Francisco Valero-Cuevas '88

 

Thank you, Mme. President and members of the faculty and board of trustees, for extending this unparalleled privilege and honor to me. Coming from my alma mater, it means the world to me.

And to the students and their families, welcome to this wonderful day. Here you are, at the end of a long road. My very best congratulations to all of you, and to your families!

You have been expecting this moment, you have been planning for it, you have simultaneously dreaded and looked forward to this moment! And now that the moment is here, you should be very proud. 

There is a quote that conveys my message for you:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life!”

Like any powerful idea, this is ascribed to various authors, and reinvented in every culture. In this wording, the Internet attributes it to none other than John Lennon, but the best research points to the famous Linus van Pelt. You know, Charlie Brown and Snoopy’s friend from the Peanuts cartoon!

But seriously, what this quote says to me is that you should be empowered by your education, but not defined by it!

Let me explain: ever since you can remember, you have been asked that same question countless times “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This later became the innocent, yet dreaded, “So…what’s your major?”  

A defining factor of your success today is that you have conquered the difficult task of identifying a particular path—your so-called major. Some of you were fortunate to know it early on, others discovered it  only a year ago, I am sure. 

But today, all of you can, and should, celebrate. 

Each and every one of you can answer this question in a definitive…and resounding way! 

In fact, it will be proclaimed on your diploma for all to see.

Feels good, doesn’t it?! You can now breathe a huge sigh of relief.

But, on the other hand, it is interesting to ask why deciding on a major is so difficult, so loaded with emotion, and pregnant with anxiety.

I think it is this anxiety that makes the anecdote about “wanting to grow up to be happy” such a good story and such a good joke. As most good jokes, it points to a deep dichotomy, a deeper idea:

Asking what you want to be, defined as your role you want to play in the community, does not mean asking  what you want to Be, with capital B, defined as your state of mind and being.

So, on the very day on which you have earned your professional identity with such great effort, my advice to you is that you should let your education empower you, but never let it limit you in any way, or define you as a person. 

In fact, none of us is immune to lingering doubts: Did I choose the right major? Am I really ready to embrace a specific professional identity? Does this define me for the rest of my life?

What I am here to tell you today is that you should not let those lingering doubts bother you at all.

In fact, you should use those lingering doubts as a window into your true self.

If you listen carefully, what those lingering doubts are telling you is something you have known all along: 

That you are much more than your training, your profession, your major. 

Those doubts confirm that there is more depth to you than anyone can possibly imagine. 

Thus my advice to you is that you should recognize, accept and embrace that depth.

Embrace that depth, and explore what you are passionate about, and apply your education and talents to move in that direction—even if it seems to be incompatible with “your major.”

• By all means, by an English major who understands literature, but also be an English major who defines how the law treats poverty
• By all means, be an engineering major who designs machines, but also be an engineer major who makes breakthroughs in neuroscience
• Be a psychology major who also builds non-profit organizations
• Be a humanities major who launches startups
• Be a physician who does surgery, but also designs muscle stimulators to reanimate limbs
• Be a poet laureate who also starts a political movement
• Be yourself

The best use of education is to empower you to follow your passion, but not to define your career, or you as a person.

Education is not only about the content of the classes you take. 

Education is about the process of learning.

Knowing how to learn is the tool that will let you navigate your career in a world where change is the only constant any of us can rely on.

Swarthmore taught me how to learn. And it has served me well. Let it serve you well.

Be patient with yourself as you begin to navigate your career.  Do your future-self a favor and learn all you can as you navigate your career.

You are now officially empowered by your education. Use it—and your talents—wherever your passion may lead you, regardless of the major written on your diploma.

Be empowered, be passionate, be determined, be yourself, and most of all, be happy.