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Commencement Address -- Raghu Karnad '05

29 May 2005

I've always been sentimental about this place. I think that being at Swarthmore is like a romance. No, that doesn't mean that its been one continuously passionate, sexy affair. Even the Admissions Office wouldn't go that far. But I've often felt like my relationship to Swarthmore itself was subject to those ups and downs and ups.

It had the predictably warm, fuzzy moments, at 2 am in Paces when 'Like a Prayer' comes on, or when you've finished a paper, and you think of just the right pun to use in the title. It had a lot of those. And it had the exceptional moments when you've just killed a pterodactyl, you just beat Haverford, or you finally made yourself walk alone through the Crum in the fall. Or you finished the last page of Discipline & Punish and maybe you understand a little and you slam the book shut and you know that this is right, that you belong here, you belong in this thing.

On the other hand, if Larry Westphal coincided with your sophomore slump, you probably know what its like to have cold feet, and wonder why you ever ended up in this sort of relationship, and whether you can spend the next two years of your life doing this.

Dave McCandlish always tells me that its an irrational choice to come to Swarthmore, because it's such an irregular college experience, and going into it you cannot know yourself well enough to know that such an irregular experience is the right thing for you. This is the shpiel he's been giving to specs for the last couple of years. But I think that's a good thing. We're young, and heedless, and some of the best things that happen to us happen as a result of unpredictable choices — even irrational ones. Irrational romantic choices are great. And then there are ups and downs, and ups and downs.

Billy Schwartz, there was the time that SWAT made you live in ML basement for a year — that's called sleeping on the couch — and you never found out what you did to deserve that! I narrowly missed that disaster myself. But then this year, you got your beach-side Parrish single. I mean, how many of us have had to get up the hill... from Sharples to the Science Centre... on crutches... at 9:55 in the morning? And you're like, baby, you treat me so bad.

It isn't just about the ups and downs. Utilitarianism is so freshman year. Romance is also about transformations, and how you change each other. Like all good romances, to a large degree Swat fashioned who we are now. But I'm not going to try and summarize how each one of us changed — I can't let this speech get any cornier.

We saw Swarthmore change a lot in four years — the kids who come after us, they just won't believe the stories about how crappy DuPont basement was, or what Willets was like before Myrt's perestroika.

Watching the transformation happen hasn't always been easy. This year, many seniors wanted to take Swarthmore aside and whisper, "What were you doing in that video? That's not who you are!" But this is exactly why being at Swat is like a romance — because we've felt like we've had a claim on what it was, because we felt like we knew it inside and out. We knew it institutionally, from hobnobbing with the President for Student Council, or from sweating over the math to figure out how we felt about Living Wage.

And we knew it physically, in intimate detail: many of us have taken classes in every single academic building, we know where every water fountain is, how long the Parrish steam tunnels are, where the black ice forms on the pathways. We know the doors to every attic, the windows onto every rooftop and the codes for every faculty lounge.

And we know the stories. I guess that's the real tragedy of breaking up, right? How much longer is Swat going to remember that time when the Fascists invaded the Parrish Commune? Or the crazy things we saw at our sophomore year Sager? Or when Rogg caught the backpack thief? Where on campus were you when you found out about the World Trade Center attacks?

I was walking towards Papazian for class. It was just the second week of our freshman fall semester. It was cool out, but the sun was shining bright, as if the campus wanted to say to all the tearful students, "It'll be okay, it'll be okay."

Because I've sometimes felt that, at key moments, this campus was emotionally responsive — and I don't mean the student body or the faculty or staff — I mean the campus itself. At the start of each semester, when you step off the SEPTA train and see Parrish Hall sitting there, its like its wings are outstretched to greet you and say "Welcome back, man, welcome back."

The weather at the end of November this year was usually fine. But the day that Bobby died, that evening the campus was shrouded in a thick cool mist. I was deeply moved, and I know it was comforting to his friends. Bobby and Katie Stauffer are very much in our hearts and our memories. I know we all wish they could have been here with us. A moment of silence to remember them.

Here's one personal anecdote.

Like too many of us, I had the pleasure of living in Willets freshman year and then again sophomore year. Freshman year, Willets was a tea party. Sophomore year, it was more like a mosh pit. Sunday mornings there was predictable stairwell-traffic of kids looking for a hall with a clean bathroom — and the fire alarms went off practically every night. We loved it as much as we resented it.

So, it's the end of sophomore year, the morning we were expected to vacate our rooms — I'd just finished pushing my twentieth box into Willets storage — of course, by that time the first couple had already been raided by Ville Rats. I had been pacing around my room, reluctant to leave, and finally I placed my hand on the wall and I said "Goodbye, Willets."

I swear to you, that very instant, the fire alarm went off. She was saying goodbye back.

The campus has been wishing us the sweetest farewell for the last couple of weeks now — Swarthmore is going to miss '05. Sometimes it's been putting on a brave face, all sunshine and smiles and flowers behind its ear. And sometimes it breaks down, and for a few days it gets all gloomy and and tearful. However it is you feel about this being over, I just hope that you'll look back on your four years with Swat, and you'll recall them in the words we use for the best of our old romances:

It was a lovely college. Actually, you know there were ups and downs... sometimes it was just unreasonable... but I worked hard, I gave a lot. And I learnt a lot. I didn't want it to last forever, four years was about all I could take... but we had a damn good time together — and standing here at the end of it, I'm proud of the person I've become.

And may whatever comes next bring you the same. Good luck, '05.