Emma S. Esterman '20: Valedictory to the College

Video and transcript from the valedictory address to the College, by Emma S. Esterman '20. 

June 14, 2020

Hello Dartmouth Class of 2020 and our professors, family members, friends, and guests.

Many of us have been looking forward to our graduation day with a mixture of excitement to enter the "real world" and relief to not have to study in isolation for another term, but, more recently, I think we have all been feeling trepidation.

Graduates, we are entering a world that is wracked by economic crisis, a global pandemic, climate change and racism. It may feel like an especially overwhelming, harsh world, but I would like to remind us that four years ago, when we entered college, our world was much the same. There was economic inequality, health crises, escalating climate change and deep-seated racism. For the past few months, away from our friends, our activities and the "Dartmouth Bubble" that shielded us from the outside world while on campus, many of us have come face-to-face with this reality.

We must acknowledge that most of us tend to ignore issues until they disrupt our own lives. While I know that many in the audience have been working to combat economic inequality, global health problems, climate change and racial injustice, I think that for the majority, it is much easier to prioritize immediate goals, like going to class or finishing a paper, until these large issues start impinging on our ability to complete our immediate goals. However, the communities that have suffered from inadequate healthcare, have been eroded by sea level rise or have lost loved ones to police brutality do not have the privilege of ignoring these issues. Now that we've all had the opportunity to get a good look at our reality, we must act on pressing social problems even if we personally do not feel their effects.

While we are all are wishing for normalcy, things cannot go back to how they were, and we shouldn't want them to. Dartmouth students, we must use our creativity, intelligence, and empathy to create a new normal that is more equitable to each other and to our planet. I realize that when most of us start thinking about how to fix economic inequality, public health crises, climate change or police brutality, we are paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge. I think a good place to start is by enacting change in ourselves, our communities, our workplaces and wherever we are headed after Dartmouth.

One small action we can take is mentoring and helping other people. It is my firm belief that helping other people stand taller only ever helps you and your community stand taller. But more importantly, taking the time to mentor, to share and to listen can have a profound impact on someone's life.

To provide a brief personal anecdote, I was profoundly impacted by one professor taking the time to mentor me for the past four years. During my first year at Dartmouth, I signed up for a mid-level biology course. On the first day of class, I came to the terrifying realization that graduate students were taking the course too. After class, I told the professor that I didn't think I belonged in her class. She told me that I did. I made it through the class, and she asked me to join her laboratory. I responded by saying that I didn't know how to write computer code to do the research. She assured me that she would help me learn. I learned how to code, won a Goldwater Scholarship for my research, and recently completed an honors thesis. This is just one example of a person helping another person who didn't believe in themselves as much as they should realize their potential. We must all strive to lift up every member of our society, especially those that don't believe in themselves, much like I didn't, or who do not have the platform to enact the change we all desire. The best way to lift each other up is to meet people exactly where they are without judgment and to offer them your time, your actions, your respect, and your willingness to listen.

An important and often overlooked part of lifting up our fellow humans involves knowing when to listen and when to speak up. I am speaking now as someone who consistently received comments on my high school report cards about not participating enough in class discussions. I didn't speak up because I always thought that what other people had to say was more important than what I had to say or worse, that my perspectives weren't welcome. If you are someone who thinks this, your thoughts probably need to be heard. If you are someone who doesn't think this very often, you probably should.

As demonstrated by recent events, there are people in our society who have things they want to say but struggle to have their voices heard. I urge us all to consider how often and how loudly we speak and then adjust accordingly. It is a challenge to recognize when to be loud, when to be quiet and when to be silent, but it is a challenge that we all need to take on.

I am so proud to be a member of the Dartmouth Class of 2020. My fellow classmates let's use our empathy, intelligence, and creativity to confront the issues that have plagued the world for too long. Let's reach out to others, provide support, mentorship and most of all, an opportunity for voices to be heard. Because when we empower each other, foster conversation, and demonstrate unity in the face of divisive issues, we help usher in a more caring and just world.

Thank you for listening.