Commencement Speakers

Jessica Epstein
Senior Speaker's Commencement Speech
May 19, 2013

Muhlenberg is all about bookend experiences: opening convocation and graduation, first and last lecture, writing letters to ourselves on the first day of college and opening them 4 years later, FYSs and senior seminars.  But in my experiences throughout my four years here, I’ve found that the slew of events that have been crammed between the bookends is what makes this college a unique place.  The most meaningful times here usually aren’t our first or our last.  Although we’ll remember our move-in day 4 years ago and undoubtedly our graduation, the parts that matter the most are the jumble of experiences in between that somehow end up transforming us into individuals ready to walk through the red doors one last time and venture out into the infamous “real world.”

Sifting back through the masses of information we’ve accrued between these bookends the last four years and endeavoring to make sense of it is an exciting and daunting task.  My four years at Muhlenberg encompass the first time I was honest about who I was, the first all-nighter I ever pulled, the first time I shared a room, the first time I went sledding on a cafeteria tray. The first time I engaged in an honest and open conversation about race and gender, the first time I really engaged with issues that made me uncomfortable and scared, the first time I pushed my boundaries.  Muhlenberg has been a port for me through many storms, but it has also been like a storm to me in many ways; my views, my identities, and my values were all thrown into tumult here as my education encouraged me to constantly question my own reality.

In keeping with this, we should not look back on our 4 years here and only remember the good parts, or the parts that were only good for us because of the sacrifices of others.  Let’s remember the bookends in all their regality, but also keep in mind the less than perfect parts, such as the many academic and interpersonal challenges that helped to educate us and shape our character as well as the larger social issues that this campus faces.  And with the critical lens we developed at Muhlenberg, let’s welcome the responsibility to work towards more egalitarian goals at Muhlenberg and beyond: goals like ending rape and changing administrative responses to rape allegations, like fixing the wage gap, like fostering more racial diversity and more environmental sustainability on the Muhlenberg campus as well as in our individual communities. Being forward-minded is important.

And although it’s somewhat terrifying, I’m thrilled to figure out what life is like beyond the late-night bagel bombs and Muhlenbergers, beyond living within a one-block radius of all of our friends, beyond Moyer and New Science and Ettinger, beyond labs and registrations, and presentations, beyond the parties, early morning practices and the stresses, the eastie beasties and the quads: beyond this place.  We will scatter after today, off to different states, to different continents, to different corners of the world, to explore it, to understand it, and to change it.  2400 Chew Street has been like the safe ‘Base’ in elementary school freeze tag: a haven, a place where nothing can hurt you, but a place that you know that you cannot stay forever.  Although we will always be able to come back here, life will never be the same after we walk across this stage and receive a diploma from the man who, on our first day of college, dressed up as Darth Vader.

As we move on to the next phases of our lives, I feel that it is important to note that bookends suggest boundaries and borders.  These bookend experiences themselves inherently constitute boundaries that we create and exist within, and by which we define our college experiences.  The concept of borders in something that I’ve come to both appreciate and critique throughout my four years at Muhlenberg.  

In a Spanish class I took here, I learned about the poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a brilliant, self-taught scholar living in Mexico in the mid 1600s.  Her ultimate goal was to cultivate her mind, and obtain an education, which, at the time, was forbidden for women.  In one of her most famous published letters, she writes,
“Yo no estudio para escribir, ni menos para enseñar (que fuera en mí desmedida soberbia), sino sólo por ver si con estudiar ignoro menos.” 
Or in English,

“I do not study in order to write, or even to teach (which in me would be my colossal arrogance), but rather only to see if by studying I can be less ignorant.”

Thus, Sor Juana advocates learning without boundaries, which is part of what I’ve come to strive for at Muhlenberg.  Bookend experiences are false boundaries.   Our previous experiences inform our current ones, and the knowledge we’ve gained here at Berg will take us far beyond our last bookend experience at this college.  The world is changing rapidly; the climate is changing, social movements are burgeoning, technology is evolving, even the Muhlenberg curriculum is being adjusted to be more interdisciplinary.  Issues are no longer specific to a single place and time.  Thus we, as newly-college-educated adults need to become comfortable with boundary crossing and moving beyond neat and simple bookend experiences.

So today we celebrate and reflect on our last four years, but we must also keep our next steps in mind.  This day is a celebration of the future; the rest of our bookshelves beyond these Berg Bookends.  Today is about our as of yet unrealized potential that we are about to release on the world.  We’ll go out there and make Muhlenberg proud; we’ll go find our own corners of the world and make our marks there, keeping in mind how we learned to challenge the status quo at Muhlenberg.  It’s been an unforgettable 4 years, Class of 2013, and I’m so glad we’ve gotten the opportunity to spend them together.  Best of luck in challenging your next set of bookend experiences.