Valedictory to the College by Melissa Barales-Lopez ’22

News subtitle

A first-generation college student says she found community at Dartmouth.


President Hanlon, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, and fellow members of the class of 2022.

For those of you who may not know me, allow me to begin by sharing a short anecdote. This story takes place in the Los Angeles airport in early September of 2018. I was getting ready to fly to Dartmouth to begin the first term of my freshman year. My parents and five younger siblings accompanied me to the airport, walked me to the security gates, and hugged me goodbye. I put on a brave face as I walked through TSA, took off my shoes and jacket with a smile plastered on my face, and calmly collected my bags. I waved one last good-bye to my family from across the room, turned the corner, and promptly broke down into tears. Picture a young woman publicly weeping at an airport Coffee Bean café, and that’s pretty much the scene I made.

In truth, I was terrified about coming to Dartmouth. As a first-generation college student, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know what going to college meant. I was afraid that I was under-prepared, and I questioned whether I even deserved a spot at an Ivy League school. Before stepping foot on campus, I felt like an imposter.

I have since learned that I wasn’t the only person experiencing these emotions. Many of my friends slowly revealed feeling this way throughout much of freshman fall and beyond, and I’m sure many of us here today have experienced self-doubt in one space or another or have believed we don’t belong despite our hard work and effort.

Overcoming these feelings is a challenge, and, in all honestly, I struggled for a long time to find a home at Dartmouth. However, certain qualities of our school helped me create a sense of belonging, and it’s these qualities that I wish to highlight today.

The first is Dartmouth’s strong and profound sense of community. Perhaps it has something to do with living in the middle of the woods, isolated from much of the world, but Dartmouth is exceptionally good at fostering community.

For me, community is the First-Generation Office. Headed by the incredible Jay Davis, this office works tirelessly to ensure that first-generation and low-income students at Dartmouth have the resources they need to succeed. Jay has built a space for students like to me to voice their anxieties and, in turn, receive strength and encouragement from our peers. I have developed life-long friendships with other FYSEP (First-Year Student Enrichment Program) students, and here I have found a home. Thank you Jay, and everyone at Dartmouth, who has invested in the First-Generation Office to make it a thriving support system.

The second feature of Dartmouth that has made me feel at home is the endless support and guidance offered by faculty and staff. Over my four years, I observed professors and teaching assistants invest countless hours in the education of Dartmouth students. I have seen entire language departments adapt to online teaching, somehow managing to make drills engaging over Zoom. I witnessed professors exercise compassion and understanding throughout much of the pandemic, especially as students faced varying circumstances at home. I had the privilege of meeting professors who challenged me academically. They encouraged me to pursue research, supported me as I wrote my thesis, and made me feel like my voice mattered just as much as anyone else’s. I am immensely grateful for the faculty and staff who prioritized my academic growth and that of my peers. They played a critical role in making Dartmouth my home.

Finally, I would like to mention the admirable labor done by so many of us here to create a more inclusive and equitable Dartmouth. I am thinking about groups like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers who strive to make engineering a more accessible profession for Latinx students and other students of color. I am thinking about organizations like CoFIRED or Fuerza who are working to meet the needs of DACA recipients and undocumented immigrant community members at Dartmouth and in the Upper Valley. I am thinking about the Student Worker Collective who successfully unionized to give more bargaining power to student workers on campus.

These groups and so many more are truly transforming Dartmouth. It’s hard to create change from the inside, and it takes time. But I have worked with passionate students who are deeply committed to fostering community for all. I myself found community in these groups, and I thank everyone in attendance who has dedicated their time to the values of inclusivity and social justice. I am proud to graduate today among these dedicated student leaders.

I want to end by giving a heartfelt thanks to my family. My siblings have been my biggest supporters throughout these four years. Thank you for your words of encouragement, for your confidence in me, for all the kindness you have shown. Words cannot begin to describe all the gratitude I have for you. I also want to thank my parents who are the hardest working people I know and who inspire me immensely. 

Mamá y papá, muchas gracias por todo, por cada sacrificio y cada esfuerzo de su parte. Su apoyo es la razón por la que estoy aquí hoy.

My mom always says to me, “Melissa, walk forward with confidence.” I entered Dartmouth scared and full of doubt. That young woman at the Coffee Bean café lacked confidence in herself. Four years later, however, with the support of friends, family, and faculty, I walk onto this stage confident and with a profound sense of belonging.

So, I now relay the same message to all of you. As we enter the next phase of our lives and face whatever the world has in store for us, let’s do so with our heads held high and with utter confidence in our abilities and what we bring to the table. I am excited to see all that we accomplish. Thank you, and congratulations again to the Class of 2022.


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