2013 Valedictorian Shelby Solomon

These are the prepared remarks of Saint Mary's 2013 Valedictorian, Shelby Solomon, given during the 2013 Sesquicentennial Commencement Exercises on Saturday, May 25th. 

2013 Valedictorian Shelby SolomonHello, President Gallagher, faculty, staff, family, friends, and loved ones, and welcome to Saint Mary’s sesquicentennial commencement ceremony. I am honored and blessed to speak to you today on behalf of the class of 2013, the 150th graduating class of Saint Mary’s College of California.

As I look out at the enormous crowd gathered here today, full of the faces of my fellow graduates, I cannot help but be thankful for choosing Saint Mary’s as my undergraduate institution only four years ago. There are so many memories I hold with numerous graduates in the crowd – times in which we have cried together, times in which we have studied and taken exams together, and times in which we have celebrated and rejoiced together. Some of us have already been accepted into careers and graduate school, and sadly, some of our beloved friends and classmates have passed away. But despite our triumphs or troubles, our connection to each other as Saint Mary’s students remains strong. Seeing this connection with each of the students gathered here today exemplifies a beautiful aspect of the Gael life: community.

Some of us, myself included, may have forgotten just how long ago 150 years was. It was before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, before Thomas Edison created the light bulb, and of course, before the Wright brothers flew and the Titanic sank. This long 150-year history only exemplifies that Saint Mary’s is a piece of living history that is constantly bettering itself with each intake of students. Yet the traditions rooted in liberal arts, social justice, and community engagement could not be more timely. This is the year of the Gael.

As I look back on the beginning of my college experience, I remember visiting Saint Mary’s for Freshman Orientation and being so shy that I hid out in the bathroom instead of talking with the other students. This shyness actually continued for the first few days at Saint Mary’s, until the end of Weekend of Welcome, where I had connected with students who were just as shy and as desperate for friends as myself. A lot has changed since then as I stand before you today, including sparring in the Saint Mary’s Boxing Club and performing onstage for the campus hip-hop dance crew, Pulses. Saint Mary’s has turned me into a confident leader, a thinker, and most importantly, a speaker and activist who can clearly articulate my thoughts and put them into actions for the benefit of society and the underprivileged. I am sure my fellow graduates can attest to that same feeling of pride in themselves, as many have become campus leaders, athletes, academics, and participants in social justice activities, like the recent Bay Area Day of Service. The community at Saint Mary’s thrives on the notion of Inclusive Excellence, which “can only be realized in communities that are… diverse—where all voices are heard, and all students have equitable opportunities to succeed and serve.”

In relation to this idea, Saint Mary’s Social Psychology professor, Dr. James Temple, states that “No one is a self-made man or woman,” which emphasizes the importance of social support in overcoming our most trying endeavors. Dr. Temple insists that it is not only helpful but necessary for us to reach out to each other in our times of need. In line with Dr. Temple’s advice, Saint Mary’s capitalizes on the importance of interpersonal relationships, as exemplified by the over 40 academic, social, diversity, and service clubs and organizations on campus, like the Psychology Club, PRIDE, and the Black Student Union, to name just a few. Though we may have taken it for granted over these past four years, the Saint Mary’s community has been a support system for so many of us.

My fellow graduates, as you all know so well, college is incredibly difficult, especially when we are involved in other campus activities like leadership, sports, and activism. How many of us would be graduating today, being as involved as we are, if it were not for the social support systems, like Resident Advisors, the Women’s Resource Center, the Counseling Center, and the Mission and Ministry Center here on campus? If it were not for the faculty who have been willing to meet with us at any time to assuage our worries and anxieties? If it were not for our parents, guardians, and families who have given us love and advice to keep us strong? If it were not for the wonderful alumni donors, like the Class of 1950, who have helped us financially?

Class of 2013, it is important for us to be thankful to all those who have supported us along the way, who have believed in us enough to invest in our education, the largest of which is the institution of Saint Mary’s itself for believing that we possess what it means to be a Gael. According to Provost Dobkin, a Gael is an individual who has the “passion, zeal, and enthusiasm for a better world” and actively seeks to create positive change with their education. My fellow graduates and students, it is a very high compliment to have been admitted to Saint Mary’s with that type of responsibility placed on our shoulders. In order to fulfill that responsibility, it is necessary for us to take advantage of the closeness of our undergraduate community, especially as we become alumni.

Saint Mary’s expects compassion, mindfulness, leadership, excellence, and understanding from its graduates, but most importantly, it expects wisdom. We are expected to be leaders who know when to ask for help. As the motto and mission of Saint Mary’s College is “Enter to learn, Leave to serve,” we cannot help others if we are not wise enough to learn and understand our own limits, strengths, and weaknesses.

This commitment to personal growth and exploration, paired with community involvement and support, is a longstanding value of Saint Mary’s, instituted with the college 150 years ago in 1863.

Saint Mary’s has always held the tradition of helping those in need, as it began taking in juvenile delinquents shortly after its beginning. According to historian Ron Isetti, the original message of Saint Mary’s was, “No matter to which social class to which you might accidentally belong, as a human being you deserve the best possible education.” I believe this message, this mission, of Saint Mary’s is still present today as students from every culture, race, lifestyle, and socioeconomic status are a part of the unique and diverse campus community.

Over the last 150 years, Saint Mary’s has reached significant milestones, for instance: In 1941, Saint Mary’s established its Seminar/Great Books program, which has been a distinguishing feature of the college ever since; in 1970 Saint Mary’s began to admit women as full-time students; in 1999 the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA), which oversees the college’s commitment to social justice, was established; in 2010 the Gaels made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA March Madness Championship; in 2010 Saint Mary’s hosted the United States Senatorial Debate, and in the spring of 2012 Saint Mary’s won the WCC Championship for golf and basketball. This year alone has been full of great experiences, as Saint Mary’s was listed as one of the top 40 colleges that change lives and was named fifth on the Forbes list for earning potential.

What makes Saint Mary’s special enough to win these awards is the commitment to the improvement of the human condition and the alleviation of human suffering though educating the mind. This is exemplified not only by professors in the classroom but by students who are willing to open their minds and learn about the injustices of the world and to share their subsequent thoughts within the community. Campus events like the Occupy SMC and Out the Hate rallies, Take Back the Night, cultural nights, and Free Trade Fridays are a few examples that show not only the thriving student community but the commitment to education outside of the classroom.

The faculty and staff at Saint Mary’s have also left an impression upon us students—that in order to lead, in order to serve, we must realize our full potential in helping others to recognize how they can be the best possible versions of themselves. Our professors have done this in their everyday classes but also in social justice January Term travel courses to Ecuador, Haiti, Rwanda, and Cambodia.

In her 2008 Harvard address, author J.K. Rowling, someone who has been very influential in our lives, especially to those of us who took the “History of Harry Potter” January Term class, stated, “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.”

For the past 150 years, Gaels have been imagining, have been doing better. We have been creating change in the world, whether as Olympians, activists for social reform, academics, or champions of justice by serving around the world and advocating for those who are less fortunate.

My fellow graduates, I think it is important for you to know just how truly special today is.

However far you had to travel to attend Saint Mary’s, however many college loans you needed to sign, we are among the small 30 percent of the United States population to possess a bachelor’s degree—and perhaps we are the first in our family to reach such an accomplishment. We should be incredibly thankful to everyone who has helped us along the way in receiving our undergraduate degree.

Though today is a day of culmination, of commencement, and also a day of bittersweet sadness, let us remember, to again paraphrase J.K. Rowling, that no matter if we travel by plane or car, Saint Mary’s will always be here to welcome us home. Although we are graduating, we can continually rely on the community and attachments we have fostered here at Saint Mary’s to be a helping hand in our time of need. Once a Gael, always a Gael.

With thankfulness in our hearts, and a strong, wise head on our shoulders, let us continue to leave a positive legacy of social action for Saint Mary’s graduates. Let us make every year the year of the Gael.

Class of 2013, we made it!

Thank you, God bless, and go Gaels.