President Safa Zaki's 2024 Commencement Address

President Safa Zaki's Commencement address to the graduating Class of 2024:

Welcome to the 219th Commencement of Bowdoin College. Welcome to our trustees, faculty, staff, and alumni. Welcome to our honorary degree recipients. Welcome to our Brunswick community. Welcome to family and friends of this class who have come from all over the country and the world to celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2024.

Every graduation is special, but I think this graduation is particularly so. You are the Bowdoin Class of 2024, but most of you are also from the high school Class of 2020. You graduated from high school in the early months of the pandemic and did not have the opportunity to gather in public with your high school classmates. Yours is a class that did not have a typical senior year of high school, nor did you have a typical first year of college. That is why it feels particularly sweet to be able to celebrate this moment with you.

And as we celebrate, I want to recognize the support and encouragement of your families and loved ones, and to thank those who believe in you and who are celebrating your achievements.

I also want to acknowledge the pivotal role played by our dedicated faculty and staff, who have challenged you, inspired you, cared for you, and guided you along the way with their expertise, patience, and genuine investment in your experience here and your success. I know from my conversations with you that you join me in that sentiment.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to share a few reflections on your class, on this past year, and perhaps even offer a few words of advice. 

This is a class full of amazing individuals who are impressive scholars, artists, writers, athletes, leaders, and advocates. The Class of 2024 includes three Watson Fellows, more than twenty Fulbrights, and many other national award winners. Your academic endeavors have generated original research, some of which has even been published. Your creative performances have awed, challenged, and impressed your audiences. Your athletic accomplishments have been recognized by the NESCAC and the NCAA. Your leadership of organizations and clubs has made Bowdoin a stronger community. Your activism over a wide range of issues has pushed us to have difficult conversations, as we imagine and strive for a better world.

But when I look at all of you today, it is not the impressive individual accomplishments that I want to highlight, but rather it is the quiet, persistent, collective work you have done to become a class that has supported and celebrated each other during some challenging times.

A recent article in the Orient explored how your class experienced Bowdoin differently because of the pandemic. I was struck by the stories some of you shared about how challenging those earlier years were. I am grateful for the honesty shared in that article. I don’t discount those challenges for one second, and, as a society, I imagine that we will be reckoning with the consequences of those years for a very long time.

But as someone who has only known you for a year, and who was not here for your first years at Bowdoin, perhaps I can hold a mirror up to you to show you what I see in the Class of 2024.

I hear from alumni all the time about how the bonds they formed at Bowdoin have continued to sustain them, and I believe the way you entered Bowdoin has helped you build even stronger bonds, perhaps stronger than you know. You had to make your own traditions and practices, you had to form your own communities, you had to navigate your first year here without upperclass students to show you the way.

What I have the privilege of seeing every day are the results of those efforts, when I see you sharing meals and laughter in the dining halls, when I hear from faculty about your thoughtful efforts to deeply engage with and learn from each other, when I see you cheering each other on at performances and athletic events, when I have conversations with groups of you about very complex and challenging issues, or about the most recent book you’ve read or trail you’ve explored.

I also know that some of the most meaningful experiences you’ve had over these past four years are ones I can’t see—including the hours you’ve spent perfecting a piece of art or a performance; puzzling over a problem set; collaborating with your lab partners; debating in the classroom; revising a paper; practicing a language; reading a challenging text. Because of the ideas, theories, problems, and questions that you’ve explored individually and collectively these past four years, you are a different person than you were when you arrived here four years ago. And Bowdoin is a different place than it was before you contributed your voice to the conversation that is a Bowdoin education.

You can’t open a newspaper today without seeing an article about various crises in higher education, often one that includes quotes about how being a college president is the toughest job in the world.

I don’t recognize my experience in those articles. I have to say that I find this to be an incredibly meaningful and joyful job. Not every minute of every day, to be sure, but most minutes, and most days. And that is because of all of you. It gives me enormous hope to see how committed you are to building a better world, to see you tackle the problems of the world with such energy and creativity. And it gives me enormous joy to see the relationships you’ve built with each other, with your professors and staff members.

In her beautiful book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” So, today, my words of advice are to spend your hours and days, and thus your lives, in a position of curiosity and generosity, in search of meaning and joy. I see you do that here every day, and I have every confidence that you will continue on this path.

As we close the academic year, let me thank Bowdoin faculty for all of their hard work throughout the year. I wish you a restorative summer, as you continue your scholarship, research, and creative work. And let me thank our spectacular staff for everything you do all year.

To you, the Class of 2024: congratulations and please take with you our very best wishes, our deep pride in your accomplishments, and our faith in your ability to live lives of meaning and joy. I can’t wait to see what all of you do. Please come back and visit—this place is yours, forever.