Student Stories

Student Commencement Speeches, 2014

Katie Burkhart

President Zimmer, Dean Boyer, distinguished faculty, friends and family, and fellow members of the Class of 2014:

Congratulations, we've made it. Each of us stands in front of you to express our gratitude, and to express our love for our university. My love for UChicago, though, was largely forged not by my presence on campus, but by my absence from it.

Like most of you, I arrived at this university in the fall of 2010, wide-eyed and anxious. Like many of you, I felt threatened by fixtures on this campus with loud opinions and even louder voices, and wondered if I could really thrive here. And, so, like a small handful of you—who I see similarly found your way back—I transferred universities at the earliest possible opportunity.

Nineteen-year-old me would have said that I returned to UChicago as a matter of practicality. When your heart walks the line between two immensely different atmospheres, it's easy to feel like neither can fully function as a home—and to let the US News & World Report serve as the arbiter of your future. Today, though, I know that it's the community sitting before me that made—and still makes—this university so difficult to leave.  

For years, you've been praised for your intelligence. For your work ethic. For your willingness to tweak that opening paragraph just one more time. But for all its shortcomings, the Common App was able to flag what makes you all so special—both to me, and to this university. It's true, you are intelligent, sometimes aggressively so. But you're also talented and passionate and worldly and curious in ways that fill the gaps in perspective and humanity my first 19 years left open.

Attending a large school near home was as fun—it was like going to Summer Breeze every day, and Senior Pub Night every night. It was also reassuring—I knew how to thrive in such a place because, for the first time since high school, I was surrounded by people who were just like me—and it's comforting to see a reflection of yourself in each of your classmates. But when we talk about "life of the mind," we're not talking about what's comfortable. We're talking about growth, which is what I stood to lose when leaving this place. I don't need to tell you that UChicago students are uncommon, because you already know. What you might not know, though, is that each of you is all the better for it.  The things that make the UChicago experience uncommon—and, at times, uncomfortable—are the same things that make it so valuable.

As a first-year, I'd stay up all night filling out transfer applications, determined to live out the fabled "best four years of my life" on any campus that wasn't this one. The great irony, of course, is that right now, I haven't slept in days because I can't stand to waste the moments I still have left with all of you.

My understanding is that these kinds of speeches usually begin with some anecdote, and end with some allegory to commemorate our departure from this place. And for the life of me, I can't find a narrative to narrow four years' worth of history into a metaphor for this moment. So instead I'll say this: each of you is heading off toward somewhere, and I'm so grateful to be able to tell you in person that I hope you get there.

Sam Levine

Not too long ago, in a desperate moment of procrastination while I was writing my BA, I found an online version of our Aims of Education address from four years ago.

Sitting in the pews of Rockefeller, we were promised in that speech, that one of the aims of education was love.

When I read the speech holed up on the third floor of the Reg a few weeks ago I was baffled.

Love? I thought. Love was definitely not what I was feeling as I was quickly running out of time to write my paper.

At the time, "love" was definitely not the verb that I would have used to describe how I was feeling about my BA, college in general, or the endless hours of my life spent in the Reg.

It seemed almost silly to think that love was an essential part of our time here.

We've been taught over and over that reason, uncontaminated by passion, is the way to truth.

And we've used reason, not love, to tackle enormous ideas here: ideas of supply and demand, of Dasein and being, gender and identity, literature and medicine. These are just a fraction of the ideas that each member of this class will use to impact the world—in both theory and practice.

But as graduation approached, I couldn't shake the idea that more than anything—our time here has been about love.

It was love that caused our families to let us leave home and come here from every corner of the country and the world to pursue our passions.

And in our four years here, we've learned not just how to think, but the importance of this kind of love. We've learned that for something to be meaningful it doesn't have to serve a function: it is a good unto itself.

To me, this is the very core of what it means to love: to find joy in something or someone simply for what it is.

This love isn't some abstract concept, but something tangible that we've felt over and over during our time here.

We felt it late one night—probably in the Reg—working together with friends to prepare for an exam.

We felt it during an office hour, when we signed up for a 20-minute slot with a professor, but wound up speaking with her for an hour, bouncing ideas back and forth that weren't even related to class.

For some of us, these moments of love may have been entirely unrelated to school. We might have felt love on a late night trip to The Point, staying up until 3 talking in our house lounge, or even on top of a table at Psi U.

A few years from now, we might not remember Marx's theory of the commodity fetish or what Sanderson said about the law of one price. But what we will remember are moments of love.

We'll remember these moments because they remind us of the infinite possibilities of loving. That when we explore for the sake of exploring, think for the sake of thinking, and love for the sake of loving—we can discover things about ourselves and the world that we never thought possible.

But there's also something risky about the love we've experienced here. It's tempting to see this love as a thing of the past, a memory of the best times of our lives that we can never get back.

That kind of nostalgia can be paralyzing. It can leave us grasping further and further into the past for something we can't relive. And instead of bringing us closer to others, this nostalgic love can make us feel more and more alone.

So like everything else we've learned here, this love is something that shouldn't just be remembered, but something that we should constantly carry with us. It can push us not just to seek meaning by ourselves, but to find others to share that meaning with.

And in a world that will demand efficiency and pragmatism, the love that we've learned will urge us to explore whatever we encounter, no matter how mundane. It will allow us to take the ordinary and find the extraordinary.

And perhaps most importantly, this ability to love, to find endless possibilities for meaning wherever we are, is what made all of those nights in the Reg worth it after all.

Aerik Francis

"Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born." These words by author Clarice Lispector observe a simple yet deeply profound fact: that movement and action begin from the affirmation of an idea. Unstated in this quote, however, is the claim that everything in the world must have begun with a question from which one could answer "Yes."

From our Uncommon App questions asking us "how we got caught" down to the questions on our last final exam, UChicago asked us questions we never thought about before—and we asked even more in return. Here, today, we receive our final UChicago "Yes."

So why do we want that yes, why did we come to the University of Chicago? I wish I could say I came to UChicago for four amazing years packed with cake filled with rainbows and smiles. I wish I could say that UChicago never made me frustrated, stressed out, or constantly sleep deprived. Trust me, it did ALL of those things. But none of us came here for those things. We didn't come here just to learn—we could have done that anywhere. No, we came for a particular kind of education.

We came here knowing that UChicago would push us to our limits intellectually. Knowing that we would be surrounded with bright and quirky minds. Knowing that Chicago, with all of its spirit and shortcomings, would be our home for at least a few years. We came here to grow.

So we survived the Core, we endured the quarter system, we braved Snowpocalypse and multiple Polar Vortices, we Scav’d, we Reg’d, we questioned each other, we questioned ourselves, and we grew.

The simple fact is our experience was never just about this grass, those buildings, a Core class, or even our majors. Our time here is only as unique as all of us—the people that make UChicago what it is. The changes we made, records we set, ideas we thought, the hundreds of questions we asked are all sewn into the fabric of the University and are also what we take away after leaving.

This is the power of inquiry, the power to shape—and this power is rooted in the connections we make and the questions we ask. We can help shape communities, we can help shape markets, we can help shape minds. And we know this because of how we shape others and how we've been shaped by others here. It is more than just having and cultivating this power, though.

While we have the tools and power, they mean nothing if we do nothing. The world is wrought with problems. The people who can solve them are the ones who can ask not only what the problems are, but also why and how they exist—how to solve them and why those solutions might work. We must question the institutions we inhabit and the spaces we occupy and work to change them for the better. This is our responsibility.

Today the Class of 2014 comes together for our last hurrah, the end of one journey and the beginning of many more. I've learned to never be afraid to ask tough questions. So some questions for you all: What will you become? What will you do with these newfound skills and experiences?

The answers to these questions are important, but it is even more important that we remember to continue asking these questions and remain devoted to learning more about the world, about ourselves, and how we can improve both.

Today I want us to leave knowing the immense power and privilege we possess by being UChicago graduates and to use that to challenge others and to change the world. We came here ambitious and brilliant, but we leave better than before with many answers and even more questions. The very first step to changing the world is simply asking.

Congratulations, Class of 2014!