Campus News

Baccalaureate 2011 Address: Aaron Cole '11

Story posted May 27, 2011

“Schrödinger’s Cat”
By Aaron Cole '11
DeAlva Stanwood Alexander First Prize Winner
May 27, 2011

President Mills, Members of the College, families, friends and guests, welcome. The Bowdoin sun is smiling today; it’s a great day. I’m overwhelmed and humbled at the chance to get to say a few words in celebration of this dynamic and exciting class, so thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time. As I look over this supportive crowd and the peerless almost-graduates, I can’t help but think about the incredible feats that this class has achieved over the last four years. And I also can’t help but ponder the bright futures that members of this class have in front of them.

Aaron Cole200.jpg
Aaron Cole '11

Now, I’m a mediocre student and a terrible athlete; I’m inarticulate, I’m humorless, and I was once accused of illiteracy—for the record, I’m not. So the most fortunate thing ever to happen to me was being admitted to this school, and in particular this class, whose coattails I plan to ride for the remainder of my speech and perhaps, for the rest of my life. As the noted journalist Mark Twain once said, “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things and people who claim to have accomplished things.” I am the latter. But thankfully, members of this class have accomplished many things, and since I’m a member of this class, I can share in those achievements. Or from the Twainian perspective, I can claim to have accomplished things.

There is a classic thought experiment used to understand quantum mechanics I’d like to share with you. The philosopher Erwin Schrödinger asks us to imagine a box with a cat in it. Now I hope that there are no PETA activists here, because this box contains a small amount of radiation, which has a 50 percent chance of killing the unfortunate feline. While in the box, the cat exists simultaneously in two states—it is both alive, and dead—until an actual observation is made. In many ways, it’s about possibility. Both outcomes are possible until we have the courage to observe the results.

A little over four years ago, this group of people was scattered across the country and world. I remember at the time, going to college seemed like a terrifying event. Like the cat, it seemed like a life or death situation. Will I make it? Will I be able to handle college classes? Will I make friends? What sports should I play? What clubs should I join? It was a Schrödinger’s cat moment for us. Our fates seemed to be in the box, and we were anxious about looking in to see what the outcome would be. It was scary. But now, four years later, look what we’ve done.

Class of 2011, we are the most selective—and the most diverse—class ever to graduate from this place. We have come from every inch of this country and the far corners of the globe to be challenged and educated. We have, in record numbers, conducted research in every discipline. We have built houses and mentored children. We have composed music and created sculptures. We’ve taken reflective walks in the Bowdoin pines; we’ve philosophized. We have programmed some of the best soccer playing robots in the entire world. We have been victorious in countless sporting events. We have won Colby-Bates-Bowdoin trophies, and we have won NESCAC championships and we are three time national field hockey champions. And, I must point out that my beloved rugby team has won several games.

So while we may have had a justifiable amount of trepidation before coming here, the results have been spectacular. We’ve made our observation, and believe me, the cat is alive, and it’s carrying a 3.7. Not only have we, as individuals, achieved many things, but we’ve also encouraged and inspired other members of the class to do so as well; and I believe that we can take an immense amount of individual pride in our collective accomplishments.

I can’t claim on my resume to have won three national championships, because I was never on the field hockey team. I can’t claim to be a world-class soccer playing robot programmer, because I certainly don’t know how to program robots and I probably don’t know how to play soccer. But I take a great measure of individual pride, perhaps a Twainian pride, in this class’s triumphs and I think that as individuals we can—and should—revel in our collective accomplishments. As a whole, we are more than the sum or our parts, and each of your deeds, Class of 2011, have spurred others to leave a mark on the school. This environment is what encouraged me to leave my mark. It motivated me to write this speech, it motivated me to help the rugby team win several games by scoring several points.

Now, I’m a Religion major and I love symbolism and ritual. Tomorrow we will dress in identical clothing. We will sit in identical rows and receive identical diplomas. We will be, symbolically, the same. We will ritualize our common denominator: we are all the next graduates of Bowdoin, and the commencement ritual exists to remind ourselves of that fact before we rush out to face our futures. That famous lawyer Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time,” and this class has treated every single day here as an opportunity to build a better future. And here we are—443 collective futures.

The future is a scary place. But it should also be an exciting one. Right now, as we sit here, we don’t really know who will do what. For all that the past four years have brought, it is still unclear what the future will hold. We are looking into Schrödinger’s box yet again so it seems, and the boundless possibility of the future awaits us. If you’re anything like me, you’re nervous. But Erwin Schrödinger talked about this cat to point out that some of the proposals of quantum physics were ludicrous. How can things exist in multiple states? Indeed, while for many of us this feels like a Schrödinger’s cat moment, it isn’t really a matter of life or death. We have everything we need to carry our legacy as a class into the future—the education, the passion and the creativity to accomplish anything we set our minds to.

Yesterday we were high-achieving Bowdoin students. Today, we are a mass of talent, creativity and drive. Tomorrow we will become CEOs and kindergarten teachers. We will become artists and doctors. We will be jet fighter pilots and philosophers and amateur cooks and parents. Pretty much the only thing I can guarantee that none of us will become is as good at the banjo as Bela Fleck.

But for the most part, we are not those things yet, and we can’t really know who will be what. We are faced with that cat in the box again, so to speak. We’re going to be successful; it’s not a life or death situation. So we should also remember to take a little bit of joy in uncertainty. We can’t know who will be what, and so I like to think that right now, for at least today, for at least this ceremony we are all each of those futures. We are all CEOs and we are all kindergarten teachers. We are all of those things and we are even more. So today, just as you should rejoice in the collective successes of our years here, marvel and take ownership in the promise of our futures.

I’ll end with two things. President Mills, Members of the College, families, friends and guests; today we affirm the simple idea that if you take the most talented young adults in the world, bring them together, and let them devote themselves to their passions and their education, you will have marvelous results. This class has demonstrated inexhaustible talent and invincible drive over the last four years and it is no small wonder the Bowdoin sun smiles.

Finally, to graduates, it is important that we don’t take too long to congratulate ourselves, Much work remains, and those brilliant futures I’m predicting from all of us won’t create themselves. It’s time to see what is in the box. As that renowned solider Johann Goethe once said: “Enough words have been exchanged, now let me see some deeds!”

Thanks.

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