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Valedictory Address to the Hamilton College Class of 2011

Yuanxin (Cindy) Zhu '11

Time really flies. It’s unbelievable that our college life has come to an end. When I started preparing for this speech, I turned to my friends for suggestions. They offered me many interesting ideas, such as talking about my favorite food at Commons, the lovely Hamilton winter, and the convenient Jitney service. I love all these ideas, but they might be too trivial for such an occasion. Instead, what truly struck my heart was a video chat I had with my mother on Thursday night after I found out that I would be giving a speech here today. First, she apologized for not being able to attend my graduation. Then she said she and my father were very proud of me. Having been deprived of the opportunity to attend college when she was my age, my mother was on the verge of bursting into tears when she congratulated me. Staring at her tears through the web-camera, I kept silent because I knew whatever I could say at that moment would be far from sufficient to answer the question she has been asking herself all these years—“Why couldn’t I go to college even though I worked so hard?”

That is when I realized that graduating from Hamilton is not only a milestone we have achieved in our lives, but also a privilege we have enjoyed because of our families’ and our society’s support.

Although many of us may believe that education should be a basic right, it is not always the case. Born and raised in Shanghai, China, my parents were forced to drop out of high school in the late-60s when the Cultural Revolution sent hundreds of thousands of teenagers from classrooms to farm lands. My parents were assigned to two rural mountain villages in Jiangxi Province, about 600 miles away from home. During the nearly eight years of intense labor, they had neither sufficient food nor medical supplies, not to mention pens or books. When universities eventually resumed enrollment, my parents’ applications were still rejected because of their allegedly capitalist family background, even though they were both among the top scoring candidates on the university entrance exams. I can imagine how disappointed they must have felt at that time, but they did not give in to fate, and they never gave up in their pursuit of higher education. Eventually, in their early 30s before they had me, they managed to obtain the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree by taking classes in front of a TV set at a night school. But I know that their educational experience was not anything like the college experience I have had here at Hamilton.

Every time I talked to my mother on Skype, and enthusiastically described to her the eye-opening experiences I had in the New York City program, the different kinds of political systems I learned in my Comparative Politics class, John Locke, Descartes, and Rousseau I read about in my History of Western Thought class, Botticelli and Raphael’s paintings I came to appreciate in the Renaissance class, and the different Jane Austen books I encountered in my English class, I could sense the envy and even jealousy in my mother’s voice. Though she never explicitly says so, I know how much she must have longed to immerse herself fully in a liberal arts environment, to be intellectually challenged, to have the liberty to study whichever subjects and participate in whichever activities interested her, and to be able to interact directly with the professors.

Even though my father and mother have both created successful careers through consistent hard work, their missed educational opportunity has become their lifelong regret. It was this regret that made my father too excited to sleep after he heard about my admission to Hamilton four years ago. It was also this regret that led to my mother’s tears when she congratulated me on successfully completing my studies here four days ago. At Hamilton I learned to think independently and critically, to appreciate cultural diversity, and to perceive things more comprehensively as I have matured. For me, the four years at Hamilton have shaped my thoughts and prepared me for the next phase of my life. For my parents, my graduation from Hamilton has fulfilled the lost dreams of their lost youth.

Class of 2011, as we are about to embark on the new journey ahead of us, we should remind ourselves of how fortunate we have been as students at a prestigious institution like Hamilton. Take a moment now to think about the young men and women who were not given a choice about their education during the Cultural Revolution in China, and think about those children around the world who still cannot go to school today because of poverty and war. Let’s appreciate what we have and thank our parents, our family members, and the Hamilton community for their generous support of us in the past four years. Let’s be grateful for living in a peaceful society that respects knowledge and rewards hard work. Most important, let’s work to make it possible for those who come after us to have the same kinds of opportunities we have had. Thank you.

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