Bowdoin, Our Compass

By Sarah Lührmann ’23

President Rose, members of the College, and guests. Thank you for the honour of getting to speak to you on this momentous day, celebrating Baccalaureate and the beginning of the 2023 Commencement exercises.

When I first set foot onto the Bowdoin campus, I arrived with a suitcase, a sleeping bag and the sinking feeling that my lack of bed sheets signaled to the entire world that I was missing a crucial map for navigating college.

My first nights were warm, physically at least, but not quite the type of warmth I felt radiating from the families I watched taking pictures of move-in day, the nightstands that the dads on my floor swore up and down they knew how to put together or the curated duvet sets my roommates arrived with.

I spent those nights longing for a map–a map for being the first in your family to attend higher education, a map for navigating the cultural nuances of the US as an international student, and maybe even a map to Target to buy one of those oddly long, twin XL sheets.

I realize in retrospect that many of you, whether you share my first-gen identity or not, have experiences that resonate with mine and maps that did not feel sufficient when you first came to Bowdoin. It doesn’t matter whether you already held a map in your hands or got to craft an entirely new one with the help of our community.

The truth is that college is a whole new cosmos for all of us: we have all experienced moments where our mapless-ness threatened to pull us under, or our maps misguided us. I eventually learned that the maps I was longing for during my first weeks at Bowdoin were not the only way to understand our place in the world.

Maps are so fixed they can sometimes obscure the complexities of navigating new paths; think of when you switched your major during Junior Year, or the friends you made in your very last semester–things that our original maps could have never shown. From enduring the pandemic to navigating the losses of our friends and classmates, the Bowdoin community needed more than a fixed map.

Perhaps instead, what we found was a compass and encouragement to forge our own paths. Compasses are adept at calibrating to the magnetic fluctuations that are life, using them as reference points, just like I found myself using the Bowdoin values when I needed direction. Bowdoin as our compass transcends the academic rigor and radical pursuit of knowledge that have broadened our minds; it is also embodied in the fearless humanity we share with each other.

When I think of my compass, I think of the beekeeping articles my favorite dining-hall swiper Doug shared with me, the kindness of Thanksgiving invitations pouring in every year from those who knew I would spend it alone otherwise, and the classmates that graciously shared the secrets of their maps with me. If we sat in a Moulton booth or around a BOC campfire, we would collect hundreds of such stories. These points of interconnection are what I hope we can take away from here as we are gearing up to face the challenges of this new, post-Brunswick part of our lives.

Whether we entered college with a map or not, we all leave here with a powerful compass that will guide, orient and adjust even when our maps fail us. To everyone here, I invite you to look around and calibrate your compass to the magnetic fields of your Bowdoin experience–whatever that may look like for you.

For me, that looks like the ultimate responsibility of a first-gen student: getting to pass along the map that was crafted so carefully by me, you, all of us together.

As I packed my matching duvet cover and sheets into a small cardboard box this morning, ready for my little sister Emma to use if she chooses to need it, I recognized that I was passing along much more than the bedding that I did not have on my first nights. More than anything, Emma’s box of sheets is a map to calibrate her own compass one day and a most powerful reminder of belonging, endowed by the history of Bowdoin and guided by its unwavering gravitational pull towards the Common Good.

As we stand here today, let us be proud that by receiving our diplomas, we become the giver of maps and compasses to our communities; always calibrated by Bowdoin, our nurturer and friend.