Let College Change You: Ethan McLear

By Bowdoin News
Class of 1868 Prize Winner Ethan Drake McLear ‘23

President Rose, members of the College, esteemed faculty and guests, and members of the class of 2023: It is an honor and a pleasure to address you all today.

            Class of 2023, we made it. Each of us deserves to celebrate today. When we arrived as first years, none of us could have imagined the challenges we would overcome  to be here today, whether they were personal struggles or the collective loss the pandemic caused us. For many of us, these challenges began on move-in day, if not earlier. Perhaps you wondered, as you met your roommates and made your way through orientation, how you would figure this place out. What place you would make for yourself here. Who you would become. And whether you measured up. I remember a Russian literature course I took that first semester. I remember watching the junior and senior majors make the trademark backflip, slam-dunk, triple Salchow Bowdoin student comments, and I remember thinking, “Woah . . . so this is college.” Taking academic risks at Bowdoin is not easy. At a place where everyone is wicked, wicked smart, it takes courage to put yourself out there. And in my first year here, I closed up, and I held back. I felt intellectually outclassed, but I masked that fear, that intimidation, that doubt, with arrogance. I didn’t know how I would change if I truly engaged with Bowdoin, and I didn’t know whether I would love or hate the person I would become if I did engage as Bowdoin asked.

            But I hardly had time to worry about these questions before we were all sent home in the spring of freshman year to figure out Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Stressing over who the smartest kid in class was became irrelevant, because no one talked in those online classes. When I returned to campus in the spring of sophomore year, the twice-weekly walk to Morrell to get tested became my social time. Talking with people in line, fully masked, six feet apart, was intimacy itself compared to the previous year of isolation. For our class, getting to know each other, forming a community, and working out questions of belonging and becoming — all this was delayed. Many of us, myself included, arrived at campus to begin Junior year still working through our first-year anxieties.

            Back at the very beginning, at the first-year cookout, Mike Woodruff, the director of the outing club, had told us that we could leave a mark on Bowdoin in our four years here. If we had a vision, he told us, we could pursue it, and we could change this place. But changing Bowdoin — that’s only half of the equation. Bowdoin offers us a transformative education with abundant support, from our pre-major advisors to free post-graduation career guidance. But In return, it demands our active engagement. To make the most of a Bowdoin education, we must extend our trust. We must allow ourselves to be changed. It was only in the summer before Junior year that I grasped this unwritten contract, if you will, when I gave my sister some advice as she was about to begin college herself. I told her: let college change you.

            It’s funny what happens when you follow your own advice. In Junior year, I decided to seek out my place here — that is to say, I decided to let Bowdoin change me. That year, I discovered the Government department, which opened a new way of thinking about my Religious Studies major. Outside the classroom, I felt the thrill of racing with the men’s cross country team, the thrill of performing with the college orchestra, the thrill of participating in weekly disputations with the Peucinian Society. By diving into my studies in the classroom and extracurriculars, I began to meet — not simply observe, but truly come to know — many of you, who had once intimidated me. Now I call some of you friends, and you inspire me. In Junior year, I said “Hello” to Bowdoin for the first time, and I realized that Bowdoin had been saying “Hello” to me all along. I realized that Mike Woodruff was right: I could change Bowdoin. But not until I let Bowdoin change me.

            Friends, while college is now behind us, the world beckons. As we turn to our future pursuits, each of us will at some point be intimidated by the strengths and talents of our friends and coworkers. The show of character is in how we respond. In every moment of doubt, in every pang of fear, lies an opportunity to grow: ask, listen, open yourselves to meet those who intimidate you. Do not ask, as I once did, “What can I take from you?” or “Am I the best here?” Ask instead, with curiosity, “What can I learn from you?” and with humility, “How can I change?” There is nothing passive about opening yourself to new experiences. To allow yourself to be changed is an act of faith and a show of strength. Class of 2023, we are primed to change the world; as we begin the next phase of our lives, let’s choose also to allow ourselves to be changed.

            Thank you.