Campus News

Gretchen Susan Selcke, Senior Commencement Speaker, Class of 1868 Prize Winner

Story posted May 27, 2000

"Bowdoin Knowledge: Reading, Love, and the Pointer Sisters"

Saturday, May 27, 2000

Ms. LaChance, Honorands, Mr. Kurtz, President Edwards, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Bowdoin Community, and Guests:

On our last day together at Bowdoin, I am reminded of my first semester here four years ago. My "College Experience" began when my dad and I loaded up the family car and drove from Minnesota to Maine in three days. It was my pre-pre-orientation trip of sorts, and made the whitewater kayaking trip that followed seem a lot less daunting. There was so much stuff in the car that I had to sit with my knees against the dashboard because there was a rug wedged between the two front seats. We were stuck somewhere in central Pennsylvania for half a day due to road construction, spent two nights in glamorous places like "Lisle" and "Erie" and played the license plate alphabet game one too many times. Our salvation was a twelve-cassette tape collection of Golden Oldies. Dad drove and I sang. I got pretty good at being Tina Turner singing "Proud Mary." Dad played drums, sang backup and generally made me laugh. Contrary to my worst fears, I learned that my dad was not that lame and that I actually was going to miss my parents.

I will remember that road trip forever. In between songs, my father told me the story of his life, his family, and his hopes for my future. My dad is the oldest of five siblings and grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, worlds removed from my suburban life in Minnesota. I listened as my dad told me stories about how he and his brothers swung from the light fixture while playing "George of the Jungle," how his brother got all the women and how hard his parents worked. By the time we got to Ohio he was talking about his College Years, how he went to Vietnam and how that war changed his life. By New York we were on to the story of how my parents met while he was sorting fish baits in his boxers. Thanks, but a little too much information on that one. Appropriately, the soundtrack seemed to accompany him in an almost surreal way, and I began to understand that, like it or not, most of who you are has to do with your parents.

In addition to family trivia, dad gave me a lot of advice on that trip. Most of which I ignored. But what I did absorb has served me well at Bowdoin. My dad said: "Gutch (do not ask, it is a nickname), we love you. No matter what." That phrase has pulled me through papers, midterms, and embarrassingly numerous job rejections. Bowdoin made me realize that my family would always love me. What a fantastic concept. My father driving cross-country in August was only the first of many demonstrations of their love. Our families are our biggest supporters. They want us to succeed, to be happy, to become capable people with a sense of purpose. I admit that some of the advice my mother gave me was not always pertinent. Her mantra "Sit up straight, smile, and follow the directions" as a means of impressing teachers was more appropriate in Kindergarten than college, but she always tried to help. I never said my parents were normal, but I wouldn't really want them to be. Our families may not have all of the answers, but then again no one does. And they will listen.

Rewind again to the Tuesday morning I arrived at Bowdoin. We pulled up to Moore Hall as the radio blared "I'm So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters. Never one to be late, Dad made sure we were the first ones there so we could get a good parking space. I think my poor proctor was a little overwhelmed as we bounded up the stairs at quarter past nine in the morning. As we finished unloading, my roommate pulled up in her also overloaded car. I was one of the lucky freshmen to be living in a double as a first year, but that morning I was not feeling so fortunate. I was carefully arranging my clothes in color coordinated piles and dusting shelves as Anne heaped her belongings in a mountain in the center of the room. I was wearing a preppy sweatshirt, shorts and a ponytail. Anne was dressed in all black and she had a tattoo. We eyed each other and I thought I was in "Roommate Hell."

But as soon as I gave Anne a chance I knew that we could live together. It took about a month until we became close friends. I was obsessively organized. She had a laundry pile that took on a life of its own. Before I met Anne, I had never met anyone from Massachusettes, let alone someone from an all-girls school who could design websites. I was amazed. And a little scared. But I knew everything was going to be okay when she opened her trunk and pulled out piles of books. We had one thing in common - we both loved to read. Anne preferred new age theories and books about Zen Architecture; I stuck to Jane Austen and Garc’a M‡rquez. But we both ended the day curled on our respective dorm beds with our nose in some written work.

This shared passion for reading was the first revelation of my short college career. An appreciation for literature is a gift. My grandmother always said that a good book could get you through anything. She even gave me a mounted quote by William Godwin to remind me of the power of literature: "He that loves to read has everything within his reach." I soon appreciated the meaning of that quote as I struggled to assemble my computer, lamp and window shades. In the past four years, in addition to coursework, I have installed more memory in my computer, filed an accident report with the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles, and changed the belt on my vacuum cleaner. All because I was able to read and follow the instructions. I never realized how much I could accomplish or the things I could figure out with an instruction manual and implacable determination. At a place like Bowdoin, the ability to read and digest information is taken for granted. In the United States alone, more than a quarter of the adult population is illiterate or semiliterate, not to mention those people living in other areas of the globe without the resources of an industrialized nation. Cherish the gift of literacy and find a book or two that you love.

The logical extension of loving to read is loving the process of learning. Bowdoin professors have shown by example that a good teacher makes all of the difference. We all have favorite professors and favorite classes. Looking back I am amazed that the classes that I thought were the toughest were the ones that I ended up liking the most. Those professors who encouraged you to reach a little further are the ones that you will remember. Their support, complemented by the other members of the class, determined our level of intensity as students. Bowdoin is a place where you are the architect of your education, and a place where I learned to love learning.

In addition to loving books and learning, Bowdoin has taught me to treasure friendships. I have come to the conclusion that most of college, and for that matter life, consists of finding a group of people that you care about and who care about you. Unlike airline tickets, true friends cannot be exchanged, upgraded, or returned. By middle school, I figured out that if you were lucky if you could count your real friends on one hand. But it was not until I went away to college that I understood the importance of that bond. My friends have been there through bad haircuts and bad days, always ready to ease my suffering with some Diet Coke and an open mind. I am embarrassed to admit the number of times I called Amanda incredibly upset over some monumental crisis in my life. Sometimes it was about academics, sometimes it was about boys, and sometimes it was just because it was the middle of February and everything had taken on the monotonous gray of the sky. They listened patiently as I recapped my trials and tribulations, and supported me even on three hours of sleep.

My third epiphany as a college student was the realization that everyone has something truly wonderful to offer the world. My freshman roommate, in addition to being a hopeless clothes-piler, is an incredibly talented artist and fiercely loyal friend. The girl who lived on the first floor of my dorm who had a tendency to embellish the truth also had an uncanny ability to tell an entertaining story. A guy from upstairs was an incurable procrastinator but also finished composing a symphony this April. I tend to obsess and worry about homework and the future. But even I have a unique set of strengths that allowed me to write honors projects this year without going permanently insane. If there is hope for me, there is hope for anyone. I have come to the conclusion that if you give people the chance, they will almost always exceed your expectations.

Look for that spark in others, but more importantly, find the spark in yourself. Some of the best advice I ever received was written in a birthday card: "This life is your own. Take the power to choose what you want to do and do it well. Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Take the power to control your own life, no one else can do it for you. Take the power to make your own life happy." This is one of the most difficult of the lessons we can take away from Bowdoin. The ability to appreciate the talents of others begins with . I am still working on that one. But Bowdoin has given me the tools to shape my own life.

I would not be the same person had I lived with another girl from the Midwest with a tendency to read romantic drivel and magazines. I realized how much I need to be surrounded by books, great professors and great students. I realized how much I need people like Anne in my life. I realized that I would not be the same person if it were not for Bowdoin. I am sure I would not be able to appreciate the love and support of my family had I not taken that road trip with my dad. I learned to love learning and to appreciate the people arround me. As we spend our last day at Bowdoin as students together, I hope that you, too, will remember these four years as the beginning of something great. I know that as I pull into my first apartment I will smile as my radio blares "I'm So Excited."

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