Commencement 2007 Address: Haley Bridger '07
Story posted May 26, 2007
Searching for the Next Rung
By Haley Bridger '07
May 26, 2007
I have spent the last four years close to the Bowdoin campus, and I have lived my entire life in New England. Today I stand before you on the edge of one of College's greatest challenges. Graduation is indeed a day of celebration and joy, but it is also a day composed of goodbyes to friends and places, packing and a mass exodus from dorms and apartments, and of course, that strange and unbelievable moment when we drive away from campus for the last time. Luckily, over the past four years we have learned to handle challenges. We have learned to say goodbye to friends and loved ones, to change and transition with time and season and, above all, we have learned a lot about packing. As one of my friends once said, "Every year, we have to pack up our entire room, choose new courses, a new place to live and new roommates. Imagine if every year adults had to find a new job, a new house and a new person to live with. The world would be chaos." In addition to these universal college challenges, each of has faced personal obstacles or nemeses. My greatest challenge came in an unusual form: I learned to tackle the Maine wilderness.
Last summer I had the opportunity to stay in Maine, and for anyone who has only experienced this state during the academic year, I certainly hope that someday you have the chance to experience the august days of summer in Maine: its blueberries, ice-cold lakes, and absolutely cheesy Fourth of July parades. I spent my summer days working for the Jackson Laboratory, fortuitously tucked away on Mt. Desert Island. Whenever I wasn't in the lab, I was out hiking the trails of Acadia National Park, sometimes scaling mountains by night, the boulders lit up by headlamp and moonlight. Sometimes I'd go for runs on the island, encountering summer rainstorms or groups of white-tailed deer. It was an amazing and awakening summer as I explored nature and my seemingly unlimited physical abilities. But the most amazing and awakening moment that I experienced was also the closest I have ever been to death, or at least, true stupidity.
One weekend my friends and I decided to hike a trail called Precipice — don't worry, it's not nearly as bad as the name sounds. Sure, there are metal rungs, a steep cliff face and sheer drop off onto craggy rocks, but I promise, the view from the top is completely worth it. At least that's what my friends told me before we left. Three-quarters of the way up the mountain, the sky turned dark and we could hear thunder echoing in the nearby mountains. My friends decided to keep going, but I wanted to head back. They tossed me the car keys and said they'd take a different trail and meet me at the bottom. Halfway down, the rain began pelting the mountain, and me, as I held onto the metal bars and rock face. Alone and scared, I clung to the mountainside shaking, my feet searching desperately for the next, slick metal rung.
I have spent a lot of time searching for that next metal rung. This last year of college has at times felt like one long search for the next handhold. Even before we set foot on campus as first-year students, many of us have been warned that college will flash by in an instant. After choosing my fall semester courses as a first year I remember thinking with much alarm, "Oh no! I only have 32 courses left!" And I've had similar thoughts at the beginning of each subsequent semester. By senior year, I could almost feel the time slipping away between my wet and frozen fingertips. With thoughts of the next summer, this year I began searching for the next rung after Bowdoin.
During the school year I worked at the Career Planning Center, where students come in at all stages of their search. Some are just looking for a summer internship, some are looking to network with a Bowdoin alum, and some are looking to share good news about an interview they've received. All would ask me, "So, what are you doing after graduation?" To which I would reply, "I'm just as curious to find out as you are." I have had amazing internship opportunities and thanks to the help of the CPC, inspiring professors, and my experiences over the last four years, I know precisely I want to do after graduation. But that doesn't mean that I could easily find what it was I was looking for. At the CPC I continued reading through job descriptions, spoke with alumni, and waited, as patiently as I could, to find my footing. As the fall passed, and then the winter, and part of the spring, I just kept hoping that I would find something soon — I could feel the days ticking down towards graduation, and I began dreading my appointments with happy, job-laden students at the CPC. I felt as though I was clinging to the mountain side, one foot dangling, ready to shift everything the second I found the right foothold — but just never finding it.
Although I felt discouraged and a little frightened about the gaping void that awaited me after graduation, my senior year fears paled in comparison with the sheer terror I was grappling with on Precipice. The mud and the rain had come together to make the rock I was standing on as slippery as the rungs I grasped at. When the lightening illuminated the mountain, I could see a crack between the rocks a couple of feet across, black and ominous. "That's it," I thought calmly. "That's the abyss I'm going to fall into when I lose my footing and plummet down the mountain."
By April, last month, I still did not know what I would be doing after graduation. But I began to worry less. There are many things we search for at Bowdoin apart from jobs: companionship, friends, coursework we can feel passionate about, and ways to get involved in the community and on campus. Bowdoin had been good to me and I began to savor my last spring in Maine and my last month on campus. Thoughts of the next phase of my life were far from my mind when I got that phone call that I'd been dreaming about: I was offered a mass media fellowship through the American Association of the Advancement of Science. I will be reporting on science, working with journalists and living in a city thousands of miles away: Los Angeles. I have lived my whole life in New England. Tomorrow, I leave. I have never felt closer to the abyss.
If you've ever watched a trapeze artist, you know that there's this death-defying moment when she lets go of one trapeze but hasn't yet grabbed a hold of the hand that reaches out for her. Climbing down a mountain is like that too. Sometimes, you have let go of the rung you're holding before you can find the next one. And in that split second, where you're between rungs, you are holding on to nothing. On Precipice, I let go of the rung, and after a moment, my hiking boots landed on the next outcropping of rock. As the rain let up, I found my way to the bottom, and walked the mile and a half back home. Of course, I would have to come back the next day. I had to finish the hike and see the view from the top. At the advice of my parents, I checked the weather forecast first. But in learning to let go, I had learned how to defeat the mountain.
The moment at which you are most free, and most scared, is that moment of letting go. This is that moment. Before we leave, before we are tied down with jobs or family or lives across the country from one another, we get this very small crack, this beautiful abyss. What was your greatest challenge during college? And who was there with you when you met it? If there is something you wanted to say over the last four years, someone you wanted to thank, someone you wanted to hug, this is your moment. Before you find the next rung, savor the mountain. And savor Bowdoin. It has been good to us.
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