Campus News

Commencement Address: Alexandra Honor Yanikoski '06

Story posted May 27, 2006

Bowdoin by the Sea
by Alexandra Honor Yanikoski '06
May 27, 2006

Thank you all for being here today to celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2006. Each of you probably has your own favorite part of Bowdoin, and today I am going to speak about mine - the ocean. Although not a part of the actual campus, the ocean contributes to the mood, sensations, and personality of Bowdoin in ways generally overlooked. To borrow from the eloquence of another, I would like to share part of an address given by John F. Kennedy. He said:

"I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it's because in addition to the fact the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it's because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, our sweat, and in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came."

Although President Kennedy's words might speak to everyone, they also feel specific to Bowdoin. From the Coastal Studies Center to the smell of saltwater clinging in the air on rainy days, the ocean is omnipresent on campus. It sets the atmosphere at Bowdoin in subtle undertones that easily slide past our conscious awareness. And although we seem to forget our closeness to the sea, I believe that the sea is itself the essence of Bowdoin.

Bowdoin is strongly tied to the coast of Maine, a coast that differs from all others. It is the longest coastline in the United States, which may have prompted Maine to proclaim itself "Vacationland." However, at Bowdoin, Maine rarely feels like a vacation. The open water of the Atlantic primarily asserts its proximity to campus with a bone-chilling wind so strong that it can be nearly impossible to enter the Tower. In wintertime, the steely gray sky matches the color of the water, but most of us never venture out to the rocky coast. In a beautiful opening passage to his short story "The Open Boat," American author Stephen Crane wrote:

"None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks."

This description of the men at sea, floundering in their little dinghy, could serve as a metaphor for the years at Bowdoin. It is so easy at Bowdoin to get caught up in the routine and bustle of daily life to the point that we forget our surroundings, much like the men who look straight ahead, clinging to their tiny boat. We have all felt ourselves at the same point as the men described by Stephen Crane - desperately trying to stay afloat and unsure whether we will make it. The men in his story need to keep their eyes fixed on the ocean's swells, swaying in unison so that they do not capsize, to the point that they cannot even identify the color of the sky. Tough as Bowdoin is, our troubles, of course, pale in comparison.

However, the nature of the sea does not change, whether in "The Open Boat," or at Bowdoin. The sea itself is tumultuous yet rhythmic, chaotic while calming. In Crane's story, the sea both boosts the men up and pulls them down, and for Bowdoin, the sea is much the same. The sea brings us down with the icy wind that rushes from its surface to tear through campus, or the fog that occasionally settles over us like a damp mask. But the sea also offers us an escape from the grunt of daily life, as well as a quiet place to think, or a site for procrastination and fun. It is close enough to be easily accessible, but far enough away to provide a sense of distance and perspective.

An important aspect of the sea, in relation to Bowdoin, is that it is not immediately present on campus. If you are lucky enough to have a 15th-floor room in the Tower, on the eastern side, then you can see the ocean gleaming in the distance. However, the ocean is not a visible part of campus, but, rather, a peripheral phenomenon, hugging the edges of Brunswick and thus partially encircling the Bowdoin campus from a three-mile radius. It is near enough to be smelled, and it keeps Bowdoin a slightly warmer place than Bates or Colby. But as an entity physically separate from Bowdoin, it feels special.

American author Kate Chopin wrote that "The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace." The touch of the Atlantic is far from sensuous, and Bowdoin students and faculty who enter its frigid, numbing embrace mark themselves as courageous, as well as having a very high tolerance for cold, necessary even in the summer months. But the voice of the sea, spoken through its tangy breeze, the feel of salt in the air, and the distant cries of seagulls, truly does speak to the soul. It reminds us that life exists outside Bowdoin, and it offers us all a revitalizing breath.

And now, as we leave Bowdoin, the sea has another purpose. The French scientist Jacques Cousteau said, "The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat." Although most of us in the Class of 2006 will part ways, we are all in the same figurative boat. However, as it has affected the temperature and mood at Bowdoin and provided us with both recreation and solace, the ocean is our home as much as Bowdoin is. So even without coming back to Bowdoin, wherever we find ourselves in the future, just by going to the sea we can return home. In the words of e.e. cummings: "For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it's always ourselves we find in the sea."

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