Reflections on Graduation II

By Collin Stevenson

I remember Karen, a New Orleans homeowner I met my freshman year.  Our team of volunteers had completely gutted her home.  Her stolid countenance stubbornly fought back tears as her elderly frame climbed the van-sized mound of gutted debris.  She stood atop ruined baby photo albums, wedding and prom dresses, appliances, everything that fills a home… and she posed for a picture.

My camera immortalized a proud and tenacious smile that refused to show signs of discouragement.  She was defiant in the face of tragedy, determined to rebuild her home, and dedicated to her community.  Gone were all of her material possessions, but what was left is the only thing I’ve discovered to truly matter: human relationships—with her family, friends, neighbors, a group of student volunteers, and now you, the reader—that in part define who she is and how she affects the world around her.  These things are waterproof.

We will all experience our personal Katrina—a personal tribulation that reminds us all of what is important.  Ask yourself: When the waters wrest everything you thought you knew out from under you, are your foundations strong? Will they hold?

In New Orleans, I’ve found the answer to be a resounding yes from homeowners dedicated to their community.

Looking around this university, I see my peers about to enter uncertain futures and unstable, withered job markets.  I see students awake to global and domestic issues of poverty, crime, education disparity, genocide, financial turmoil, religious intolerance, and healthcare; poised to tackle some of the most difficult questions on these issues.  I see veterans and recently commissioned officers among us, having served or serving in times ripe with conflict and riddled with those who seek to do us harm.

But when thinking about commencement—the culmination of our accomplishments; I see a burning pride, a passionate hope, and a warm optimism that I challenge you to never let fade, no matter how cold the rising waters.  Trust in yourselves.  Hold strong to those around you.

Karen’s story is but one of hundreds of thousands.  Four years later, hope for a city rebuilt stronger than before the storm rings loud in a ceaseless chorus of hammer strikes heard throughout any given day.  While there is still much to do in the Crescent City, despair has long since receded with the floor waters.  It is hope that remains.

I’ve found the best means through which to build the strongest foundations of community and relationships is service, and Karen is but one example of my many sources of strength.  I beseech you too, to find service a place in your life.

Know that the problems are many and the need is vast, but never become discouraged.  Through service you may not be able to change the world, but you will change the lives of all those you include in yours.

On a frigid January 20, just a few months ago, our President’s promise to lead us out of a cold winter and his charge to “endure what storms may come” echoed off the walls of those timeless monuments that border our campus.

Through service I’ve come to understand that hope is not simply a word based in naivety, it is a driving force. I’ve realized relationships are far more than a comforting luxury, they are a necessary definition of self.  Remember this.  Never surrender your youthful optimism, commit to strengthening your relationships with others, and through service build those foundations that make us who we are and define what we are in the world… and we will make it through this storm, we will make it through the next storm, and any storm for years to come.

Collin is a graduating cross-country athlete with a degree in International Affairs and will be commissioning into the U.S. Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant, where he will work in Intelligence.  He is deferring his military commitment to accept the Presidential Administrative Fellowship and will be studying at the Elliott School for a Masters of Arts in International Affairs with a concentration in Middle East Studies.

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