Lee Zalben ’95
It is a great honor to be asked to return to Vassar as an alum to take part in a tradition like Convocation. As I stand here today, exactly fifteen years after the Spring Convocation of my senior year, I can’t help but remember sitting out there, where all of you are now, wondering if I would make a big enough name for myself in the world that I might one day be asked to come back to campus and make this very speech. I can assure you that back then the “big name” I had in mind was not “The Peanut Butter Guy” – but I suppose that moniker has served me well enough today.
There are four different kinds of peanuts grown in the United States – Runners, Virginias, Spanish, and Valencias. But most people don’t know that. To most people, a peanut is just a peanut.
And some people think that way about colleges. That one school is no different from all the rest. But you and I – we know better. We know that this college, this school, this campus is different. We know that there is a special philosophy about learning here, and that combined with our distinctive history, uniquely shapes everyone that passes through these halls. We know that the debate is often more important than who wins. We know that questions that aren’t easily answered are usually the most important to tackle. And that answers that don’t fit into neat little boxes are many times the truest of them all.
George Washington Carver, a man who has inspired me in a number of ways throughout my life, once said:
“There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation -- veneer isn't worth anything.”
I’m here to tell you that a Vassar liberal arts education is thorough preparation – perhaps the most thorough preparation one can have for life.
But there may be times when this will not seem to be the case. I remember several weeks after my Commencement, I had my own crisis of confidence. I was interviewing for jobs and competing with people whose degrees conveniently featured their prospective industry on their diploma. How easy it was for them to explain how an Advertising major would fit in at an advertising agency. As an Urban Studies major trying to get a job in publishing, I had a lot of explaining to do in my interviews. For a few weeks I was disheartened. But then I hit my stride. I learned how to talk about my Vassar education; how my multidisciplinary major taught me to examine complex problems from economic, sociological, and political points of view. My education was not in the subject matter I studied – it was in the studying.
For we are more than just the sum of our lectures and our books. Think about it this way:
Two people sit at a table with sandwiches in front of them. Whole wheat bread. Crunchy peanut butter. Apricot preserves. One takes a bite and tastes the peanut butter and the jelly. The other takes a bite and has a different experience. They taste a PB&J. The PB&J is not just two spreads on bread. The PB&J is the sum of their childhood - playing dodge ball in the school yard, picnics in the park with grandparents, lunchboxes toted to school. The PB&J is transformative.
There’s a certain alchemy to a liberal arts education. We emerge from it different than when we started. And the change is more than just in the facts we carry around in our heads. The change is in our worldview. It is profound and fundamental. It is the beginning of a lifelong journey of exploration and self discovery. It is the most thorough preparation you could have had for what lies ahead.
As I was driving here this afternoon, I was besieged with memories – things I hadn’t thought about in years:
I know that right now, with your eyes so fixed on the future, so focused on what comes next, that this might sound rather sentimental. But in the next few weeks take note of the things you love most about this place. Years from now, I promise you, it will be thoughts like these, glimpses of your time spent here, that will be some of your most precious memories, and they’ll resonate with you for the rest of your lives.
I came today to present you, the Class of 2010 with your Class Banner. What do you need a banner for? Well, you can’t march in the parade of classes at reunion without it! And this foreshadows the change in your role in the Vassar community that’s coming. In a few short weeks, you will go from being students to being alums, and in doing so you will be joining a very exclusive club.
There are approximately 36,000 living Vassar alums. When you consider that there are over 307 million people living in the US, we’re just one-one-hundredths of one percent of the population of the population. A small, rare, and wondrous group of people.
With the exception of the 43 Facebook friend requests I’ve gotten from all of you in the last week, we haven’t met before. But we’re family. Think of me as that long lost older cousin, a distant relation, several times removed. But we’re connected by the steely thread of shared experience. Of spending 4 years at this place. This beautiful, incredible, insanely challenging place, where the bar is always set high so that we are forced to strive – not to be better than anyone else – but to be the best that we can be.
You’ll be newbies, all of you, to this post collegiate life. And you’ll all need help. No matter how smart you are or how much money you’ve got, no matter how much you think you have it all figured out, you’ll need help at some point. And that’s ok. That’s what alums are for.
We’ve been there. We’ve struggled with the tininess of first apartments and the monotony of first jobs. We’ve weathered broken hearts, roommates that don’t pay their share of the rent, layoffs when you least expect it – you name it – it’s happened to us. And we’re here to share whatever wisdom we’ve gleaned from these experiences with you. I’d hate to be responsible for instilling a sense of entitlement in anyone, but it is your right to mine that AAVC database for all it’s worth.
Some pointers: Be prepared. Know who you’re talking to. Be honest about the kind of help you need. Be on time. And send a thank you note afterwards. Manners count, after all.
As alums, we want to see you succeed. We take pride in your accomplishments and in helping you reach your goals. Being there for you reconnects us to this place and to this time in our lives. You might not understand now, but several years from now, when someone from the Class of 2018 reaches out to you for some advice, you’ll know what I mean.
In the tradition of the class banner presenters who came before me, I will give you my email address. If you need help, advice, or someone to bounce an idea off of, I will try to be of assistance to you in any way that I can.
But I’m not going to leave you with just words today. I’ve brought a jar of peanut butter for each of you, to get you started on the nutty road ahead.
Good luck to you all. I wish you lives full of good health and much happiness. And may you all make such big names for yourselves in the world that you’re all asked to come back and make this presentation one day.
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