Eleni Neyland’s Speech
Class of 2018, congratulations. As I pondered how to address 477 graduates, each representing a unique series of adventures and misadventures, I contemplated the common threads of a Hamilton experience that connect us—other than these spiffy rental robes, that is. I thought of walking down Martin’s Way, eating in Commons, and enduring the everlasting winter. It was passing the swim test, though, that reminded me of a great piece of advice I once received: when presented the choice, always go swimming.
Now the advice was excellent, but it isn’t quite right for this group of passionate and proactive Hamilton graduates. Instead, I entreat you the following: find the biggest, scariest swimming pool you can, and jump in.
The moment you jump, there’s no turning back- and while at first you might flail, eventually you’ll steady, you’ll catch a rhythm, and soon you’ll be swimming effortlessly. And then comes the critical part: once you’re secure, once you’ve conquered the challenge, you have get out, find a bigger, scarier swimming pool, and jump in.
Strange as it sounds, that’s exactly what we’ve done for the past four years. We went from limping through introductory writing intensives to crushing theses, from joining a sports team or a club like HAVOC to leading it, from living in this community to engaging it as an orientation leader or volunteer, we went from identifying problems to solving them.
And it is through these challenges that Hamilton has become an inalienable part of who we are. Tackling thesis expanded our capacity to learn. Captaining a group forever changed how we react to responsibility and how we lead. Serving our community enlarged our ability to empathize, while solving problems endowed us with ingenuity. Countless other experiences impacted our willingness to take initiative, our creativity, our notion of citizenship- the very ways in which we face the world.
Indeed, it’s yesterday’s experiences that shape how we deal with today, which will, in turn, shape how we deal with tomorrow. So every one of our moments at Hamilton- the high and the low, the life altering and the utterly mundane—have embedded themselves in how we act and think. They’ve changed us: the people sitting in this field house today are different from those who first arrived on college hill. We’re constituted of the same foundation, certainly, but we boast more maturity and greater capacity, we express perhaps a bit extra cynicism, but I think also a bit more hope. We were able to grow into such wise, old, washed-up college graduates because we dared to challenge ourselves to adventure, to empathize, to achieve. Because we jumped in.
Now I can’t promise there won’t be moments of midair regret, when you worked up enough courage to jump, but have since become rapidly convinced that you’ll sink like a stone the second you hit the water. When you were holed up in the depths of KJ at 3am the night before an international law exam 6.5 coffees deep and entirely convinced you were going to fail, for example. Or, say, when found yourself walking onto the stage at commencement, about to tackle your worst fear of talking about yourself in front of 5,000 people, and regretting every life decision you ever made (it’s fine, we’re good now).
Why, then, should we tackle the big and the scary? Why buck familiarity and safety in order to seek out risk? Why jump?
Well we should do it because we can, because we have been, and because it’s how we grow as people. But there’s yet another reason we should do it as well.
We are incredibly lucky to be here. And as such, we owe a debt to the world to be our best selves. We owe it first to those that got us here, for their countless sacrifices and their unending support. And we owe it also to those who are not lucky enough to be sitting beside us today, who do not have the opportunity to graduate from a place like Hamilton. To those in our community, across the country, and around the world who are directly impacted by the great challenges of our time. John F. Kennedy once said “For those to whom much is given, much is required.” Fellow graduates we must keep. seeking. out. greater challenges, because when we finally feel like we’ve risen to a position from which we can change the world for the better, we’ll look back and realize- that through all the good work we did along the way—we already have.
So, Class of 2018, may we remember the many lessons we learned here.
May we remember the friends and peers and mentors we’ve made.
May we remember the struggles and triumphs that carried us to this field house today.
But most of all, if ever we’re standing at the water’s edge, unsure of whether we should jump, unsure of whether we’d sink or swim, may we remember to look at our Hamilton College diplomas. Because if that diploma, the one you’re holding in your hand right now, the one that will soon be hanging on a wall or shoved in a drawer, if that diploma means anything, it means that we passed the swim test.