Remarks by the James Soper Merrill Prize Recipient Meghan O'Sullivan
Thank you, Dean Reynolds, for such a lovely introduction. It is a truly an honor to be speaking here today. I am both humbled and energized by this incredible crowd in front of me--fellow students. Faculty. Staff. Friends and family--what a view!
Before we start clapping in congratulations, I want to step back for a second and talk about what it means to be “at home,” both at Hamilton and away from it. And to do that, I’m going to tell you a quick story.
The first day I felt “at home” on the Hill was during my very first day of class freshman year: Literature and Ethics with Peter Rabinowitz. As is typical in many Hamilton courses, the conversation quickly turned to some intense subjects: free will, what is the “self,” who we are as people, et cetera.
I was a very confident first-day-of-class type of student, and without hesitation, I boldly told everyone that there was simply (quote) “one true self” (unquote) and that we would always have our center core of who we really were to fall back to, no matter what. Change seemed to be less of a reality back then to me, I suppose.
In any case, Peter--also without hesitation--quickly denounced my comment, saying that that was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. Then he proceeded to write “one true self” on the board and placed a big circle around it—so that the whole class could analyze my remark so nicely framed in front of them for the next 75 minutes.
You might be surprised to find out that this moment (and moments like it) were what first made Hamilton my home. I realized that this type of discourse--learning to disagree and challenge each other--was really fun. And conversations such as this, both in and out of the classroom, have not just been enlightening for me, but have made all of us more at home with our own beliefs and ideas.
Class of 2015, Hamilton has been our home now for the past four years—not always sweet, but always there, waiting for us—struggling with us, and growing with us; Equally embracing and frustrating us. “Home,” then, as a place, and as an idea, is a funny word. It pulls us close just as it teaches us—even forces us—to strike out on our own.
Here at Hamilton, we’ve met the people who have become our surrogate siblings, parents, and grandparents. These people have helped us to practice at falling and getting back up, falling again, and rising to meet—however cliché—the challenge of growing into ourselves.
With this in mind, I’d like to take a brief moment to recognize that as we change--and as Hamilton changes along with us--we always have more work to do. Maybe not 3am thesis work, but hear me out for a second.
Today, the most diverse student body that the college has even seen during its 203 years calls Hamilton home. That’s great, but we need to meet this change in a more productive way. There are pressing class and racial tensions (among others) in this microcosm of society. In the non-Hamilton world we can segregate ourselves pretty easily if we care to, but the Hill could become a place to push down these walls, if we let it. We are different in uncountable ways--but it’s up to us to move past this, as a student body, and as newly minted alumni, and collaborate.
Yet it is because we have been provided with this education that we can now recognize our own weaknesses—as an institution, a student body, and as individuals. And it is because we have been provided with this education that we can work to improve ourselves, and our communities. I look forward to seeing Hamilton work through the challenges it faces as an institution, and to watch all of us do the same, as we continue our lives off the Hill.
Many of the people that have made Hamilton “home” for us are now dispersing. Or maybe they’re standing firmly on this Hill, waving us off into an uncertain distance. And so “home”—without these warm faces—feels pretty amorphous right about now. It’s not the packing up of bags and books and bikes, and enormous winter boots and toothpaste and maybe a bound copy of our senior thesis, that’s getting us feeling sentimental today: it’s having to say goodbye to those who have helped make this place our home—to intimate friends and classroom rivals; to devoted faculty, and dedicated staff.
Because when we leave: let’s face it, we’re all going to be a bit homeless for a while. Home is no longer the room we grew up in, and home isn’t even the bed we woke up from this morning.
But maybe home is now something a little more vague, but no less warm. Perhaps it’s the last forty-five seconds of a daily yoga practice, or listening to the rain outside while you drink your morning coffee. Maybe home is a good book on a train ride, or the sound of the subway pulling into your stop. Home could be that feeling you get when you blast your favorite song through little white headphones, or the “ding” noise on your smartphone when you get a message from someone you love--maybe it’s even the hand of the person sitting next to you right now. As a connected class, we need to support each other as we disperse.
We have each other for help, yes, but let’s not forget that we also have our own two feet to stand on! We’ve been given the tools to get us through the obstacles ahead of us--tools that have been assembled over the past twenty-something years, but really refined and practiced during the past four. These are the tools of tenacity, of criticism, of empathy, of love—the tools of engagement, healthy skepticism, and problem solving. It may take some time before we feel our feet have firmly landed on ground that we feel is ours to love and own—but we’ll make it. We’ve done a lot here to prepare us for this jump.
I don’t claim to have any advice you haven’t already heard, but I hope I have reminded you to take care of each other, and use the tools we’ve been given well. We’re dislocated now, but we need not disband. Congratulations to every one of us, and good luck!