May 27, 2007
The 2007 Senior Orations
Emily Underwood: “Holding Ground”
Emily Underwood of Coloma, Calif., delivered one of two senior orations to her classmates on Sunday, May 27, 2007, at 12:50 p.m. on The College Green. The text of her address, titled “Holding Ground,” follows here.
Last summer, in Wyoming, I learned where the phrase “out of the blue” comes from. When a thunderstorm is miles away, lightning strikes from what appears to be a clear blue sky.
I have no real plans after this graduation except to go back to Wyoming and work for the summer on backpacking trips. But the summer will end, and soon it will be fall again, and since Wyoming has even colder winters than Providence does, I imagine it will be time to move along again. I wonder where I’ll go, and where the Class of 2007 will have scattered. Personally, I have been supported by my parents in every version of my after-graduation plans except for one: “Don’t come home, sweetheart. You’ll chew your arm off.” This is both frightening and exciting: a bit like standing on an open plain and watching the thunderheads roll in.
Now, I understand that it’s an old tradition for the dean of Admissions to tell each incoming freshman class that it is the “best” that Brown has ever seen. I am a midyear transfer from a community college, so I missed that speech. I arrived at Brown in January, in the middle of a howling snowstorm, and orientation was cancelled. So I missed the part where they tell us how many high school valedictorians are in this class and by what margins we beat the odds to be accepted. I was left to figure out what makes Brown students special on my own.
I spent my first two weeks at Brown delirious with the flu, convinced that I had spinal meningitis. I didn’t know anybody for 3,000 miles, so I relied on my roommate, Dana, to bring back ginger ale and graham crackers and reassure me. Once I was on my feet again, I relied on many of you to show me how to brave the icy sidewalks, get to class. I don’t think I ever got a chance to really thank you for those acts of genuine mercy, so, thank you. You were my education about what makes Brown students “best.”
Four years ago, I had no idea I would ever come to Brown. In fact, four years ago I was washing dishes at Marco’s Café, in my hometown of Coloma, California. My hands were all pruned, and I was crying because I had just been informed, without much ceremony, that I was a terrible dishwasher. Unless I could be more efficient, and quit the daydreaming, a more qualified person would be found to take my place.
Stories like this have a typical arc: Once I went to community college, and worked as a dishwasher. Slowly, I worked my way from the ground up, to an Ivy League university. Today I stand before you with my ticket to a future of opportunity, a Brown diploma!
The problem is that, although this diploma tells me what I’ve accomplished, I have no clearer vision, today, of what the future holds than I did four years ago, staring into murky dishwater. Four years ago, when my ego was crushed by a few harsh words, I had no Ivy League diploma to reassure me that I was “the best” at anything. And yet, that moment of uncertainty and insecurity is one that I return to, because it grounds me.
Think of the ways we use this term. You can gain ground, lose ground, break ground, cover ground. You can cut the ground from under someone’s feet. A well-grounded argument is one based on solid evidence. A well-grounded person can weather ups and downs and keep her footing.
So how do we stay grounded?
In Wyoming, we had to get the kids under cover whenever a storm came in, even if the clouds were miles away. When we were out in open country, and a thunderstorm was looming, we made for groves of aspen.
If you’ve never seen an aspen tree, you should. They have small, heart-shaped, pendulous leaves that hang on slender stems. Whenever the slightest breeze starts up, the leaves shiver together, like the hairs on your forearm. It’s beautiful to watch. But aspen groves are not just beautiful; in an electrical storm, they provide shelter. We all know that lightning strikes the highest point, and we’ve all been told to stay away from trees in lightning storms. But an aspen grove is not just a group of individual trees. It is a single organism, connected at the roots. If the grove is struck by lightning, the charge gets distributed through the interconnected bodies of the trees, and loses its destructive power. The aspens form a ground.
For the last four years, this has been our aspen grove. There has been competition for resources. But there has also been a great deal of sheltering, support and love.
Before we scatter, I suggest we take a moment just to look around. Here are our best friends, our lovers, the people we met on the first day, the people we met 10 days ago and wish we could know longer. An infinite number of small, unremarkable acts has brought us to this celebration. This is our aspen grove. While we are all here, within an arm’s length, let’s decide that we will stay connected. If we can hold our ground, there will be no reason to fear what might come out of the blue.
Editors: Brown University has a fiber link television studio available for domestic and international live and taped interviews and maintains an ISDN line for radio interviews. For more information, call the Office of Media Relations at (401) 863-2476.