Editor’s Note: James Duffy (SEBS ’18) is an Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources major, and a double minor in Environmental Policy and Environmental Geomatics.
Fellow students, faculty members, family, and friends. Welcome! We are finally done.
As your student speaker, I find myself in an odd position. As a graduation speaker, convention says I should have some kind of special wisdom or life experience to bestow on you as you leave college and enter the rest of your life. But on the other hand, as a 21-year-old college graduate myself, I don’t know much more than you do.
So in fact, yes– if you want some life advice that will help you navigate your future, I advise you to find a grown-up somewhere in the audience after the ceremony is over. And if you do find one, please let me know, because I have some questions.
So, lacking wisdom or life experience, all that was left to me as I sat down to write this speech was personal experience from my time at Rutgers. But as I thought about this over the last few weeks, you know, I really wanted to share something from my time here that would speak to all of us, not just to me. Something at once personal and unique, but relatable and universal.
My fellow students, faculty members, family, and friends: that something, is you. The only thing I know for a fact that I can share about me that we can all relate to, is how we mutually influenced each other over these few years. How we have co-evolved together.
So today, I dedicate my remarks first, to you, my fellow graduates. Today is, after all, your day.
And then, to everyone we’ve known at Rutgers who has shaped our experience here and, by extension, who we have become. Graduates, if you look around now, I imagine many of these people are sitting in your midst.
And finally, to all the people who enabled us to get here in the first place—those who helped create the version of us that first walked onto this campus some four years ago and those who helped us complete the journey they saw us begin. I suspect many of these people are sitting in the audience behind the graduates today.
The impact of the people around us is a theme I think we’d all do well to ponder from time to time, in the years ahead. But the ceremonies that punctuate the different phases of our lives, like this graduation today, provide a wonderful excuse to acknowledge the characters in our life stories, candidly and openly.
Here are what some of those characters looked like in my own Rutgers story. I invite all of you to use this time to reflect on your own.
A friend who confronted their mental illness for the first time some three years ago, as a college sophomore, who now sits in this crowd, unrecognizable for the progress they have made. This friend showed me what it looks like to persevere no matter how dark life may seem; that it’s possible to change, to grow, and to be vulnerable with the people you love, no matter how insurmountable the burdens may seem. This friend showed me that sometimes the night truly is darkest just before the dawn.
My many residents from my time in Residence Life, who showed me numerous strategies to deal with the most turbulent transitions of life.
A Rutgers professor, who shared the story of their convoluted path to graduate school, who drifted through their 20s and lived on friends’ floors before deciding to apply to graduate programs, ultimately becoming a leading authority on wildlife conservation. From this professor, I learned that the path after graduation is often winding, but that the uncertainty of post-college youth should never be mistaken for failure outright.
Having recognized some people who shaped us these last few years, I’d like everyone now to think about the ‘you’ that began this degree. Are they different than the ‘you’ sitting in cap and gown right now? Picture in your mind how it felt, to be them. What’s changed?
This being a SEBS graduation, some of you can probably explain to me how neurological development in late adolescence works or changes our identity, but I think that’s only part of the answer.
I think the rest is more fundamental: we change through an accumulation of life experience. And being human, being a social species, those life experiences are largely composed of the people we meet along the way. What they say to us, what they do to us. How we treat them, how we interact.
So, to wrap up this theme of making my few minutes onstage about the people who make us who we are, I do have a few ‘thank yous’ that I would be remiss if I didn’t make.
To my friends both old and new: You have shown me what true companionship, laughter, and found-family feels like. So much of who I am today is wrapped up in what you have given me. Thank you.
To my three older sisters: I admire each of you more than you know. Having your friendship and example to follow–in triplicate, no less–has made my life immensely richer. Thank you.
To my parents: you raised a family of four while working up to three jobs at once or getting an education. You did this while filling our home with books and fun and love. You guided us when needed but allowed your children the freedom to follow their own path. Thank you for your tireless work and sacrifice.
And finally, to you, my fellow graduates, the SEBS graduating class of 2018. Thank you for what you’ve given me and each other, and for showing me that personal change is inseparable from interpersonal growth.
It is through traversing the *huge* institution of Rutgers together, that we arrived here today, better in every sense for having done so. So now, I’d like us to take one final moment to honor the personal growth all of you have achieved, together, right alongside our best academic success.
SEBS Class of 2018, it has been an honor to address all of you today—congratulations, we did it, we’re done!
Editor’s Note: James’ extracurricular involvements included a three-year tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the Human Ecology departmental newsletter and Treasurer of the Rutgers Naturalist Club. During his time on campus, James was also employed as a Resident Assistant, environmental law tutor, writing coach, and research assistant on projects ranging from ornithology to water resources. Most recently, James completed a senior thesis on the implementation of water quality protection practices by New Jersey farmers. After graduation, James will work as a technician for the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, and is excited to spend time with friends and family before attending graduate school.