Story posted May 23, 2008
Forever Finding Home
by Daniel Brady '08
DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Prize Winner, First Prize
May 23, 2008
President Mills, Members of the College and Guests,
People have often asked me how someone from San Francisco ended up going to school at Bowdoin. It's a question with which I'm sure many of us from the farther regions of the country and the world are quite familiar. My first reaction is generally one that I keep to myself, but I think is probably the most honest answer: I don't know. In truth, a chance conversation led me to apply to Bowdoin. My father's advice led me to come visit. And two days spent on this campus more than four years ago led me to make the best decision I've ever made: to come to Bowdoin. I remember that visit so vividly. I hold in my heart a series of images as clearly as if they had happened yesterday: of Thorne Dining Hall, of Pickard Theater, of the Quad, even of the stuffed polar bear out there. What made that first visit to Bowdoin a bit strange, I must confess, was that I had already made the decision to go somewhere else. I had been accepted and offered a generous scholarship to attend Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. It wasn't official, I hadn't sent in the paperwork, but I had made up my mind. I remember thinking of the trip here as a formality. I had gotten in to a well-respected institution and I owed it to myself to at least go and see it. This formality, obviously, turned into something quite different. At Bowdoin, everything felt so new, even strange, but somehow right at the same time. I found myself faced with a surprisingly difficult decision, between a school 30 minutes away from my house, the alma mater of my father and my brother or a school that nobody in my family had ever heard of on the complete opposite side of the country. Both were and are good schools. In all the factors that I was supposed to care about they seemed equivalent. So in the end, I didn't make my choice based on academics, or social life or even the food. Those things played their part, but what it came down to in my mind was a choice between what was familiar and what was foreign, what I knew and what I didn't know. It became a choice between the safety of what I could predict, and the possibility of what I couldn't. I like to think that in some small way I chose possibility, and I am forever grateful that I did.
That feeling of possibility was never more pronounced than in my first couple days I spent here as a first-year in August 2004. I'm sure if we think back, we can all remember how that felt. You're saying goodbye to your parents, but at the same time meeting tons of new people. You feel like you're leaving behind everything that is comfortable in exchange for everything that is unknown. For me, the feelings were the strangest combination of fear and excitement. I've been reflecting a lot about those first few days lately because I feel today, I think, strangely similar to the way I felt then. Today, I feel like something important is ending, but also beginning. I feel like I am saying goodbye to family. I feel like I am taking a step from the comfort of a shore where I can feel the solid ground beneath my feet into an ocean of possibility that seems vast, but also scares me to death. In short, I feel like I am leaving home. Before I left for Bowdoin, my brother gave me a piece of advice that I have discovered to be quite profound. He said, "When your class assembles for the first time, take a look around. In the sea of unknown, nameless faces there are people who, in four years, you won't know how you ever lived without." How true that is. As I look into the sea of classmates before me, I see the same faces I saw that first day, but they are no longer unknown and they are no longer nameless. I see people with whom I have shared some of the most amazing conversations, people with whom I have shared some of the most incredible experiences, and people with whom, quite simply, I don't know how I ever lived without. Think about it. This is true, I hope, for all of us. It is amazing to me that in such a short time, that which is foreign can become known; that which is scary can become comforting; and that which might have seemed vast or even limitless can come to seem quite small. Bowdoin was a sea of possibility for all of us, and now it is the shore. It seems to me that we are all again leaving home.
I think this might be the deeper meaning of the first line of the Offer of the College: "To be at home in all lands and all ages." Whatever it meant to William Hyde and whatever it means to each of you, this is what it means to me: to learn to live a life where we are forever expanding the bounds of what we call home; a life where we never forget the thrill and the terror of embarking on something new. And when the new becomes old, when foreign territory becomes home, we look up to a new horizon and take a step into a new ocean of possibility. Now, I'm not suggesting that we all move or quit our jobs every couple years for the rest of our lives. We do not, however, need to leave a physical home behind us in order to know the fear and joy of new possibility. In that sense, this moment in our lives need not be unparalleled. We need not forget what if feels like to push ourselves to abandon what is comfortable and to search for something that is boldly new. When the comfort of the moral standard is inadequate, we must dare to search for a greater moral imperative. When the possibility of discovery is bounded by conventional thinking, we must dare to abandon it and search for a greater perspective. When we know our potential to change the world for the better is being arrested by the constraints of the status quo, we must reject it and search for a greater standard. I don't think doing that which is truly and boldly new is necessarily a natural tendency. It is very easy to choose safety over possibility, but we do not have to make that choice. If Bowdoin has done anything for us, I hope it has equipped us with the tools we need to color outside the lines. It's not always pretty, it doesn't always work, but when it does, it is more beautiful than we could have thought possible. And we are all better because someone had the courage to endure the fear and embrace the excitement of pushing themselves beyond what they know and what is safe. Whatever direction we each take after we leave this campus tomorrow, whether it be law or medicine or business or academics or the arts or anything else, none of us need ever feel bound by what feels safe and comfortable. The length of our lives is finite, but the possibilities of what we can do with that time is infinite.
In leaving Bowdoin, I don't think we are necessarily leaving a bubble. We are not entering an alternate reality; simply a bigger one, one where the stakes are just a little bit higher and the choices are a little bit harder. And rest assured, we will all be confronted with real choices: between right and wrong; between self-service and public service; between the safety of following and the possibility of leading. I urge you, choose possibility. Choose service. Choose kindness. Choose tolerance. Choose joy. We are all smart, good people, but that does not mean that the correct choices will be made automatically. We need to push ourselves to be a force for good in this world. We can do it and we will do it. Our class need not be remembered for the wealth or fame we accumulate in our lives, but rather for the service we give. Let that be our legacy. Let them remember the Class of 2008 for that.
My grandfather was fond of a story he used to tell me. He would say to me how he had impressed a group of people by mentioning that he had "gone through Harvard." He always began to laugh before he continued: "And I wasn't lying. I walked right through it!" We had agreed that when he came to Bowdoin this weekend for my graduation, we would "go through" Bowdoin together. Since his passing last summer, I have thought a lot about that. If there is any wisdom in the words I have said today, I like to think I leaned them from his example. He didn't receive a liberal arts education, but I do believe he lived what I see as its highest ideal: That life is not worth living if you don't wake up every day with a sense of joy at the vastness of life's possibility and a deep gratitude for the presence of people you love to experience it with. I am overjoyed to have had such a wonderful four years in this place and I am deeply grateful to all the friends, the teachers, the staff members, the mentors, and all the friendly faces who have made them truly special. From the deepest corner of my heart, it has been a true pleasure and a profound honor to have "gone through" Bowdoin with you all.