Callie Cho '23
Good morning, Class of 2023.
First, I would like to welcome and thank all the family, friends, and loved ones who have traveled here to celebrate with us today. Our victory is no less yours as it is ours.
I would also personally like to thank my family, especially my parents, without whom I would not be the person I am today. It is your continual love and support that has allowed me to embark on this amazing journey.
Today, the seats that fill Parrish lawn are occupied by characters cast in the story of Swarthmore College Class of 2023. Cumulatively, our class has a unique and multifaceted story to tell about our time here.
Now, I won’t pretend that I can speak to the individual experiences of every graduating senior here today. But my hope is that at least one thing I say in this speech resonates with you, my fellow classmate.
I recently had the amazing opportunity to chat with a neuroscientist who studies consciousness, and in this conversation, we discussed the idea of the extended self. The idea that part of our own consciousness exists in the minds of people we know and who know us. We have existed in the minds of each other, and in each other’s narratives, over the past four years.
After all, in the setting of this miniscule, 1600-student suburban campus, we have been characters in each other's stories, be it major or minor roles.
Maybe we have only perceived each other passively: waiting in line at Sharples, passing though the field house lobby, working diligently in Singer Commons. But maybe we have been friends since freshman year. Maybe we were teammates, lab mates, or roommates. Maybe we were in a group project together. (If that’s the case, I apologize.) Maybe we grew apart. Maybe we would have become close friends if it weren’t for the pandemic.
Maybe we coyly made eye contact on the first day of freshman orientation, when some administrator said: “look to your left, look to your right – one of these people may be your soulmate.” And then maybe, after our brief romantic eye contact, our paths never crossed again.
In any case, the point is that in some capacity, we know each other.
When I was writing this speech, I had some trouble figuring out how to organize my thoughts. I didn’t have in mind some piece of unique, prophetic wisdom to bestow on all my classmates about conquering the daunting unknown of our separate futures. In fact, the only motif that kept returning to me was that of uncertainty.
I am a graduating senior. Like many of my peers, I have no idea what I am doing after this. I am about to enter this so-called “real world,” and there’s still so many things I don’t understand: What is the point of insurance? How and why do I wash my laundry on any setting besides “cold” and “light soil”? At what point in my life do I succumb to purchasing a crockpot?
Hopefully, most of you are much more prepared to enter adult life than I am. But in any case: Of my adulting capacity, I am uncertain. And of my future, I am uncertain.
These uncertainties of mine were unfairly leveraged one cold, winter morning when I was walking through campus, ruminating on all the important life skills I have not yet mastered. I happened to glance into the greenery lining the Parrish walkway, and to my surprise, I discovered a label nestled in the leaves. It read Solitary Clematis. I continued walking. Spotted another one: Minnie Pearl. Then another one: Red Sprite. And so on.
At this point, immersed in my quarter life crisis and deeply rattled by the uncertainty of my storyline after graduation, these labels felt somehow offensive. How was it possible that a plant knew who it was and yet I still didn’t?
Everywhere I walked that day, I was ambushed by an onslaught of certainly labeled flora: White Snakeroot, Japanese Maple, Dove Tree. As I awkwardly crawled between the various bushes and flowers, I became more and more enraged with each scientific and common name that I read.
As if I wasn’t already in an identity crisis, now nature would not stop asserting its identity in my face, mocking my struggle with not one but two labels, each!
For days after this torturous, yet admittedly self-inflicted, experience, I couldn't bear to look at any flowers or shrubs. Every blade of labeled grass, every name-bearing petal, enraged me to my core.
Until one day, I was again ambling towards academic campus, but this time, it was sunny and the temperature outside was delightfully ambient. When I glanced to my right and spotted the plant labeled Solitary Clematis, to my surprise, I didn’t feel angry. Instead, I admired its beauty: its green leaves had just emerged from winter’s slumber and were soaking in the newfound sun’s rays, just as I was.
As I found myself identifying with this plant, something struck me. Arboretums, such as the campus of Swarthmore, are not about labels. Swarthmore is not about labels. I did not come here to receive a degree just to be able to say that I have one. I came here because I had diverse interests that I wanted to cultivate. I came here because I wanted to grow personally and intellectually. Arboretums are dedicated places of growth and labels are merely a happy consequence.
My revelation — while quite plausibly weather-motivated — revealed to me that the plants and I had more in common than I previously thought.
So that is what I want to talk about today: Growth.
Every year at Swarthmore, each student is gifted a plant of their choosing from the Scott Arboretum. When you first acquire your plant, the gracious garden enthusiasts of the Arboretum instruct you on how to care for it, how to let it grow.
Every year, I have excitedly adopted a plant with the goal of nurturing and growing it into its most optimal form. And every year, I fail miserably, and my plant tragically dies come winter break.
The instructions for growing a plant are deceivingly simple: Water it.
While it may be true that a plant’s requirements for life may be as simple as water and sunlight, they nevertheless must be met. And this constant care is a large ask from a notoriously busy Swattie. This inability to meet the rudimentary requirements for basic life extends into the Swattie’s own self-care routine… or lack thereof.
So firstly, I want to acknowledge all those employees of Swarthmore who make our day to day lives as students possible. The dining and cafe staff, EVS, grounds: Without y’all, the simplest acts of survival would be impossible for us. You keep us fed, watered, caffeinated, clean, and so much more.
So, sincerely from Swarthmore Class of 2023, we thank you and are forever grateful for your care. Because of you, we, the students of Swarthmore, are allowed the privilege of disregarding survival’s crude requirements and can focus on cultivating our minds.
This brings me to my next acknowledgement: our academic staff. The people who plant the seeds of knowledge in our malleable brains. Those who nourish us with illumining questions, who force us to surpass our limitations, and encourage us to break through our glass ceilings. These people include our professors, our lab instructors, our course administrators, our animal and plant care specialists, and everyone else who contributes to our learning environment here at Swat.
To you all, I would like to say that I know we can act ungrateful sometimes… maybe most of the time; griping and complaining about our problem sets and our papers and so on. But deep down, we appreciate you. It is your passion for the pursuit of knowledge that inspires us to continue learning and growing. We thank you.
The next aspect of growth I would like to touch upon is that of space.
I recently learned that when growing a plant, doubling its pot size can lead to an increase in its biomass by 43%. Just as plants are influenced by the space in which they grow, so are we.
Tiresome morning labs in Singer, seminars in Kohlberg that end after sunset, twilights spent studying in McCabe: These settings cultivate the little treasured pocket memories that we will carry with us after we leave.
For me, these memories include late night quesadillas at a Crumb Cafe. Teatime in Palmer Lounge with my dorm mates. Collecting honey from our campus bees when spring arrives. Trivia Night at Ships Bottom. Sing a longs in the locker room on game days. Listening to the lunch hour concert while passing through Parrish Hall. The exchange of daily niceties and coffee with the Dunkin’ staff in the Ville. Midnight adventures in Crum Woods. Half-watching a baseball game on NPPR balcony when the sun finally, gloriously emerges from winter’s gloom.
It’s the time that we spend in these spaces – almost thoughtlessly – having forgettable, everyday experiences that subtly shape us and grow us into the people we are today. And it is these moments that we will miss most when we leave this place.
Okay. So we’ve established that both care and space are conditions necessary for growth.
Lastly, I would like to touch upon how we grow.
Just as a flower blooms and withers dependent on the season, so do we. Sometimes we fail, as I have, consistently, throughout my time here. freshman year, let's just say I really pass/failed the pass/fail semester. Here are a few examples:
I received C’s or lower on almost all my intro bio quizzes. I barely passed organic chemistry. I only completed half of my intro statistics final. These failures, along with countless others, constituted my wintertime.
My junior year, I foolishly took an advanced neuroscience seminar. There were only eight or so people in the class, and I remember feeling grossly out of place. Everyone around me was so smart — much smarter than I was — and I felt like an imposter. I remember turning to a classmate once, tears welling in my eyes as I expressed my insecurities about being in the class. I disclosed to her that I constantly felt like an outsider, that I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to be there.
She responded: I have never thought that you didn’t belong in this class.
To me, that one positive response, that one vote of confidence from a peer I regarded so highly, felt like a huge success. She was the first ray of sun penetrating through the clouds; my groundhog, victoriously emerging from its slumber to finally end wintertime. After that moment, I felt confident enough to complete that class and then go on to complete a major in neuroscience.
I know this kind of experience is not an uncommon one here. Swarthmore is hard. It’s a grind. It pushes you to your breaking point and then some. But nevertheless, our sense of community remains strong. No matter the day, I know I can count on a fist bump from Donny at the grill, an exchange of pleasantries with Dr. Bauer when passing through Singer, a kind word from a fellow senior when I need encouragement while struggling with my thesis.
And when necessary, we fight for each other: be it traveling into enemy territory (aka Haverford) to support our lacrosse teams in their last conference games, supporting our men’s basketball team as they travel to the NCAA tournament, or lobbying to raise wages for school employees.
This sense of community is what makes Swarthmore so special to me. We support each other through our seasons here at Swarthmore, through the thick and the thin, and together, we blossom, we grow, and we succeed.
Growth thrives in the gritty moments we get through by the skin of our teeth and by the seat of our pants. Growth hides in the almost-but-not-quites, the should-have-but-didn’ts- the 49.9 and 89.9 percents. It thrives in the 11:59 p.m.s, the pass/failed classes, and the barely complete assignments.
And growth accompanies us here today, as we graduate.
My hope for us, Class of 2023, is that we appreciate our time here for what it was. In all its seasonality, its waxes and wanes, and its successes and failures.
Because it is these oscillations that make our journey worth remembering. After all, what’s a bildungsroman without a character arc?
So today, we celebrate the completion of our four-year coming of age story.
Commencement. Yes, this word refers to a ceremony in which degrees are conferred upon graduating students. But commencement is also defined as a beginning or a start. For us, this means the end of our Swarthmore odyssey, and the beginning of some new, grand adventure.
Congrats, Class of 2023. We have come of age. Let us commence the next chapter.
Thank you for listening.