Baccalaureate 2015 Student Address: Robert Feeney ’15 on ‘The Pursuit of Respect’

Robert Feeney ’15, DeAlva Standwood Alexander First Prize winner, delivered the address, “Evolving with Empathy,” at Bowdoin’s Baccalaureate ceremony held Friday, May 22, 2015.

President Mills, Members of the College, and Guests,

As an English major about to graduate from Bowdoin College, I vow to you that this speech was written in 12-point font, double-spaced, with standard margins. The word count is a comfortable 1,330, a number astoundingly almost three times our graduating class size. Now, I would have opted to make this experience more interactive by having each graduating senior hold two or more words in each hand, but I was advised that the paper and ink needed would endanger Bowdoin’s pledge of carbon neutrality by the year 2020. So, I’ve decided to take a more traditional route.

Robert Feeney '15

Robert Feeney ’15

We, the Class of 2015, are comprised of around 475 graduating students. Truth be told, I’m certain I could name 95% of you. That’s roughly 451, and one quarter, students. And to the remaining 23 and three quarters of you, I’m pretty busy this week, but let’s definitely get a meal.

To say the least, there’s no such thing as an unfamiliar face at Bowdoin. While visitors might find this daunting, there’s a charm about our small campus, and about our small student body. It’s just that—that what we are, is a body of students: multiple cells and vital organs, all of us important and integral elements of our larger system.

Each of us with different backgrounds, different strengths, different objectives; but all of us similar in the fact that for four years we have walked the same paths, worked in the same places, weathered the same storms, weathered more storms, and silently but unanimously wished for the same peace of mind and knowledge. Knowledge of where we’re going to end up, of how to make sure we’re happy with ourselves; and questions we all share, such as: what exactly is that brick building next to Thorne? Just so you know, it’s called Jewett Hall; IT works there, and you were definitely not alone.

This small and tight knit community we’ve come to foster here at Bowdoin gives us all an undeniable sense of comfort. Take, for example, the fact that most of us here reserve our seats on campus by leaving behind our phone. This may seem absurd to many of you; but to us, we feel the same way leaving our purse or wallet on the kitchen counter at home as we do leaving it on an empty table here in a room of 600 people. Because from day one at Bowdoin, above all things, we’ve learned to respect our peers; and in a world of respect, there is always trust. We have lived in one of the safest, most trusting environments for four years, but our time has come to move onward. Onward into a world where it’s wise not to leave your valuables unattended, and where so often the initial human instinct is distrust rather than trust.

Pre-Commencement Thoughts, by This Year’s Student Speakers from Bowdoin College on Vimeo.

The world-renowned physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking was quoted earlier this year saying that the human trait most dangerous to the modern world, and to the future of humankind is aggression. Aggression was once a necessary tool for human survival: in a fight for food, shelter, or a mate, aggression allowed for the survival of the fittest and most competitive individuals. And yet, our world has changed. We eat food from fully stocked buffets, we compete for matches on Tinder; and for most of us, the fight for a place to live will be a gory battle against returning to our permanent mailing address. We live in a world of instant gratification, a world of abundance rather than scarcity. For the most part, aggression has become superfluous. Yet despite all of this, despite the fact that we as humans no longer need to fight one another to survive, aggression has not escaped us. While we’d be hard-pressed and appalled to find a group of modern humans clubbing one another over a deer carcass, we are not shocked to see modern humans fighting over words, over beliefs, or over a free stand-up mixer on Black Friday. The very nature of aggression has evolved with us, not to guarantee our survival, but to combat the things and people we fail to trust. Aggression towards others is therefore nothing less than a lack of respect, a lack of empathy, and a lack of mutual understanding.

DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Prize Winner Robert Feeney ’15

Robert Feeney ’15 has studied French, German, Italian and Japanese, and he plans to start learning Mandarin Chinese this summer.

Next year he has a fellowship to teach English in France, at the University of Western Brittany.

Over his four years at Bowdoin, Feeney has taken classes in 15 subjects, making a meandering journey through several majors.

He came to Bowdoin wanting to be a math major, but he decided to major instead in Romance languages. Then he switched to Asian studies, then to English, then back to math. Finally, he stopped at English (which he decided on just last fall).

His most memorable class at Bowdoin was his senior English seminar with professor Aviva Briefel, where he discovered his love for the works of Oscar Wilde. But a runner-up favorite was when he fashioned his own quill from a peacock feather, and wrote a sonnet with it, for professor William Watterson’s Shakespeare class.

When Feeney is not conversing in one of the many languages he speaks or scribbling with his quill, he loves to play the piano, bake and cook.

So, the age-old question: how can we change our world for the better? How do we, the several hundred fundamentally different yet astoundingly similar individuals sitting here today, how do we make the world more like the dining hall at Bowdoin—where Patty or Norma greets you with a smile, no one leaves hungry, and no one gets hurt in the process? How do we propagate respect and understanding, and how do we resolve our pandemic of aggression?

Fortunately, we of the Class of 2015 are prepared. We are open-minded. We respect each other. That’s not to say we aren’t aggressive—even at Bowdoin, we have fought one another for scholarships, fellowships, positions of power, and class of 2015 sweatshirts (by the way, I still never got my quarter-zip). Being at an elite liberal arts school has had unique benefits unavailable elsewhere: we’ve been exposed to a microcosm of the outside world, and we’ve learned to respect one another not in spite of, but because of our differences. So, when I say we are also aggressive, what I mean is that we are determined with ourselves and our convictions. We push ourselves to break boundaries, to make breakthroughs, to start dialogues, and to ask questions. We strive to be the best.

As a class, we desire few things more than to be successful in what we do. Whether this success comes in the form of a paycheck, a family, fame, or happiness, we are willing to make sacrifices to achieve our goals and aspirations. The fact that we all chose Bowdoin proves that we have vision, just as the fact that we are sitting here today proves that we have the drive and perseverance we need to ensure our own success. Yet while we are a class of individuals, we must never act as though our success is entirely our own. Each and every one of us has succeeded at Bowdoin due to the guidance, generosity, and respect of others—our lives, from beginning to end, are dependent on family members, friends, mentors, donors, professors, and others. So as each of us sets off on a different path, we must always take the time to acknowledge and appreciate these people who have helped us, and those who continue to help us along the way.

So I’ll present this challenge to each and every one of you here today, and particularly to my fellow adults of the Class of 2015. While human aggression has the ability to endanger our society, we have the opportunity to appreciate the world we live, in and the diversities of thought, culture, and experience that enrich it. To achieve greatness in this world, value not only your own happiness, but also the happiness of others. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “the most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” Strive every day to respect others for who they are, and you will grow to see your successes not in the darkness of fear and solitude, but in the light of trust and community. To respect is to treat one another not with aggression, but with an understanding—of our similarities, of our differences, and of our shared desires for happiness. This understanding is both the opposite of, and the solution to, our world’s aggression; it is the glue capable of binding us together not only as a Bowdoin community, but as a global society. Be deliberate in your pursuit of success, but even more so in the pursuit of respect. Only then may we achieve success as individuals, and success as a generation. So congratulations, Class of 2015, and thank you.

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