Ty Seidule, a military historian and the College’s inaugural Chamberlain Fellow, advised Hamilton’s 484 graduates never to stop learning and striving to achieve the College’s motto, Know Thyself. “Know your own history. Know your community’s history. … Keep questioning. Because that is really the only way to know thyself.”
Seidule gave the address at Hamilton’s commencement on Saturday, May 22, in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House. He was awarded an honorary degree, along with 1985 Hamilton alumnus and trustee Mason Ashe and Dale Bryk, senior fellow for energy and environment with the Regional Plan Association, and director of state & regional policies at Harvard (in absentia).
The Class of 2021 valedictorian was Minh Duc Pham, a psychology major from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Catherine Ryczek, a physics major from Phillipsburg, N.J., was salutatorian.
In his remarks, Seidule borrowed from his experiences as a ROTC graduate of Washington and Lee University, after which he was commissioned and began his army career. But, he said, years later he began to look at his life. He reflected on the commissioning ceremony in the university chapel.
“The chapel’s altar has no religious iconography,” he said. “No, instead, on top of the altar is a white marble statue of Robert E. Lee in his Confederate uniform lying asleep on the battlefield, grasping a sword ready to rise up, ready to fight to retain slavery. Surrounding his statue were a dozen Confederate battle flags, flags of the enemy, flags of a force that killed U.S. Army soldiers to create a slave republic, a force that tried to destroy the United States, the country I was going to defend.”
Seidule then swore an oath to “protect and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” He said it took decades before he researched the history of that oath.
“The oath was written in 1862 to ferret out Confederate traitors. When it says domestic enemies, it’s talking about Confederates. The oath I love, the oath that was the foundation of my professional life as an army officer, was an anti-Confederate oath. And I took that oath surrounded by Confederate flags, enemy flags,” he said.
“When I discovered the meaning of the 1862 oath, it rocked me,” he said, realizing he took that oath “in a place that celebrated traitorous enslavers. Finally, lifelong learning made me look at myself and realize my culture glorified racism and treason. I truly began to ‘know thyself,’ and it was gut-wrenching. My entire life changed; my field of research changed. And then, with the zeal of a convert, I shared my story publicly.
“And now? I’m using my perch here as a historian at Hamilton College to tell as many people as I can: ‘Know thyself.’ Know your own history. Know your community’s history. So, you change yourself and the world.”
Seidule went on to encourage the graduates to never stop learning, including learning from his example.
“I think you received the best education in America here at Hamilton College. However, your education is far, far from complete,” he said. “Something I taught you — we taught you — is wrong. Hopefully not as catastrophically wrong as my college’s worship of traitorous enslavers, but wrong, nonetheless. Don’t stop learning when you graduate. That was my problem. I stopped for years.”
Also speaking at Commencement was Jiin Jeong, of Ashburn, Va., who received The James Soper Merrill Prize, selected by the faculty, and class speaker Jonathan Dong, of Malden, Mass., chosen by his classmates.
Jeong recalled many first-time experiences she had at Hamilton, including rock-climbing and guitar and drum lessons. “Although we gather here today with wide-ranging academic and personal interests … I have no doubt that our past four years were similarly a moment of many firsts, a moment to mature and expand our passions, and a moment to get to know ourselves better. And I also have no doubt that, knowingly and unknowingly, many people contributed to our Hamilton experiences and to our being here in this room today,” she said.
A computer science and economics major, Jeong will spend 2021-22 pursuing her project, “Recoding Literacy: Exploring the Computer Science Education Boom,” in Kenya, Singapore, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates thanks to a Watson Fellowship.
In her remarks, Jeong especially acknowledged her first teacher in the U.S. “Ms. Dent [had a] love for crafts and writing. Her word for a journal was a Lifebook, and she would encourage her third-grade class to reflect, create, and write every day. At the end of the year, I finished and presented my first illustrated mini-chapter book in front of friends and families,” she recalled.
“Imagine that — a girl who had barely understood English, writing a chapter book. Even when we moved on to fourth grade, she remained a key figure, starting a special after-school writing program for her past students. Every week, I wrote persuasive essays to my mom on why she should buy me Oreos, postcards to strangers, and silly poems about popcorn. Her love of writing was contagious and is one of the reasons I chose Hamilton,” Jeong said.
“I have been lucky to meet many more Ms. Dents, people who go above-and-beyond and inspire, during my time at Hamilton,” said Jeong, citing her thesis advisor who met with her even on Sunday evenings and professors who patiently explained confusing concepts over and over again in office hours.
Jeong told her classmates, “I hope that you will have a chance to think about and thank the Ms. Dents in your life, that you will find more Ms. Dents along the way, and that you will be a Ms. Dent in someone’s life … a mentor, someone whose passion is so contagious, and most of all, a kind and compassionate human being who inspires those around you.”
Class speaker Dong reminded his fellow graduates, “We have been through so much together on this campus, from minor inconveniences, to major pandemics and remote learning. … [W]e have also witnessed the collective shifts in the political climate of our country, and what that meant for everybody in the nation. Although those things make us feel powerless, being out of your control, the one thing that we can control is surrounding oneself with the people that you know and love.”
An environmental studies major with minors in geosciences and art, Dong will spend 2021-22 on a Bristol Fellowship pursuing “The Global Rise in Sustainable Aquaculture” in Chile, Kenya, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and Singapore. He founded Hamilton’s Aquaponics Club and served as co-president of the Asian Student Union.
Members of the Class of 2021 are launching their careers, pursuing fellowships, and embarking on professional degrees.
“Throughout my four years here at Hamilton, I witnessed the beauty of our class. I watched us go out and make our own communities, like the Aquaponics Club, where we work together to advance knowledge of sustainable alternatives to the traditional agricultural practice, or the Asian Student Union, where members get together to create a safe space and [discuss] their shared experiences outside and on campus, or block parties hosted by BLSU,” Dong said. “Groups like HAVOC provide Hamilton students with the opportunity to serve a larger community outside of their own, off the hill. We define our community rather than falling into one, and that’s what makes Hamilton students so special.”