Anatole Shukla '22
Good morning, everyone. We are all here today celebrating a momentous occasion — perhaps the only time in Swarthmore College’s history that I have been up before 11:30 on a Sunday. It also happens to be commencement for the classes of 2022 and 2020, if you’re into that sort of thing.
First, let me extend thanks to everyone who has breathed life into this event. Thank you to dining, EVS, grounds, facilities, and arboretum staff whose hard work allows Parrish Hall to keep its doors open. Thank you to the LPAC staff for their technological wizardry. Thank you to the faculty who make us lament that anywhere else, it would have been an A. Thank you to all of the loved ones who have traveled, many from once-insurmountable distances, to be with us. Thank you to the ones who join us today through their computer screens, or just in spirit.
Right now, we celebrate one collective achievement comprised of thousands of individual victories. Psets submitted precisely at 11:58 and 30 seconds. Group projects coordinated with partners available during only a half-hour timeslot every other waning gibbous moon. Messy tangles of thoughts and quotes on word processors transformed into elegant capstones and theses.
Then, there are the personal victories. Falling asleep in the sauna that is Willets Hall in September after struggling to find a cool spot on your twin-xl mattress for half an hour. Hiking down to the Crum Creek and getting four or five skips out of a particularly lucky rock.
Walking across campus, back to your dorm, at one in the morning. Maybe you’re coming back from McCabe, where you’ve been pretending to work for the entire evening. It’s quiet out. A little breezy, but not cold. You stare at the three stars in Orion’s belt that persist in glimmering through the light pollution. At this stage of adulthood, it’s easy to have an intuition for a lot of things, but still not really know anything. Yet, you know for a fact that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.
And you also know that your stomach is kind of gurgling, and it was a bad idea to go back for another coffee at 10 p.m.
All of these moments, scattered across the 430 of us, now weave into the tough yet supple jute of our time at Swarthmore. It is possible that despite the intimacy of our small community, your path and mine have never crossed. Still, we are connected. Other than Sharples tres leches, that’s probably the thing I’ll miss most about Swarthmore — that there’s no such thing as a perfect stranger.
This spiderweb of connection at Swarthmore reminds me of the histories of prominent Quaker families. In 2019, I was a summer intern at Friends Historical Library, one of the largest Quaker research libraries in the world. Swarthmore has a lot of hidden gems, like the pollinator garden outside of Sci Center and Swarthmore College. FHL, which sits in an annex of McCabe library, is the crown jewel on this diadem. My time there remains among my most treasured experiences at Swarthmore. I spent that summer pursuing two of my foremost passions — the study of history, and snooping through other people’s stuff.
After working enough with family trees, you start to develop a pretty clear mental directory of who’s who. Like the other day I was reading about Levi Coffin, a Quaker minister and Underground Railroad conductor from Fountain City, Indiana, roughly two hours away from my hometown of Fort Wayne. I thought to myself, “Coffin. Just spitballing here, probably a cousin of Lucretia Mott, probably on her father’s side.”
That is exactly what it’s like to attend Swarthmore. Only instead of blood relation, your hazy conceptions about others pertain more to their friendships and nuanced interpersonal beefs.
I also got to know someone special while working at FHL, who I know won’t be forgotten as long as I’m around. Her name is kind of a mouthful — Mary Ann Hunn Karsner Kegler — and she’s from Rose Valley. If you’re not familiar with the Greater Philadelphia area or just haven’t left the Swat bubble too much, that’s around two miles away from where we are situated, currently.
I never had the honor of actually meeting Mary Ann. She was born in 1932 and passed away in 1983. She did not achieve fame during her lifetime, nor has she in her departure. I got to know her through sorting the letters she wrote to her mother, Katherine Hunn Karsner, throughout her adulthood. I was left with a profound impression of a beautiful life, of which I’ll now share some basic details.
When Mary Ann reached adulthood, she departed Rose Valley to attend the University of Alaska. She was expelled from the university after a couple of years for the heinous crime of inviting male friends to her dorm room. Instead of packing up and moving back to Pennsylvania, she found a job at the university’s snack bar until the institution found out and removed her from its campus. This was not the end of the line for Mary Ann; instead of finishing her degree elsewhere, she took up a profession that to this day is less than five percent female, let alone in the 1950s — firefighting. She once wrote about her life in Alaska: “In a week, there will be no doubt in the minds of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard that I am A) an idiot, B) working hand-in-glove with Joe Stalin, and C) the proud parent of illegitimate kids. It will also be known that I am starving, freezing, dying of TB, fighting a losing battle with wild animals, forest fires, and insurgents, that I am living in either an igloo or a hole in the ground, and that PanAm and Alaska Steam have gone broke so that I can’t get home.”
Mary Ann fell in love with a peer from the University of Alaska, Ted Kegler. They had three children. When they could not register as a part of the Philadelphia Central Monthly Meeting on account of their distance, they instead founded their own Friends meeting in Fairbanks — the Chena Ridge Friends Meeting, which continues meeting to this day. Her family moved to Anchorage in 1966, where she passed away in 1983.
With all this said, it’s not because of Mary Ann’s laundry list of life events that she has stayed with me. For me, reading her letters was like watching the magnolia trees by the Ben West house blossom into a fierce shock of magenta every spring. They revealed the vivid inner life of a woman who was bold and adventurous, and loving, and deliciously witty during a time about which there persists an egregious narrative that women weren’t allowed to be any of those things. Mary Ann carved a unique path because, and not in spite of, the multitudes within her that she embraced during her 51 years on Earth.
When I think now about Mary Ann, I consider the dread that she must have felt at her expulsion from the University of Alaska. I think about how she would feel if she could know that today, almost four decades after her passing, she is being honored at a commencement ceremony at Swarthmore, just a stone’s throw away from her hometown.
Mary Ann’s foremost connection to this institution rests in the fact of Friends Historical Library guarding her memory in its vast archives. I invoke her name today for two reasons:
The first is that she was a supernova red-hot badass.
The second is that, to me, she embodies the trait I have always most admired about Swarthmore students at large.
As my dear friend and senior class officer Gidon Kaminer wrote in a Phoenix article about setting off the Willets Hall fire alarm our freshman spring: “We’re go-getters here at Swarthmore. It’s how we got here in the first place, and it’s how we make it through. When we want good grades, we work for them. When we want summer internships, we pursue them.”
When we want to do laundry but all the washers are full, we take other people’s wet clothes and put them on top of the machine. When we want to return lost OneCards, we post on the campus Facebook group even though the owner’s name is clearly visible on the ID. And when we want change, we don’t let our voices go unheard. We made it here, and that means we find a way to make it happen.
With that said, I will be the first to acknowledge that while at Swarthmore, I have failed the hell out of so much stuff. I failed the one math class I took here. I once went into a job interview sure as day follows night that I would get the position, and left with my self confidence so damaged that it took over a year and a lot of soul-searching to recover. I failed the notoriously easy economics senior comprehensive exam — twice. I’ve always known that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. I’ve since learned that you also miss 100 percent of the shots you do take, when you don’t remember macroeconomics.
These failures were not roadblocks on some broader path toward success. Many of them were devastating, and humiliating, and just plain sucked. But I have made peace with my failures, to the point of now immortalizing them. Because the most important thing I learned at Swarthmore was not how to succeed. It was how to fail. It was how to pick myself up after taking an absolutely gnarly spill across the pavement. It was how to brush the gravel out of my wounds, and maybe limp for a while. But ultimately, to keep going.
My successes are in addition to the challenges I could not surmount. I finished a course major and a special major in six semesters, in the face of the big bad thing that I won’t mention by name but you definitely know what I’m talking about. I helmed a 140-year-old newspaper through turbulent waters and anchored it back in its home, in print in the hands of hundreds of students. I built friendships with exceptional individuals who, even if we lose touch in the unknown that awaits us beyond this campus, I will always have beside me.
The 17-year-old who moved into Willets on a scorching August afternoon in 2018 had the entire universe broken down to an idealistic science. And it is because, and not in spite of, my time here that I often feel I’m graduating with more uncertainty than when I matriculated. But that’s a good thing. When you know everything, nothing can surprise you. That includes, of course, the bad and the ugly. But it also includes the brilliant and the miraculous.
My experience, of course, is not universal. We all made it here in different ways. What matters is that we did. That we are all present, right here and right now, sharing this moment together.
Right now, the emotions on this campus must comprise a spectrum broader than I can comprehend. No matter what, you deserve to be proud of yourself. You have handed in your comps, delivered your orals, and defended your theses. You have used your last meal swipes, concluded your extracurriculars, and ignored your last banner system maintenance reminders. Every year the arboretum journeys steadfast through the four seasons, and for the last time, you have endeavored alongside it. Whatever Swarthmore means to you, your footprints are now etched onto its heart.
This is it, Class of 2022. It is time for us now to vacate our roles as students and hand them to the incoming class, who will embrace them as eagerly as we once did. It is time for us now to exit through the doors of Parrish Hall and shake hands with Helen Magill White, Thomas B. McCabe, and Maxine Frank Singer. It is time for us to go, and that means it is time for us to get.
Thank you, and congratulations.
Remarks as submitted to Swarthmore College