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Hannah Watkins '21

When I came to college I had a fantasy of how I would do. I hoped that I would be a shining star, a person who picked up all the material on the first lesson and flew through the exams. It wasn’t an expectation, but it was a hope — that the struggles I had during high school wouldn’t materialize at all. As all of you know that’s not what happens at Swarthmore. It was an enormously difficult task to get through these past four years, but what I learned from it was that even when the challenges are so much greater than what we have faced before, it’s the people around us who determine our experience: in some ways good and in some ways bad. I didn’t succeed in college because I was an individual who could do everything myself. I succeeded in college because the people around me — teachers and staff but mostly my fellow students — helped me in a million different ways. 

Upperclassmen talked me through assignments whether they were paid to help me or not; friends offered supportive ears and hugs when I was struggling, and my classmates reassured me all the time that the imposter syndrome and fading belief in my own abilities was normal. My professors spent hours walking me through every step of the concepts I couldn’t grasp. The staff who swiped my OneCard at Sharples learned my name, and the barista at Sci Center learned my favorite coffee. It was that community that boosted me up so that I wasn’t just surviving from day to day. I could learn and have the bandwidth to give back to this community. I could support others the way that I have been supported.

Our generation has been hearing since we were young that we are the hope of the future. It’s a heavy weight to bear, and coming of age in a time like this doesn’t necessarily bring us much hope. At Swarthmore we are taught to think of the big picture, to apply vast concepts to small situations, to hope always for a butterfly effect. I hope that as we move forward into a world that is often dark and difficult, we can change our perspective. We are contending with so many problems, some as shallow as weeds and some so deep rooted it’s hard to imagine ever pulling them up completely. It’s not any of our responsibilities to fix all of those problems. It is only our responsibility to make each of our own small corners of the world a better place. 

At this school, there’s a lot of pressure on us all the time to be thinking of the big picture, to be considering a million ramifications and outcomes, and we sometimes criticize one another for failing to think of every angle to every situation. If we embark on this next step believing that each of us MUST be the one to fix something vast, we will only be disappointed. I came here hoping to be so successful I’d get straight As all by myself. I am leaving with a different definition of success -- thank God, because I did not get straight As [pause, laugh]. I feel successful because I’ve dealt with my failures and shortcomings with more and more grace and self-compassion. I feel successful because more and more of my achievements are truly due to my own effort and passion, rather than circumstance. Most of all, I feel successful because of the amazing relationships I have created with uncountable kind, brilliant, thoughtful people. Only now as I contemplate leaving this campus and never again living among this community do I realize how deeply their kindness has touched me. 

So much of what we know to be ordinary on campus is in fact extraordinary. At Swarthmore I heard open discussions about mental health, I watched friends and residents navigate their sexualities and gender identities with the support of their communities; I learned to build and participate in a support system a continent away from my family. I met people this past year, amid the pandemic that I had occasionally crossed paths with before, and found in them true and loving friendships that made these last few months among the best of my life. I did things I was terrible at and had fun anyway. [pause, smile]. I did things I thought I couldn’t and found that I could. It breaks my heart to think about leaving these people and these friendships becoming long-distance, but my sorrow is nothing compared to the gratitude that I feel to have had this experience. How thankful I am for these voices on the phone, these messages across time differences, and these smiles at future reunions. 

I hope that everyone here has found at their time at Swarthmore some purpose or solution or ideal that moves them, and that after graduation, that we can begin to put the skills we acquired here to work. It may look like running a nonprofit, or working in medicine, or volunteering in our spare time, or raising young people with love and respect, or simply getting through each day. Whatever each of us can do will be enough. In prioritizing our own mental health and growth, we are creating a strength that can be shared beyond ourselves, a strength that can eventually be extended to people like me who show up with expectations too high to succeed and try to do it all alone. How grateful I am that I didn’t have to. 

Thank you to our friends, to our families, to our mentors, to our College staff and teachers who have helped us reach this day. Congratulations to the Swarthmore College Class of 2021!