Congratulations, Class of 2011! This month, hundreds of thousands of students will pick up diplomas at their respective commencement ceremonies and head straight toward their bright (and most definitely uncertain) futures. In keeping with tradition, a handful of undergraduates have been selected to stand in front of their peers and represent the student body as their class’ valedictorians or salutatorians. And, let’s face it, that’s not always an easy job: after all, it’s tough to sound likable with a perfect GPA and brilliant plans for the coming years in the midst of a tough economy. However, Daily BR!NK managed to find three folks from various schools (University of Southern California, George Washington University, and Princeton University) who actually do our generation proud with their aspirations, realistic assessments of our times, and advice for all the fellow graduates now unleashed onto the world.
Valedictorian, University of Southern California
Here is the million dollar question, Sarrah: What are your plans after graduation?
I’ll be taking the summer off to spend with family and friends here in LA before moving to Boston in August to start my studies at Harvard Medical School. I am so excited about pursuing medicine, but I think in our generation, very few of us feel that there is only one right path for us. There are many other things I am passionate about as well, which is why, in addition to becoming a physician, I would like to continue the interfaith dialogue and service work that I became involved in during my time at USC. I believe that interreligious understanding is crucial in order to solve many of the global conflicts we are faced with today.
With the University of Southern California’s commencement ceremony now behind you, would you mind reflecting upon your experience that day? How did it feel to stand in front of the entire graduating class, and what elements made this day truly remarkable for you?
I was very humbled to be speaking on behalf of the amazing students that make up the USC Class of 2011, especially considering the remarkable accomplishments of my classmates. What truly made the moment special was that I could hear and see different parts of the crowd cheer as I referenced the diverse experiences that add up to represent the USC Class of 2011. It was beautiful to see that despite the very diverse paths we each have taken, there is a real unity to the Trojan Family that will last a lifetime.
After four years (more or less) of undergraduate studies, hundreds of thousands of young folks are going out into the world and, inevitably, changing it. What do you think matters the most to our generation? What do we care about, and what are your hopes that our generation will accomplish over the next ten years?
I think that our generation has a new hope and optimism coupled with real skills that enable us to clearly identify current problems and work, with energy and humility, to fix them. Our generation has an unprecedented hunger for knowledge and new experiences and the immediate means to feed those needs in a way that allows for a better understanding of the world, which is absolutely essential if we are to change it for the better. I hope that our generation will work to address the education and economic crises the United States is facing. As someone who is passionate about interfaith dialogue and service work, I am hoping that our generation will be instrumental in addressing the interreligious conflicts of our time as well. I think our generation is unique in its openness and receptiveness to new ideas and ways of thinking: exclusivism has become obsolete and we are constantly looking for new ways to feed our faith in our futures and in our ability to change the world.
Student Speaker, George Washington University
How has your experience at GWU contributed to your growth, both academically and personally?
GW has provided me a wealth of incredible opportunities that served as a catalyst for my personal and academic growth. There is no understating the impact that traveling, serving, and learning about the world has had on me. Personally, I’ll always carry with me a level of discomfort with the disparities between social class, economic class, race, access to opportunity, access to health care, and other human rights. This discomfort will undoubtedly feed my passion to continue to try to make this world a better place. Service is my personal calling, and so long as I’m on that path I’ll know that my life will be fulfilling.
Academically, my Masters in Middle East Studies program has been incredible. Marc Lynch has really accelerated its growth and caliber and I can’t wait to see where it goes next. There’s no replacing being able to discuss the future of Iraqi politics with senior Iraqi politicians over dinner, hearing from senior diplomats about breaking issues, and having it all framed in the theory taught by incredibly knowledgeable and experienced faculty. Watching the events in Egypt unfold and hearing real-time analysis by one of the foremost experts on Egyptian politics weekly this semester was outstanding. My grad program funded travel abroad, and I was able to gain a richer experience and develop my cross-cultural capacity for learning and understanding. My worldview has expanded significantly from when I set foot on this campus just six years ago.
What are your plans after graduation?
I look forward to serving this country as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Air Force. I hope to bring my experiences abroad, my worldview, and my analytical capacity developed at GW to provide the most accurate intelligence to our military’s decision-makers possible.
What do you think is the most important thing for young graduates to know, as they are about to enter the “real world”?
I think there is a lot of pressure on graduating students, especially in this economic climate. They face the real challenge of starting the next phase of their lives, but are simultaneously called upon to serve others and make a difference. Graduates should know that they’ve proven themselves able, time and time again, to make real differences in the lives of others. They don’t have to travel to Haiti or Yemen to change the world, they can change a world for whomever they include in their own lives. If you always remember to carry a conscious understanding of the disparities in the world, you’ll come to appreciate all that you have that much more, and you’ll have a guiding light of improving the world around you that will help carry you through whatever challenges exist in your future. Your life will be richer for it.
Valedictorian, Princeton University
After four years at Princeton, what are your plans for the future? And how many times have people asked you that in the past month?
I’m going to graduate school at Stanford, to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics. Everyone asks this question; I’ve certainly lost count.
It’s a big responsibility, and you have to say something that resonates with the entire graduating class. I’m lucky that it needs to be done way in advance; this way I’ll have some time to relax before graduation.
In a fragile economy, what type of advice would you provide to your follow graduates?
Think about the lessons learned from the economic crisis, and let these inform your decisions. This applies directly to anyone going into consulting or the banking industry (and there are lots of Princeton graduates that fit this bill). However the short-sightedness which led to the economic problems is a good lesson for everyone, since it it’s about human nature (which, it turns out, is a big part of economics). I think this is especially true and important for when we make choices concerning sustainability.