Baccalaureate Address: Shanique P. Brown '04
Story posted May 28, 2004
Redefining Commitment and Success
by Shanique P. Brown '04
May 28, 2004
Good afternoon President Mills, fellow classmates, family and friends. Today I would like to talk about the redefinition of commitment and success. Vince Lombardi once said, "Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." Commitment is a word that many of us have probably used in some capacity in the last four years. We all have commitments to our country, family and even ourselves. Today I would like to talk about my commitments and how they have evolved over the last four years. Most importantly, how personalizing my commitments have made them more legitimate in my life.
In typical class of 2004 style, I went to dictionary.com to find the definition of commitment. It said that to be committed to something is to bind oneself emotionally or physically to a course of action. Oftentimes, as children, we assume the commitments of our elders, parents, guardians and teachers. We often adopt, without question, the commitments and goals that our elders fostered in us. In retrospect, I realize that many of my early dreams and aspirations were not my own, but instead they were an extension of my family's dreams for me. I venture to guess that many of you, my classmates, have experienced this as well.
Four years ago as an incoming first year student, I started my college career committed to success. To me, success was defined simply: achieving straight As, graduating summa cum laude, and most importantly being accepted into medical school. Again, I would bet at least two of my goals were consistent with your own. And for the first month or so, many of us were still content with these goals. Then the time came for us to develop our own personal definitions of commitment and success, modifying the inherited definitions now enables us to move forward with our own lives dedicated to our own commitment of personal achievement. By developing our own personalized vision of success, we came to realize that success finally rested on our own shoulders.
Success was not a foreign concept to Bowdoin students. If it were, we would not be here today. Essentially, we all were the crème de la crème. Bowdoin made no effort to hide that, because when that bulky admissions envelope came, each accepted member of the class of 2004 was told specifically why the admissions staff knew they were the crème de la crème. I do not know about you, but that had me floating on cloud nine for quite a long time. Then we arrived on campus and began to settle in the oh-so-beautiful bricks and then we realized that we were really not that different from many of our classmates in a quantified way. Many of us thought that grades validated us as people, and constituted success. Today, as I stand here before you about to graduate from Bowdoin College, I have come to realize that a lot of these quantified levels of success are superficial, inadequate and quite honestly inappropriate. I ask you, my fellow classmates, whether or not making straight As makes any of us better than she or he who makes straight Cs? When I answered this question for myself, quite frankly I say NO.
As overachievers, we all want to quantify success and give it a simple numerical value. I was not exempt from this; I fell victim to this for most of my Bowdoin career. I cried myself to sleep many nights when I thought that the B- or C+ that I received on an exam would thwart my acceptance to medical school. And honestly, in reference to some of the schools that rejected me, it probably did. But today, I am all cried out, and I do not look at a rejection letter as a measure of my self worth. I know that even though I do not have a "perfect" academic record that does not mean that I will not become a compassionate, socially conscious and knowledgeable doctor in the future. I also realize that by redefining my commitments, I have come to understand myself more than I ever have before. I have learned that I love to mentor students and that I am a hard worker who does not stop until I know I have exhausted all my resources. I have also come to understand that being loyal and true to my friends and family is one of the most important things in my life. As long as I am able to continue to do these things, I know that I have achieved my goal of being a better person in this world.
Understanding this did not come easy to us, because as overachievers, we all can label ourselves as unsuccessful when we do not obtain a level of success that people in our society deem as being important. Ultimately these superficial measurements to accept or reject us, keep us from getting the plum internship or into the elite graduate schools. Not everyone from Bowdoin can be a Watson, Fulbright or Rhodes scholar, nor can everyone get into dental, law or medical school. But that does not mean that those of us who do not reach those lofty heights will be any less successful in life. If so, the percentage of people we deem as successful would be extremely low. Can we sit here today and say that by not achieving such goals, we have failed? That we won't get good jobs and contribute to a better future because some of us are not yet employed in this tough economy? Each of us sitting here today need to ask ourselves if the ability to get straight As, to obtain grant money, to graduate high school, college or graduate school, is an accurate measure of our potential to make a positive impact in the world. If so, that would be false.
I ask these questions today because when we all arrived four years ago, our definitions of success back then were probably few in number, narrow and artificial. By being placed in this unfamiliar situation, no longer in our comfort zone, we had to learn to redefine the previously held definitions regarding our future that had been passed down to us. And because twenty years from now, no one is going to care if you made an A in your senior seminar. Essentially as we mature as men and women we must measure success differently. I hope success will be seen as the ability for us to make a difference in our careers and our community. Just as I have watched myself change, I have now written my own definition of commitment and success, I have watched the larger institution of Bowdoin change as well.
Bowdoin started with a commitment to diversity and the common good. Although this was a commitment that was unknown to many of us until we actually arrived, apparently it was here and fully supported by the administration. As I am ending year four of my college career, I ask myself whether Bowdoin has failed or achieved this goal. I would venture to say neither yet. As an institution, Bowdoin can commit to diversity all it wants. It can be written in the guidebook, on the Web site or addressed by the president himself at major college events but unless students themselves take on this goal as their own there will be no true commitment. The institution of Bowdoin cannot profess as having a commitment and assume that all the people who are intrinsically connected to the institution such as faculty, staff, parents, alumni and students share that same commitment. It is now time for each of us here today to relate our transformed personal goals, commitments and ideas of success to the larger goals and commitments of Bowdoin College.
Unless we the people who are connected to this College embrace the college's commitments, Bowdoin will continue to have fellow daughters and sons passing each other on the Quad or in the cities and towns across America without any form of acknowledgment. All you end up with is "Pub interrupted": this refers to a situation that occurred one night this winter where people from different ends of the campus disregarded each other's feelings and rights while participating in disrespectful verbiage and protest. Unless we all care about the commitments of this institution, those commitments will go nowhere. As I have said before, Bowdoin can have all the commitments it wants, but unless we leave here today carrying those commitments as our own, we will never facilitate the advancement of the common good. And if we cannot advance the Common Good, I ask you, what is your Bowdoin diploma really worth?
In closing today, I want to challenge everyone in the audience. I challenge you to do what you know is right when the right thing is not looked favorably on by your colleagues. I challenge you to stand up courageously for someone who is not being treated fairly. I challenge you to hire someone different who does not quite fit the "norm." I challenge you to respect all individuals and to not think of anyone as being lesser than you if they do not happen to have a high school or college degree. And finally I challenge you to truly commit yourselves to learning about diversity, embracing diversity and to diversify your life and the lives of the people around you while becoming an advocate for diversity in your community. You, and only you, can translate Bowdoin's individual commitment to diversity to actually advancing the Common Good. Thank you for listening to me today and I hope that you all fulfill your new definitions of commitment and success.
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