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Brandon Ashby's 2009 Valedictory Address
I told my father the news as soon as he got home: “Dad, I got into Santa Clara!” He gave me a hug and told me how proud he was. Then, he gave me three words of advice about community: “If you don't call your mother she will kill us both; buy ear plugs; and for God's sake wear sandals in the shower!” “Thanks Dad,” I said, trying not the think about it too hard.
Four years have passed since then, and here we are again standing before a new horizon of possibility. For some of us, this horizon is frightening. Finding a job is harder than ever. Christilei graduated a quarter early. She now spends her time interviewing for jobs. She jokes that she sells stolen pens to pay her rent, lives of free coffee and donuts, and her health-well it's never been better.
I don't know how many of you have letters of acceptance in our pocket right now taking you to jobs or new schools, but I know this: Letter or not, we all have a purpose as we leave here. For we have been shown the meaning of community, and that is a lesson the world so desperately needs right now. From Ponzi schemes and mortgage crises locally, to Sudan and El Salvador abroad, our world is filled with the effects of those who do not know the meaning of community. And those effects threaten to tear us apart.
Toward the end of my junior year, a beloved friend came to me and said she might not be able to come back for her senior year. Her mother had lost one of her jobs, and the adjustable rate on the mortgage was skyrocketing. They were losing their home. And now, unless her mother or she could find several thousand dollars, she would have to leave school. Thankfully, the community here reached out to her and granted her a scholarship. But not everyone has been so lucky in our troubled times.
In the past months, we have all seen faces like hers-puffy, red, and filled with dismay-if not on campus, then in the news. We are all witnesses to the downward spiral of individualism from its effects on our environment, to extreme poverty, to the financial crisis. In this spiral, selfishness leads to alienation and isolation from others and our shared habitat. Isolation leads to indifference, and indifference makes selfishness all the easier. And so the cycle goes.
But, there is a different cycle-a cycle of community. We reach out to others, take a leap of faith, asking them to accept us as we are. In being accepted, we know gratitude and are encouraged to offer of ourselves all the more. And in knowing the joy of acceptance, we become more welcoming of others. So self-offering, gratitude, and acceptance reinforce one another as the virtuous circle of community. Within this circle, we see that the fullest possible life is one lived in collaboration, rather than competition.
On the Tijuana immersion trip, our group spent four days building a house by hand. During our lunches, we talked with the family we were building the house for and we played soccer with the kids. By the end, we were exhausted. We smelled like tar and old sweat. Frankly, we were filthy. But Eugene spoke for us all when he said, “I wish everyday were like that.” In such moments, we recognize that we can have a full life as we are; homeless, dirty, or exhausted, so long as we are with others and open to them. Charles Taylor has said that to be human is to live in a world of questions and fellow interlocutors, asking us: “What will we stand for?” So here, at Santa Clara, as we have found our voices, we have been realizing our fullest humanity. Our lives are a conversation, in never ending dialogue with others, where our own narratives are inseparable from the characters that fill them.
In our time, we have all had those professors who did not just teach us, but made the world shine for us in a new way. We left their classes dazed and in amazement, like Alice in her Wonderland. They graded hard and we practically swallowed our tongues when we saw the reading assignments, but we didn't mind. It was professors Nelson, Radcliffe, Ravizza, Prior, Buckley, or so and so after all, and they made us excited about life, the universe, and everything. In many cases, they helped us discern what career we should take, or got us to pick up a major or minor, the kind that people hear and ask: What are you going to do with that? But we answer the wrong question with the right answer and say, “Because we love it!” In my own case, Dr. Vallor got me to love Philosophy, and I am forever grateful for her encouragement, criticism, and inspiration, as I am sure you all are of your mentors. For the meaningfulness of our lives is not measured in the detail of our five-year plans, or a roster of successes. It is measured in the projects we undertake out of love. Professors like Dr. Vallor have made our lives more meaningful by teaching us who we are, by making us love some element of the world, and giving us purpose. For we only ask the question “Who am I?” when we do not know what gives our life meaning and purpose-when we do not know what we love.
Outside the classroom, we have found identity and purpose in the communities on our campus as we stand aside people like Lindsey or Annie in SCAAP programs or Arrupe placements. We find community in the Mission Church every Sunday at 9 p.m. during the sign of peace, or as Erik instructs the Catechumen. We see it as Noelle, Anna, Veronica, and the rest of the SCU Track and Field Team walk 24 hours in a relay for life to fight cancer. We see purposeful community in the SLURP program as Professor Farnsworth and students strive to make our campus more sustainable. There are more communities on this campus than I can hope to name, but in them all we see purpose, we see each other taking a stand for social justice, faith, life, and the environment, all endeavors that strive in some way to bring our human community together.
Over the years, as we have stood alongside our friends or been counseled by our mentors, we have found purpose. We have found what we love. In community, we have discovered who we are. So we see that community makes us, yet we are the makers of community. This is the paradox of our human freedom. And it is this freedom cried out for around the world from the slums of Calcutta, to the tent cities cropping up around our own nation, to the lonely and disenfranchised perhaps even sitting among us. This is the freedom of voice, to be heard, acknowledged, and accepted so that we may have a hand in shaping our own destinies as others affect us. The ability to listen is the ability to empower. So as we leave here, who will we empower? Who will we ask to accept us? What will we stand for? Which is to ask: Who will we stand by? The world is asking. And now, we must answer.
2009 Valedictory Address