graduation speech

To The Graduating Class of 2009

Prologue: The following is the graduation speech I wrote and auditioned. I didn’t end up being the graduation speaker, as you’ll know if you attend my graduation tomorrow. As Staples noted, “Their loss, dude. Their loss.” I couldn’t agree more. However, I put a lot of time and effort into this and still think it’s worth sharing. What’s presented below is the speech as I auditioned it, but with a couple dozen comments about my writing process, thoughts, and insides jokes. Special thanks to Corinne Johnson, Audrey Nelson, and especially Jeff Staples for reviewing this and giving me feedback.

The idea for giving the graduation speech started almost a year ago, as I was listening to the 2008 graduation speaker. I distinctly remember two things: the guy gave a pretty crappy speech and I could do significantly better, at least in my estimation.

I started working on ideas over the summer. Writing down themes, quotes, and phrases that came to mind. Eventually, I had a working copy. And finally I had this.

This was probably one of my best kept secrets during senior year: Codename Shakespeare. Initially, only one other person knew about it. However, as the date for tryouts grew closer, I had no choice to but let a few more people in on my little secret, although I still managed to keep the circle small. Before now, no more than a dozen people knew about the speech and even fewer had seen or heard it.

I think what’s most striking about this speech is how it contrasts with my high school graduation speech, especially in terms of target audience, content, and style.

Anyway, thanks for hanging out with me here on Andrew Ferguson dot NET the last five years. It’s been really fun. I look forward to the next 5 years and hope you’ll stick around.

President Scoggins, distinguished trustees, faculty, and alumni, proud parents, grandparents, friends, and, of course, members of the Class of 20091: after years of toiling, we’re finally finished. We’ve persevered — and some might even suggest suffered — through the four, five, or even six or more years of university. Along the way, we have been tempered2- by our professors, by our course work, by our friends, and by our school.

It is this process of tempering that I wish to speak to you about.

The act of tempering is generally defined as performing some action “A”, to some object “B”, to bring it to some new state “C”.

This could be, as Oxford defines it, as simple as “mingling one ingredient together with another, in proper proportions.” Such as might happen when students, and professors, from around Colorado, the United States, and the four corners of the World come together at an institution such as Mines.

This mingling process started even before school did, when we moved into the dorms3 our freshman year. Floor events organized by our RA’s forced us to engage with others, rather than staying inside to play video games by ourselves. This process was furthered by the small class sizes, smaller study groups, and even smaller lab groups. These intimate learning opportunities would lay the foundation for everything to come. At Mines, I wasn’t simply being taught, I was being educated4. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Another definition of tempering reads: “to bring into a suitable or desirable frame of mind.” One of the first classes everyone at Mines is required to take is Physics One. When I took physics, four years ago, the class was taught by a pony-tailed hipster named Professor Kelso — who, at the beginning of class, would often ask obscure science fiction questions in exchange for a candy bar5. Between the early morning lectures, late afternoon labs, and all night LON-CAPA homework sessions with fellow students, something interesting started to happen.

My world view — my frame of mind — began to change. I would look around and instead of seeing actors in a play6, I starting seeing forces and relationships: A father applying a 147 Newton force at a 428 degree angle as he pushes his son — who masses roughly 319 kilograms — on a swing that’s suspended two meters below a bar.

Perhaps a more applicable example: the ice that forms on those cold winter mornings in Colorado: What’s the coefficient of static friction on that ice? How fast can I run to my 8am class before I overcome that static friction and starting sliding? Once I do start sliding, how far will I go before I fall on my face? The answers is, predictably, not that fast and not that far; somewhere between two and three meters per a second for a distance of 8610 centimeters .

Of course, being a school with a mining background, it would not be fair to overlook the metallurgical implications of tempering.

The most common definition of tempering occurs when one brings “steel to a suitable degree of hardness and elasticity or resiliency by heating it to the required temperature and immersing it, while hot, in some liquid, usually cold water;”

This past semester, a friend of mine, Islin Moy, wrote a short note entitled, “Engineering Should Come With a Warning Label.”11 It reads, in part12, “In your senior year, second semester, you will experience stress levels not felt since failing your first test, over a prolonged period of time, at the same intensity. This is due to senior design and the random decision of professors to double your workload13. Senioritis and the general decline of your attitude towards school doesn’t help either. The question is, do you really want to graduate? If the answer is YES, then forge ahead, sipping your energy drinks during the day14 and taking your sleeping pills to fall asleep at night, only to wake up 4 hours later. There is no such answer as NO. You got this far.”

The last four years have been about tempering; about becoming hardened and resilient. This was accomplished by subjecting us to homework assignments that took all night long, near impossible projects , and test, after test, after test. We will inevitably grumble about these things, just as the hot steel screeches when submersed in the cold water15. However, one cannot deny that, at the end of the day, we are better for it; having been brought up that “suitable degree of hardness and resiliency.”

It is to this hardness and resiliency that Islin referred to when she wrote, “There is no such answer as NO. You got this far.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean it was easy getting here. As Jenny Holzer, an American conceptual artists, once quipped, “Some days you wake up and immediately start to worry. Nothing in particular is wrong. It’s just the suspicion that forces are aligning quietly and there will be trouble.”

There was definitely trouble. I can’t tell you the number of times I broke down in tears. I think only one of those times I cried over a girl16 — and she was from Boulder17 — but the other times I broke down for any number of reasons ranging from homework that was too hard or not well explained, to a chemistry lab that wasn’t going the way it was supposed to18, or just the general stress from being away from my home in Seattle.

As a freshman, I often bounced between elation, such as when I finally understood that one equation, to depression, over scoring low marks on any number of exams, to agony, after realizing I still had four more years left.

Four years later, and I’m still excited when I finally get some concept in class, and I still feel a bit queasy after getting some exams back. However, my overall emotions remain in-check and tempered, “reduce[d] to [a] suitable or desirable middle degree or condition free from excess in either direction.”

I expect that it is this desirable emotional middle ground that we will call upon many times during our careers. When the pressures of deadlines at work see everyone around us crumbling, we will stand strong. When the ethics of a project come into question, we will be brave. When the task at hand is so monumental, it will make going to the moon19 look like driving around the block, we will be triumphant. Through it all, and more, we will persevere20: because we are tempered.

So, where does that leave us? The end result of this tempering processes is a better and stronger product than the original. As such, we leave Mines as learned engineers, knowing more than we did coming in, confident that we have many21 of the tools we need to succeed in our endeavors. As Dr. Spock, the pediatrician, not the Vulcan22, once said, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

To the Graduating Class of 2009: We did it.

Now, go forth and make wonderful things, do good for the human race, live long and prosper23.

  1. This is basically the same introduction that David McCullough used in his 2008 address to Boston College, “The Love of Learning“. I’d also suggest you listen to “Why Telling Stories is Important to Engineers” by Robert Krulwich of Radio Lab. 

  2. I came up with four different topics: tempering, communication, luck versus design, and adventure. This was the theme I ended up going with 

  3. Apparently, “dorms” isn’t politically correct. The correct term is “Residence Halls.” Whatever. 

  4. This bit is a combination of Mark Twain’s quote, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” and Winston Churhill’s quote, “Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” 

  5. If memory serves correctly, I did win once…it was a Star Trek question. 

  6. A nod to Shakespeare’s As You Like It: All the world’s a stage, // And all the men and women merely players; // They have their exits and their entrances; // And one man in his time plays many parts… 

  7. My soccer number 

  8. The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything 

  9. The day of the month I was born 

  10. The year I was born 

  11. Observant blog readers will remember that I covered this note a couple months ago 

  12. With Islin’s permission, I tweaked her note to fit the speech better 

  13. A section was eliminated here 

  14. This part about energy drinks was added 

  15. This is one of my favorite passages 

  16. This is true, believe it or not 

  17. She was actually from out of state and went to school in Denver, but Boulder sounded better…and was funnier 

  18. Spring of Sophomore year 

  19. A nod to to Kennedy’s Moon speech: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

  20. I really wanted to make this “hupomeno.” However, it would have required too much explanation. 

  21. Deliberate choice to include this word, since I strongly believe that we don’t have all the tools…nor should we. 

  22. A Star Trek reference, the first of speech…but not the last 

  23. …the other Star Trek reference 

The End is Nigh…at least the End of the Beginning is Nigh

  • SAAS

Just about four hours to go until we start our Graduation Festivities. I call them festivities because a SAAS graduation is really nothing like your fathers graduation…or anyone else’s graduation for that matter. First off, this year we are graduating some 73 students. I believe one student will not be walking, but that was on his/her own accord, not for disciplinary reasons. You might be thinking, “Cool, this should, like, what, hour? Hour and half, tops??” He he he. Not so fast. Our graduation lasts an astounding 4.5 hours. Yes folks, you won’t get out of my graduation until tomorrow. The event starts at 7pm sharp (or so they say). The first half is really a presentation by various students and faculty, myself included (more on that later). Then we have a 15 minute intermission before the actual graduating begins. For that, each student comes up individually and seats in the “hot seat” for ~100 seconds while Jean Orvis, Head of School, “roasts” them. But it is truly going to be a blast. I already have pictures a few video clips from yesterdays and todays rehearsal. Pr acting for our graduation really gets one to thinking something along the lines of F**k! I’m graduating…F**k, F**k, F**k, F**k, F**k. Oh F**k. Sorry for the explicits, but this really is a worrisome time. We leave and go off, not knowing what’s going to happen next. I really hate that. I do. F**k. So back to what I’m doing. As a cautionary warning, the following information contains spoilers for the actual graduation and should not be read if you are actually attending graduation…which you are…right?? So after quite a bit of mum, I will finally tell you what I’m doing. I’m giving a speech. It’s a great speech if I do say so myself and I put quite a lot of time, thought, and hard work into it…to make it just right. The speech literally seems to say, I am Andrew, Hear me talk! Anyways, here’s my speech if you want to read it. The “//” mean short pause. Underlines indicates that I should punch the word. Italics indicates quotes. Everything else are just notes to myself that would take too long to explain.

Friends, Romans, countrymen,

// lend me your ears; // famous words uttered by Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I came to Seattle Academy not knowing any Shakespeare save // “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Over the past four years, I have indulged myself in English Romanticism, American History and Government, various forms of art, including (film, clay,) (musical theater,) and (vocal classes.) I have gained an immense amount of knowledge in (chemistry, biology,) (calculus, physics,) and, of course, (life lessons.)

For the past several months, I have been pondering what my last act as a senior at Seattle Academy would be. Originally I had considered singing a reprise from Vocal Revue II, Frank Sinatra’s My Kind Of Town. I also considered creating a film or perhaps just crafting a piece of artwork for the lobby display. But I had already done these things. // I wanted this final moment to reflect a core attribute that Seattle Academy has given me. (pause)

Seattle Academy is place for experimentation; a place to try things that one might not otherwise venture to try. I have never given a speech before, nor have I talked in front of this many people. // This is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

This speech is my finial assignment. There are no requirements, there is no grade. It is just me and you. (pause)

When I came to Seattle Academy four years ago, I had no history. Before coming here I had never attended the same school for more than two years. Between 1st and 8th grade I attended seven different schools. This may sound like an astonishing number, and it is, // but the simple fact of the mater is that all those schools did not have the flexibility, care, and initiative that Seattle Academy has.

Because of my varied past, I rarely had the chance to actually make long term friendships. Four years is certainly a long time, and I now have many life long friends.

However, calling you all “friends” does not do justice to the love and understanding you have given me. (pause) Over the past years, you have not been just my friends, peers, or teachers: you have been my family. And there really is no way to say goodbye to family.

The best I can do is share with you a key philosophy that I have learned over the years:

It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. *We are explorers.* We explore our lives, day by day. And we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you with weapons or ideas, but to co-exist and learn.

My friends, my colleaguesmy family; when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, leaving his homeland and invading Italy, he declared: alea jacta est. The die is cast.

Caesar used the phrase as a metaphor to express the fact that he had crossed the river, and there was no going back. In many ways, our futures are the same. However, it is also important to note that This is not the end. // It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I have been, and always shall be, your friend. Live long and prosper.