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Nora Sweeney '24

Hello! I graduated from high school in 2020. In the midst of a pandemic and the renewal of the movement in support of Black lives, I remember walking around my neighborhood and seeing lawn sign after lawn sign adorned with a quote: 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

These signs were meant to signal that the household wanted to make clear their support that Black Lives Matter. I wondered then what silence meant and I wonder now, as four years of college wraps up, about matter. 

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. What is matter? 

Matter can mean many different things. Matter, in physics, is any substance that has mass and takes up space by having volume. What matters is what takes up our space. What matters is the position we occupy in this world, from the masks we have worn, to the construction we have woven around, to the trees we have never been allowed to climb in the woods. What matters is the box fans in our un-air-conditioned rooms and the compostable coffee cups we are served, and the unusually large chair on the lawn. 

Matter is also significance, or a reason for distress. What matters is what we care about, what we find important. So what matters? 

What mattered to us in 2020, when many of us began a college experience that would be overwhelmingly unlike any that had come before and hopefully any that come after? What mattered to us in 2021, when we re-entered what felt like a totally different college, one with classes in-person and indoor dining and roommates? What mattered to us in 2022 and 2023, when we made sophomore plans over Zoom and declared courses that would inevitably change, and studied abroad in other countries that slowly opened up? What will matter to us in 2024, when we take what we’ve learned and actually have to do something with it? What matters now? What will matter for us in the future? 

I ask all these questions to prompt you to reflect, but I do have an answer of my own. When I think through what has mattered for me at Swarthmore, it’s been about the little pockets of community as we established and re-established connections within the confines of covid. Many of those who spend time at Swarthmore are endlessly fascinating and know what they want and how to do it. What’s mattered throughout has been spending time with the people who matter. It’s been spending too much time in the woods and at Kitao studio nights and with the frisbee team in Sci Commons. It’s been social distancing in Willets lounges and sitting in the hallways when we weren’t allowed to be in each other’s rooms. It’s been gossiping in Narples booths and in the Sharples side room and at the tall tables in Kohlberg and really where there was anyone around to share with. It’s been the act of not staying silent when something matters, even if that something might seem silly. 

But our lives do begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter, and the things that matter are hardly ever silly. That MLK quote is paraphrased. The real speech said: 

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

He said this on March 8th, 1965, the day after Bloody Sunday when 600 nonviolent protesters in Selma, Ala., were teargassed and beaten by state troopers and local police. 

Matter is one thing. But on the other hand, mind over matter, right? 

At Swarthmore we are all about the mind: about our intellectually curious and driven students with great minds who take great care to, as the motto asks, mind the light. 

But if we are going to mind the light, the light must matter. I am grateful to Swarthmore for the light it’s fostered in me — for what it’s taught and what it hasn’t, and what I have found matters for me. My individual experience, however, differs from yours. What matters for the individual is different from what may matter for the collective. What light do we mind? And what light does the College mind? 

The College’s mission statement asks us to commit to peace, equity, and social responsibility, as was rooted in our education from an institution founded co-educational and Quaker. The College will put its money where its mouth is in some instances —from cash free to carbon neutral. The institution wants to foster students who will do something about what matters. And I feel that way. 

But what matters to the College? What matters when the institution declares what is and isn’t peaceful protest, and what matters when narratives of campaigns for change are skewed? What matters when the College spends millions of dollars on that geoexchange plant but still upholds a ban on ethical divestment? How do we balance what matters for us and for the world? 

What matters for us, as shared members of the Swarthmore Class of 2024, is that our College has tried to decide for all of us what matters. 

Every university in Palestine is gone. 

Take a moment to look around at your classmates. Pause for a second to recognize and celebrate the education you’ve had, the beautiful campus you’ve spent time on, and the connections you’ve made to last for years. 

Every university in Palestine has been targeted by bombings. Hundreds of students who were supposed to graduate from college this year were killed. U.N. experts have already told us: “With more than 80% of schools in Gaza damaged or destroyed, it may be reasonable to ask if there is an intentional effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system, an action known as ‘scholasticide.’” 

Universities around the country have met students protesting this violence with police force, inviting violence into non-violent encampments. What seems to matter is a repressive enforcement of a status quo that privileges some lives above others. As alumni, even though we will leave Swarthmore, Swarthmore will never leave us. It is an institution that brought us up. And we decide what comes next.

How do we want to matter? How do we want to take our matter — our very substance which has been honed and deepened by our time at the College — and make that matter? How will we respond to the silence around us? Swarthmore has shown me time and again that we are bound up with each other — our liberation is intertwined not only through our time here but from the very matter of our humanity. It is clear to me that it matters to make noise about oppression from within an institution that will not defend the dignity and humanity of Palestinian people. 

To mind the light 

we must understand the light 

we must tend the light 

we must share the light 

and we must amplify the light. 

What matters is that we not be silent. Everything we have learned leads to the understanding that we the people, we the planet, are bound up together. Our matter is intertwined.

The students selected me as speaker. And I speak for the students. And now the students speak for themselves and for our peers in Gaza. Free Palestine. Congratulations, Class of 2024.