Text of the 2017 Convocation Welcome by Bates College Student Government President Walter Washington ’19 delivered on Sept. 5:
Good morning, and welcome to the 2017—2018 academic year. Greetings to all faculty, staff, returning students, and, most importantly, to the Class of 2021! Congratulations, you are all officially Bobcats!
It was not too long ago, two years specifically, that I sat in the very seats you all are sitting in right now. I remember it was a pretty hot day ,and as I sat there in the heat, listening to all the speakers tell us how life-changing these next four years would be, I somehow could not keep my mind off how much I missed my mom and her home cooking. What was also running through my mind was, how in the world was I supposed to navigate these next four years: manage to get straight A’s, make friends, play football, sleep, and find time to get involved, all while trying to make my law school application more compelling than the next? I’ll be honest, I had no idea how, but what became apparent to me was that not knowing was okay, and that it would take time to adjust.
How in the world was I supposed to navigate these next four years: manage to get straight A’s, make friends, play football, sleep, and find time to get involved, all while trying to make my law school application more compelling than the next?
What I can spend time speaking to you about today is how my academic life somehow intertwined with my social life here at Bates; how my First-Year Seminar, “Searching for the Good Life,” with Professor Michael Sargent, changed my overall outlook on life’s journey; and how Constitutional Law with my advisor, Professor Stephen Engel, reinforced my desire to continue a career immersing myself in law and politics. But what I want to talk to you about today places Bates somewhat in the background.
Let’s go back to the summer of 2014, when I was a rising senior in high school. I was ecstatic not only because I was on my way to becoming a senior, but also because I was transferring to a beautiful boarding school in Readfield, Maine. I spent the summer training, getting ready for football season, when my family’s life took an unexpected turn. I found out that my mother was diagnosed with cancer.
I have five siblings. I am the youngest, and with such a close-knit family, you could imagine the heartbreak that this brought upon us. I watched my mother, my entire life, give so much of herself to ensure that everyone else was taken care of. And to be completely honest, I was angry that, out of all people, this had to happen to my mother, someone so genuine and kind. I immediately told my parents that I wasn’t going to transfer, and they told me in no uncertain terms that I was given an opportunity and that I was going to take it.
I went through my senior year trying to focus on school as much as I possibly could, but everything in me just wanted to be back home with my mom. With cancer, there comes chemotherapy, radiation, hospital stays, doctor visits, and all of that costs a pretty penny, and meanwhile, I have a $52,000 boarding school education to worry about.
There were times when I got called into the business office, and they told me if my parents couldn’t keep up with the payments, that I would be kicked out of school, and for a senior applying to colleges, you could imagine how difficult that would be. Back home, my mother’s health was deteriorating, and the one thing I wanted was for her to see me graduate. She did and was able to watch me go through my freshman year of college.
Fast forward to sophomore year, and her good days were off and on. Luckily, she was able to string together a few good days during the fall to come up during Parents Weekend. In that weekend, she watched her son sing a solo in his newly-joined a cappella group and the next day watch him register his first college sack against Williams. That was a pretty awesome weekend.
The winter came, and it was pretty tough, as she was again great for a few days and then back in the hospital days later. We spent Christmas in the hospital as she had another surgery. The new year arrives, and I hear a lot from my parents in the month of January, telling me that things are looking great after my mom’s second surgery, and she’s stringing together consistent good days.
To make a very long story short, February comes along, and on a random Wednesday, I get a call from my mother asking me if I was sitting down. She tells me that she had a visit to her doctor, they ran all of these tests, and they couldn’t find any more cancer in her body.
There is no way, absolutely no way, that I could have persevered through such an ordeal without being a part of the community that is Bates.
An amazing miracle, but I’m sure you are truly wondering, how does Bates fit into that story? I’ll tell you. There is no way, absolutely no way, that I could have persevered through such an ordeal without being a part of the community that is Bates.
My coaches became more than just coaches, but a supportive resource for me outside of my academics, Jessica Perez, my student support advisor, was always willing to talk and made herself available for whatever I needed, and I couldn’t forget my two best friends, Nolan Burgos and Brandon Galloway, who quickly became my brothers, always around — not only for conversation and a good laugh, but they constantly challenged me to be the best possible person and not let such a situation define my time here. Bates is more than just a college. It’s an accepting, strong, encouraging community and filled with people that you will someday call your family.
On a larger scale, the true moral of that story is that in the midst of all of the success, joy, and accomplishments you will have here at Bates, I guarantee you that there will also be times where you feel like you cannot keep going. When that problem set becomes too difficult to complete, when each of your professors are all assigning homework as if theirs is the only class you have, or when it’s finals week and your nights sleeping in Pettingill Hall are still not long enough to help you retain all the material for that terrifying cumulative exam. But take a moment, and look at the people to your left and to your right. This place, the people sitting right next to you, the relationships, friendships and extended family you will make during your next four years here — it is that that makes this place so special.
Bates is more than just a college, it’s an accepting, strong, encouraging community and filled with people that you will someday call your family.
My freshman year, I knew this kid who was a shell of himself; he was quiet, he joined no clubs, didn’t go to Gala, and he was terrified to walk into the jungle that is Commons. I say that for all of you to understand that where you are right now, captivated by those feelings of excitement, anxiousness, and probably a pinch of fear, are all perfectly okay. More importantly, I guarantee you that those feelings will someday fade, because that same terrified, uninvolved, quiet freshman, joined an a capella group, got involved within a few committees, became student body president, and now has the fortuitous opportunity to begin his junior year, speaking to all of you.
It was Mark Twain who said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do rather than the things you did do.” So, as you go through this four-year journey, I challenge you all to explore, travel, take that class, dance with your Commons crush at Gala, and do the very thing that even your wildest of dreams cannot have you do, because this is the place for it.
As you experience all of the great things that this place has to offer, I leave you will three final tips. One: call the people you love. They are worried about you and are expecting a call. Two: do your laundry on Mondays. Everyone does it during the weekend. You will have to wait forever for a dryer. And lastly, make sure you actually go to class. There is often no more than 30 students in each, so trust me, your professors will know when you aren’t there.
Your next four years here are not just the clichéd learning experience, opportunity, or a time for you to carry out the liberal arts mission. Your next four years here are the definition of a truly unique journey. As you go through this journey, allow Bates to help you define yourself, and take the time to not only use Bates to catapult you into your future, but as a fundamental cornerstone of your right now. Explore, dream, go out change the world, because this is the place for it. Once again, welcome to Bates, and we are so proud to welcome you into your new family. Thank you.