Ayana Opong-Nyantekyi '23: “The Power of an Open Heart”

By Bowdoin News

Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner Ayana Ray Opong-Nyantekyi ’23

President Rose, Members of the College, and Guests,

I am honored to have this opportunity to speak with you all on this special day. The late Dr. Maya Angelou proclaimed, “I learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.” That is how I decided to apply to Bowdoin… with an open heart. I stepped on campus for a recruiting visit in the Fall of 2018, and the campus quad was populated with trees dressed in beautiful orange and yellow leaves.

I remember the cool crisp air, the walk on Maine Street, and the sweet taste of Gelato Fiasco. Most importantly, I remember the people. I remember the kindness that my host, her friends, and teammates showed me. I remember the smiles and laughs in the dining hall as people conversed with friends. The Bowdoin community revealed an openness that I try to replicate in every opportunity.

Graduates, in our Bowdoin experience, we have had to make many decisions – about what classes to take, whether to eat at Moulton or Thorne - when the Pub is the obvious choice - what to do on the weekends … and what not to do on the weekends. When I decided to open my heart to make the most of my experience, I became involved in organizations that led me to serve as a head proctor, a captain of the women swim & dive team, a leader in the Athlete of Color Coalition, Christian Student Association, and Black Student Union – among other organizations.

That decision led me to form strong relationships with many of you. It allowed me to share in the many laughs and conversations that I saw when I first stepped on campus and decided, with an open heart, to make this place a part of my story. However, difficult experiences, like the COVID-19 pandemic, challenge us to reflect on our past and provoke us to choose how to persevere in the journey ahead. I remember my sophomore year when a majority of our grade was off campus due to the pandemic. Like many of you, that was a transformative part of my Bowdoin experience.

In the Fall, I was a proctor on campus with very few upperclassmen to introduce first year students to Bowdoin. My peers and I collaborated, as unlikely leaders, to best support one another and our residents. As I stepped into this role, I remembered the unlikely leaders in my family. I thought of my mother’s sacrifices as a single parent, and how she opened her heart to the responsibility of being the best leader she could be for her daughters. I considered my late grandmother’s decision to open her heart in hope of the possibilities beyond home and leave her family in Alabama, towards the end of the Great Migration, in pursuit of economic opportunities in New York City.

We all have circumstances out of our control that create opportunities for us to open our hearts and be leaders in our own ways. Class of 2023, we are gathered here today because of our decision to open our hearts and keep pushing forward in our pursuit of learning. But let us not forget that we are also here today because of the decisions of others who have supported us not only throughout our Bowdoin experience, but in our life’s journey. Thank you to everyone who has left a positive impact on each of us.

Now, it is our time to embark on this next phase of our life with open hearts. Our journey ahead will reflect aspects of our Bowdoin experience: the values of collaboration, kindness, and support. Bowdoin is not the buildings, majors, and activities, but it is each of our open hearts that connect our learning to forthcoming opportunities. Let us remember the kind, open hearts we met at Bowdoin and strive to embody them in the future.

Dr. Maya Angelou celebrated the open heart, but that did not make life easy for her. Likewise, our open hearts will not always make our lives easy. She also wrote, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide to not be reduced by them.”

Therefore, I encourage you, the Class of 2023, to continue to make the most of your experiences with open hearts. May we all embrace the opportunities that can help us grow as leaders. With grace and excellence, it is our time to exit these Bowdoin gates as alumni equipped not only to dream big, but to act big in all our power, leaving a positive impact on the world.

Thank you and congratulations!