Melissa Fussell’s Commencement Address

Outstanding graduating senior Melissa Fussell addressed fellow graduates during Hamilton Holt School’s 2013 commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11.

The following is a transcript of outstanding graduating senior Melissa Fussell’s address to graduates during the Hamilton Holt School’s 2013 commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Good morning, Rollins College. It is my absolute privilege to speak with all of you. This is a very different sort of commencement address, grounded in three values I feel compelled to uphold. The first—for my mother, who went back to school with four young children in tow and graduated with an A average—is determination. The second—for my grandfather, who once said the trouble with people finding jobs was that they stopped looking for work to do—is stewardship. The third—for my brother Andrew, a true scholar, who meant the world to me and would be 26 this Monday—is intellectual integrity. I owe it to these, and many others, to give a different kind of speech today: Not one of a merely congratulatory nature, but a call to action, a warning of impending trials, and an affirmation of who we are, what we stand for, and where our obligations lie.

 

Three years ago, Newsweek published an article declaring the death of liberal arts. My father, a Rollins alum and professor, would point out that this is not a peer-reviewed, scholarly source, and, looking at Rollins today, the liberal arts education sure seems alive. Its critics say it is intended only for the affluent few, the rich, the privileged, and that those who seek such an education can expect to be unemployed. It is, according to these people, a walk in the park, a glorified country club, a place to relax, and ride out the recession.

I am a full-time student. I have three jobs. One of them requires me to wear an apron. I am not affluent, I am not unemployed, I am not one of the few; in fact, at Hamilton Holt, I am anything but unusual. I’m the norm. All of us have struggled and fought to get where we are, but so have others. Our school, our family, our society, took a chance on us. Our job is to show it was a worthwhile one. It is a pretty thought to think we owe no one, that we did this on our own and need to prove nothing. But that is also a foolish and naïve thought. We are wiser than that. We are grateful, we recognize our debt, our ethical obligations, and Rollins is granting us degrees so we can go on to invest in others like they have invested in us. We have worked hard as students and workers alike, and now, I am telling you we must work harder still. We face skeptics, and worse, those who would eradicate the sort of education that has made us who we are. We have the tools to prove them wrong, and the work ethic to make the skeptics reconsider. This will be difficult. It may not always be possible.

I know all of you were expecting me to say something inspirational. About how our options are limitless or how we are the leaders of tomorrow. I could tell you we’ll soar like eagles, looking back fondly on our alma mater, and then it will be over and you’ll all go to lunch and talk with your families about your bright futures, what graduate school you’ll attend, all the money you’ll make, or how you’ll change the world.

But, as a liberal arts student, schooled by Rollins in critical thinking and analytical reasoning, I know better. We all do. We’re Hamilton Holt students, after all—we live in the real world.  I could stand up here and recite “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” by Dr. Seuss and tell you the sky is the limit, your journey has just begun; the world is your oyster. To do that would be a disservice to the group of you that I am proud to call my colleagues. It would run contrary to everything we have learned as nontraditional students here at Rollins. About limits.

About budget limits when tuition is due and you have to decide how many classes you can take. About limits on how many hours you can work before your grades slip. Limits on how many stoplights you can hit before you no longer have time to fill up your gas tank or eat between work and class. Limits on how much sleep you can skip before you doze off during a lecture.

My friends, Daniel Morgan and Charles Diaz, used to help me cope when I felt I had reached my limits. Their lives were stolen two summers ago by a drunk driver, but what Daniel used to say about limits is still with me: “When your fuel gage is on E, you might as well gun it.”

Holt Students know a lot about being on E, reaching their limits, and gunning it anyway. So, to tell you that you have no limits would compromise my intellectual integrity. You have many limits, you’ve reached them in the past, and you’re terrified of reaching them in the future. We all are. Terrified.

Of Stafford loan payments and employment at graduation rates. Of graduate school or the workplace. Not all undergraduates have had a taste of the real world, but we have. We know it’s cold and dark and ugly and unforgiving. We don’t have stars in our eyes. We’ve all faced adversity; that’s what makes us Hamilton Holt. And we have very real fears relating to the real world, but we also have strategies for it. It’s where we live, and we’ve juggled its problems and challenges with our educational pursuits. We’ve attempted to do two things, often more, at once, risking everything. And we have succeeded. We’ve looked at traditional course load recommendations, scoffed, and said, “We’re not what you’d call traditional students.” We’ve stacked families and extra-curricular activities on top of term papers and overtime hours, and we’re still here. This is who we are.

We are Danielle, legal recruiter and overtime course taker, honor society president who makes A’s while doing things like organizing flash mobs to benefit fair trade.

We are Sravya, who takes class notes as perfect and detailed as her spreadsheets are at the office. Who, countless times, has spent days off in a study room at the library, instead of going to the beach like a traditional student might.

We are Carolyn, who works all day at the Holt office, solving problems, and then attends Rollins classes with her daughter and granddaughter.

We are Miss Vi, who is of retirement age—although she surely doesn’t look it—who takes full-time classes and when you ask her how she is, the only answer you’ll get is “fabulous.”

We are Audrey, who has balanced two jobs with a full course load and edits a monthly Sigma Iota Rho publication in addition to making everything political her business to volunteer for, or at least know about.

We are Curtis, a military veteran who helps classmates and visits the VA hospital while knowing pretty much everything there is to know about international relations—without being arrogant.

Through Rollins, we’ve learned about each other’s experiences in the real world, and we’ve all been there. I will not tell you that you have no limits. Still, you’ve proven that if anyone can exceed those limits, it’s you. We know how to gun it when the fuel gage is on E. We’ve learned how to scrape by, survive, maybe even succeed, but we cannot stop now. The real world will not give us a grace period. We have to keep fighting, keep struggling, keep gunning it, to do well and reach our potential. The good news is this is exactly what we do best. We’ve been surviving in the real world all this time.  We came to Rollins College, and we excelled so that instead of merely living in the real world, we could thrive. Judging by what I have seen from my colleagues during my time at Rollins, that is exactly what we will do: excel, thrive, and gun it, even when we’re on E. Congratulations, Rollins graduates, and Fiat Lux.