sometimes felt that if I made it to Commencement it would be in spite of, rather than because of my professors. A few hours of sleep helped me remember that the faculty, staff, and administrators here go out of their way to help us succeed. Likewise, we owe many thanks to our families. They have supported us – both financially and emotionally – for years, and should be allowed to share credit in our walk across the stage today.       

I also think it is necessary, however, to recognize the ways in which we, as members of the Class of 2011, have shaped each other. Throughout the last four years we have made a community at Hamilton. It certainly is not perfect, but it is one in which the encouragement and challenges we offer make all of us better. In theory, after leaving the Hill today, we become the “grown-ups,” and, very soon, we will enter into new communities. As we do, I urge all of us to remember the lessons our Hamilton years have taught us about community. First, choose your next community carefully, for we are profoundly influenced by the people around us. Second, do not forget your obligation to contribute. As someone with a Hamilton degree, your voice will carry particular weight and I hope that when you encounter injustice and inequality you will use your influence to create positive change.

Thank you.