Dartmouth College Convocation, September 15, 2014 Casey Dennis ’15
Thank you so much, Dean Ameer, for your kind introduction, and a sincere thanks to my friends and family for being here today. It means the world to me that you came out to show your love and support, and it’s hard to picture my time at Dartmouth without your ongoing guidance and inspiration.
That being said, President Hanlon, faculty, staff, administration, and fellow students, it is an incredible honor to be here today. It is with great privilege and gratitude that I welcome you, the largest class in Dartmouth history, the Dartmouth Class of 2018.
When I was told that I would be addressing you this afternoon, I contemplated long and hard about what I would say. I thought to myself: What words could I possibly offer to the Dartmouth community that could uplift and ignite a body that has experienced so much during my time here? And for the ’18s, I wondered how I could offer guidance in making their next four years here the best years of their lives.
These were the questions I pondered for quite some time. Every time I sat down to begin writing, the answer eluded me. But you see, one thing I’ve learned in life is that you find your answers to some of the toughest questions in the places you least expect to find them. I did not find my answer staring at a blank screen, but I found it sitting around a fire in the woods surrounded by my closest friends.
Last week my vice president, Frank, and I had the honor of hosting our Student Assembly Executive Board at the Class of ’66 Lodge for a retreat. We wanted to set aside time for our board to get to know one another and build relationships that would allow us to become an effective and productive team.
During the retreat, we asked each member to share moments from their past that highlighted a challenging time for them. Through these heartfelt and emotional stories, I found the answer to my ultimate question. Sitting around that fire, I realized each individual had faced their own set of adversities; but it was through our differences that I found the one thing that we all had in common, and that was the reason we were all sitting around that campfire in the woods on a cold September night in the first place.
It was our vision of a better Dartmouth. It was the same vision I had the night that I decided to run for president and the same vision that ignited our campaign last spring, which received an unprecedented amount of support from our friends and our community members. It is this shared vision of a Dartmouth that coalesces as one family to address the issues we face as a school. A vision where students can thrive, intellectually, emotionally, and physically every single day. A Dartmouth where every individual from an alum to an administrator, from a faculty member to a student, understands that they have an important role to play in our continued success as an institution. Class of 2018, this afternoon I’d like to share with you how this vision can become our reality.
By embracing the values that contributed to the founding of Dartmouth College, we allow them to guide us through our daily journeys here in Hanover. These values of community, diversity, and empowerment are driven by mutual respect for one another. However, this year I’ve decided that it’s simply not enough to embody these core values. We must take it upon ourselves to expand them. We need to strive to become a student body that understands our responsibilities as supporting one another. A body that commits to originality and moves away from conformity. A body that discovers the boundless opportunities ignited by the students. This new set of values is what I want to discuss with you today as steps to reaching this vision.
The first step is growing our dynamic community. Eighteens, today you officially walk through the doors of Dartmouth on a path of tremendous legacy built by an amazing group of men and women who came before you. A trail has been blazed for you; and as new Dartmouth students, you now have the responsibility of building the community that you’ve been left with, a community that exists not just within the streets of Hanover but throughout the world. It’s safe to say that this will not come easily, but in your time here, you will have the chance to dictate its direction and make it your own—and I truly encourage you to make it your own.
I think it’s time you break away from the deeply rooted concept that we must simply cling on to our own traditions. The Dartmouth of yesterday is not the Dartmouth of now, and the Dartmouth of now is ours. This is the one we will remember, so we should make it the one for us.
Now, when I think about this community, I think of a place I love and I think of a place I value and appreciate every single day. But I also think of a place I can critique and improve. Make lifelong friends and cherished memories during your time here. Let Dartmouth be a place you’ll send your kids to one day. And most importantly, leave this place better than you found it.
Our second step is growing our school to be the most diverse that it’s ever been. This past March, Dartmouth celebrated the 110th birthday of one of its most famous graduates, Dr. Seuss, who once posed an outstanding question: Why fit in when you were born to stand out?
Eighteens, you are diverse and come from all different walks of life. You have different backgrounds and perspectives, and you strive for different goals and aspirations. But despite these positive differences, individually you all bear something in common, and that’s the fact that every single one of you has something unique to offer to Dartmouth. You were picked for a reason. Think back on the grueling days of the college application process. Think back to when you got that acceptance letter from Dartmouth College. There is something about you that stood out to those who read your application. There is something that made you different from the next applicant.
So now that you’re at the threshold of starting your Dartmouth career, don’t hide in the thing that made you different. Bask in it. Live with it. Carry it with you on a daily basis. Conformity is not an option, nor was it the reason for your acceptance. Your acceptance letter was your golden ticket to being yourself, your chance to shine your light.
Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, said it the best: Great things happen when you have the courage to be yourself. Just like your community, your class is as diverse as you make it, and that will come about as each of you finds the bravery and hope to accomplish your individual dreams and make the most of your Dartmouth experience.
Some people don’t believe the vision of a more united, thriving Dartmouth is possible. But I’m here to tell you that at this College, there is no glass ceiling. You are empowered. We are empowered. Never before has a Dartmouth class had as many resources to guide them through their journey. Use this community, the alums, your peers, and your professors to unleash your own potential and the potential of the ’18 class in its entirety.
Don’t sit back. Take the chance to learn from those around you. The effort that you put in to pursue your individual dreams should be the same effort you put in to come together as one body and as one Dartmouth family.
Again, here at Dartmouth no dream is too big. I know that from a personal level because in December 2010, Dartmouth did not simply accept Casey Dennis. They accepted the grandson of a woman who graduated from Syracuse University when only 13 African American students were enrolled at the school. They accepted the grandson of a man who struggled to buy a house for his family because of the color of his skin. And they accepted the son of two parents who were committed to the idea and the importance of an education.
This—me being here today—is a dream come true. My story is now a part of Dartmouth’s story. If you ever doubt that dreams are too big for us to accomplish as a whole, just look back to this past spring when students elected the first African American duo to lead the Dartmouth student body. Eighteens, we can complete this vision, and it starts today with a new, eager, ambitious class, a class who assumes its responsibility right away to respect the differences of its peers.
I’d like to leave you with a quote that I read every day before I left middle school that read: Did you make a difference in someone’s life today?
Eighteens, I ask you the same question, but I don’t expect that answer today. It is my hope that this quote finds you on the morning of your Commencement four years from now and that your answer is “yes.”
Class of 2018, welcome to Dartmouth—and I hope you’re ready, but I also hope from this day forward you have the chance to smile every day knowing there’s no place you’d rather be.