2010 Valedictorian Address by Alex Branch

The following are the prepared remarks of Saint Mary's 2010 valedictorian Alex Branch. Branch delivered the following address at Saint Mary's College 147th Undergraduate Commencement ceremony.

Dear Saint Mary's Class of 2010,

What is the point of an education?

At the beginning of this year, my father wrote me a birthday letter. In it, he said: "Just keep in mind that up until now you have only been preparing for the fun part of life. One more year of school and the preliminaries will be behind you and you can get on with the game of life. I don't have any idea what life holds for you so just hang on and enjoy the ride."

At about the same time, a good friend of mine, who tends to be what you might call a ‘free spirit,' sent me a famous quote from Father Alfred D. Souza. It said:

"For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, some unfinished business, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way."

These are two seemingly opposite philosophies, one focused on life's journey, the other on its destination; but both of them are right, and, in a way, they are not so different after all.

In one sense, we are finishing a preliminary. Some of us will walk across this stage and be honored for 2 years of work on a nursing degree, some of our classmates have already gone on from here after three years working toward engineering degrees, most of us are being honored today for 4 years on one of the many other degrees offered by Saint Mary's College. For a lucky few of us it has been 5 or more years of hard work to get to this day.

But these degrees are preliminaries. They lead into graduate study opportunities, work opportunities, scholarship and travel opportunities. They are something that simply needed to be done. Our years here, however, have not just been preliminaries. The full term of our college experience has been about more than just this day.

At Weekend of Welcome in 2006, my group spoke with Ed Biglin, the Chief Technology Officer for CaTS, and he asked us a question. He said, "I have in my briefcase a Saint Mary's diploma with the President's signature, but blank lines where a name and major are waiting to be filled in. For $160,000 we can fill in all the blanks, and it's yours. Who wants it?"

After the time we've had to grow as people here at Saint Mary's, would you want it? Would you give up the time you've spent doing service? What about your favorite professor? Your best friends? What about your cultural experiences, Oasis dances, Outdoor Adventures trips, Church confirmations, travel abroad experiences, January Terms, movie nights, classes with the Christian Brothers, seminar discussions, and athletic events. What about everything else that didn't necessarily come from a textbook?

Saint Mary's is more than just a degree, it is an experience. Nowhere on my degree will it indicate that I lived in a Brothers' community in New Zealand and taught high school math for three months, nowhere will it show that I travelled to Houston to support the men's basketball team in the Sweet 16, nowhere will it show that I once climbed Halfdome in a snowstorm with one of my best friends from Saint Mary's.

My father said the fun part of life is next, and I hope he's right. But I also hope, for each of us, that some of the fun part of life has already gone by, and that today is one of the most fun parts we've ever experienced.

As we now move to a new phase of our lives, I also think of the admonition my father left me with, to hang on and enjoy the ride. Life is full of obstacles, and most of us probably have no real idea what we are about to get into. Law school, grad school, med school, business, volunteering, living on our parents' couch until we figure things out; there is a lot of uncertainty in our futures, and those uncertainties come with trials. But, as Father Souza says, these trials are life. Every time one is passed, another blocks the way. The challenge is to stop looking at life as an obstacle course and rather to see it as a roller coaster.

Like a roller coaster, life has peaks and valleys, long climbs and fast drops, sometimes it even goes upside down. These so-called obstacles are what make the roller coaster interesting. They make it what it is. When the ride finally ends, the parts we remember are the parts where we were scared or excited, startled or tossed around in our seats. They are the parts where we had to hold on the hardest and, when we look back, they're the parts we smile about. So like my father said, "hold on and enjoy the ride."

Now, my classmates have all been in seminar enough to be wondering at this point when I will finally get back to the original question: what does all this have to do with the point of an education? Go back to Ed Biglin's $160,000 degree. If the point of an education were just to learn the stuff in the textbook, we would all have skipped the tests and taken the diploma.

Instead, we toughed out years of hard work so that we could have an experience, so that we could add some twists and turns to our roller coaster, and that is the point of an education. To talk about being a life-long learner, you really have to talk about roller coaster construction, because the education is in the obstacles, and you are not just on the ride, you are building it.

Before I give up this place of honor, there's one more thing I want to say to you all. I can see behind you to all the parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, nephews, friends and supporters sitting in the stadium, and I know that not a single person who will walk across this stage got here all by him- or her-self. Whether your parents, your high school teachers, a Saint Mary's donor, a staff member or a professor, whoever it is, make sure that soon, before the novelty of today wears off, you call those people, you send them a card, you do what it takes to let them know how thankful you are. For my family out there, please know that I am thankful for you. And for my classmates sitting before me, this could all have been a lot different, but I enjoyed the ride. Congratulations class of 2010, and thank you.