The College Graduation Speech That Never Was

I was honored to be one of 15 or so undergrads in the College to have the chance to audition for Class Speaker at Penn’s 2013 Spring Graduation Ceremony and Commencement.  I wasn’t selected, but here’s the speech I would have given.  I recorded it on September 18, 2013, and you can listen along here:

I remember staying up late that night, browsing Penn InTouch to find extra classes for my first day of college.  Yeah, I was that kid.  “Shopping for classes” seemed like such a college thing to do.  I wanted this day, and every day after it, to be as typically “college” as promised by my older friends and family members.  My first class is at 9am in College Hall 200—the quintessential lecture hall.  So far so good.

College_Hall_U_Penn

Even better: it’s microeconomics, one of the hallmarks of the liberal arts.  The professor speaks with a very thick accent, and he’s kind of boring…

Bullseye.

Next up is Intro to Geology: a throwaway class, something totally unrelated to my major.  But this professor is different.  He’s captivating.  He’s telling jokes!  In one, fluid motion, I pull out my laptop and switch out of Micro and into Geology 100.  I was thrilled!  What’s more “college” than dropping one class and adding another?

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At the end of the day I call my parents and tell them the exciting news.  I can hear every parental nerve in their bodies straining, desperate to correct me and get me back in a class of “practical significance.”  But, to their credit, they hold back.  If there’s ever a time to veer off the path of practicality, to branch out and explore new avenues, surely it’s freshman year of college.

Good evening, everyone.  Friends, family, and faculty, thank you for being here and celebrating with the Class of 2013.  My name is Jay Friedel, and I am incredibly honored to be your class speaker today.  I’d like to thank Dr. Frank Plantan of the International Relations Department, who nominated me, as well as the Dean’s Advisory Board and the Student Committee for Undergraduate Education for selecting me.

I’ve got to be honest with you.  Writing one of these is hard!  I mean, if I had some profound and novel insight into the human experience, I wouldn’t be here.  I would have dropped out, written a book, and made a ton of money by now.  The great topics have been delivered over and over again: give back to the community, find a job that you love, never stop learning, recognize those who helped you along the way, and so on.  But I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, and I’m not going to reach for something profound.  I mean, sure, I’m a Penn grad, but I’m still just a twenty-two year old.  So instead, I’d like to highlight an aspect of the College experience that I think is worth carrying over into the “real world.”

You know, in the College, you really feel the presence of the other, specialized schools at Penn.  Wharton, Engineering, Nursing: they’re all calibrated to a few curricula aimed at a specific set of post-grad career options.  But not the College.  We’re Liberal Artists, if you will.  Sure, we each have a specific major or two (or three).  But the fact we’re sitting here today means that we met the multi-disciplinary requirements to graduate.  And this kind of variety wasn’t just academic.  Extracurricular activities dominate student life in the College. Now granted, this is partially due to living in the “Penn bubble.”  Because wherever your post-graduate plans take you, I’m pretty sure there won’t be the equivalent of a Locust Walk Activities Fair.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at Penn, and as a student in the College in particular, it’s just how important it is to maintain diversity in your life.

Since the beginning, I’ve been religiously devoted to the Mock Trial team.

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But I remember asking myself: with so many options, is this really all I’m going to do with my time?  So sophomore year, I started writing for The Daily Pennsylvanian.  As a Junior, I joined the editorial staff of the IR Research Journal.  And this year, I made the most dramatic addition of all—the extracurricular equivalent of my Geology 100 switch.  For the first time in my life, I performed onstage in Legally Blonde: The Musical.  It was such a strong departure from what I was used to, and it was far and away one of the most enjoyable and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had.

This eclectic lifestyle is something I’m going to try and replicate in my post-grad years.  Because more than any bits of knowledge we may have learned in lecture, it’s this potpourri of interests, activities, and social circles that gives the Liberal Arts in the College real value.  I know I said I wasn’t going to try and prescribe a particular life lesson to you, but I’m comfortable advocating for this approach because it’s entirely customizable.  Trying new things and maintaining diverse interests means something different to each one of you.  All it takes is that sort of intellectual bravery to branch out that we’ve cultivated these past four years in the College.  And hey, it got us this far.  So why stop now?

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