Speech made by Calif Xuan Tran '97 (Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner) at Bowdoin's 192nd CommencementMay 24, 1997
Story posted May 24, 1997
"A Small College in Maine"
President Edwards, Commissioner Albanese, Members of the College and Distinguished Guests; I am honored to welcome you to our College during our 1997 Commencement Exercises.
I spent my junior year abroad in a place far removed from life here at Bowdoin College. To get to class, I did not just have to conveniently cross the quad to Massachusetts Hall, but rather, had to steer my squeaky Chinese built bicycle through the meandering road packed with rumbling motorcycles and obnoxious cyclos. To protect me from the ruthlessly speeding mechanical beasts and large three wheeled carriages, I was armored with nothing more than a white bicycle helmet; which, more often than not, was confused for a large eggshell rather than a piece- of protective equipment. With the motorists distracted by this huge eggshell on my head, the helmet caused me more harm than good. Instead of dining at Coles Tower or the refurbished Moulton Union, I drew my sustenance from small noodle stands sprinkled on the streets throughout the city. Instead of the inevitable slips and falls walking around campus during the long Maine winters, I got soaked by flash floods from the monsoon rains, and scorched by the blistering heat of the tropical summers. After spending twelve months in Southeast Asia, I can definitely say that life in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is nothing like the life in Brunswick, Maine.
I was a part of the 225 students who had the opportunity to study abroad for either a semester or an entire year. When we left this college, we were leaving not only our friends and professors, but also the comforts of living at Bowdoin. The ginger strolls across the quad late at night, the intense hockey games with all their cheers and songs, and the spontaneous mid-night study breaks that somehow always ended up at L.L. Bean in Freeport all had to wait until we came back. Although these experiences were painfully missed when we were abroad, what we gained was something that very few people have the opportunity to experience in their lifetime. Living in and adapting to a foreign culture is a fascinating opportunity. For me, my tenure in Vietnam changed my perspective on life.
Vietnam is a country in transition; it is a place where past and present, old and new, East and West are constantly challenging and testing each other. It was humbling to see a young child barely six years of age threshing rice in paddies in the country-side. At the same time however, it was encouraging to meet a Vietnamese woman, educated by an American firm, trade currencies in the developing international exchange market in Hanoi. Recently opening its borders to foreign investment, Vietnam houses over twenty thousand expatriates who manage the $18 billion US dollars being invested in the country. By studying in Vietnam, I came in close contact with the Australians, French Nationals, the Japanese, Taiwanese, Dutch, and practically every other country with in interest in Vietnam. Being exposed to such differences in cultures and customs, I realized that I was exposed to something far greater than just the Vietnamese culture or Southeast Asian custom. I was exposed to the reality of a world crawling with richness and cultural variety; I was exposed to the culture of the world citizen.
While in Southeast Asia, I met an Australian man, American educated, who is running a multi-media computer programming company; an American woman, fluent in Vietnamese, who is currently translating the complicated Vietnamese legal code into English; and I met a Singaporain woman, French educated, who is changing the fashion ethos of Vietnam by introducing her own line of clothes. These people are helping the transformation of what was just twenty years ago, a defunct civil war-torn country, to a modern major regional economic influence. What strikes me about these people is that they were not only at least bilingual and experienced in coping in a foreign land, but they were also within four years of my own age.
The maturity, ambition, and discipline of these 20-something professionals taught me a valuable lesson. I learned that the world in which we live is a very small place. Access to the world has never been as easy as it is today; technology can take us around the world within a few hours, and we are only seconds away from anybody in the world within reach of a telephone. As divisive walls fall, and geographical boundaries are erased, we are exposed to new peoples, new lands, and most important, new ideas. Never has a liberal arts education been such a valuable asset to our lives.
My friends back home in Texas often question the benefits of studying at a small school in Maine. But, to be able to think critically, write with fluidity, and communicate ideas in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual world is essential in any venture. A liberal arts education develops and hones these skills. The beauty of such an education is that it embodies a deep respect for the arts and culture, for honesty and integrity, for free, independent creative thought. More specifically, the Bowdoin experience exposes us to a world of intellectual discovery and encourages us to explore the depths of our curiosity. As we are introduced to people from different cultures and societies, the Bowdoin experience gives us the ability to adapt, accept, and learn from these differences. Ingrained with tradition, yet unafraid to adapt to changes, Bowdoin has taught us not to be afraid to question, and to never shy away from a challenge: that is the beauty of this college.
The world is changing regardless of whether we want it to or not. However, this change is amorphous- and it is in great need of direction. Graduating Bowdoin, we leave with an education unparalleled anywhere in the world. With this education comes a great moral responsibility. We are in an ideal position to assume the reigns of this change that lies ahead of us. We must lead this change down a path that will not only ensure the protection of mutual respect and honesty, but also preserve the same individual freedoms and privileges for the next generation as were given to us by our parents' generation. We are a part of something larger than ever before; with our education and Bowdoin experience, we are all members of the international community. I mentioned earlier the accomplishments of some of the 20-somethings whom I met while in Southeast Asia. Although their achievements are noteworthy, it is important to realize that we too have within our class a number of leaders who will actively engage in the leadership of the 21st century. Sitting amongst us today, we have an educator who will spend the next two years of her life with the Peace Corps, teaching mathematics in the French speaking African country of Burkina-Faso; we have an ornithologist who will research the birds and fragile environment of South America; and we have a student of history who will be studying international law in Edinburough. The world's future educators and councilors, doctors and investors, architects and philosophers are all a part of the Class of 1997. We have behind us, the education and experience that allow us to not only enter, but also lead the 21st century with intrepid confidence. We have nothing to lose, but together, with our hopes and dreams, with our experience and wisdom, we have the world to gain. We are extremely fortunate to be where we are right now; and to our parents, family, faculty, and staff- and to the friends who have contributed to this experience, I want to thank you for offering it to me. It has been an incredible four years.
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