Commencement 2018 Student Speaker: Jepté Vergara Benitez ’16

Class of 1868 Prize Winner Jepté Vergara-Benitez ‘16 delivered the address “Believe in Yourself. The World is Waiting.” at Bowdoin’s 213th Commencement May 26, 2018.

President Rose, Members of the College, and Guests,

Jepté Vergara Benitez ’16

Vergara Benitez, a Hispanic studies major, is a native of the Lone Star State—“born and raised in Austin, Texas” he is quick to say—he claims that Maine winters have made him a stronger person.

A new ability to adapt to the cold may be one thing he takes away from his time at Bowdoin, but Vergara Benitez says that one of the greatest gifts he received here was the opportunity to contribute to Professor Hadley Horch’s neuroscience research through fellowship grants, first with a Lowy Neuroscience Summer Fellowship and then through a Bowdoin Life Sciences Fellowship. In his work with Professor Horch, he executed immunohistochemistry protocols on crickets’ multiple auditory organs to localize synapses sites. He describes Professor Horch as “the embodiment of Bowdoin’s high teaching standards: the idea that professors should care about their students’ success.” He also says that working with her “taught me to seriously execute seemingly small instructions with care”—a useful skill for any future endeavor!

In 2015, Vergara Benitez was granted an internship at the Mexican consulate in Austin, during some time away from Bowdoin. At the consulate he learned about Mexican foreign policy while working at the department of legal protection, and, beginning in 2017, he served as a full-time legislative aide for Texas House Representative Armando Martinez, who represents District 39, encompassing communities of the Rio Grande Valley, a region along the Texas-Mexico border. That work, Vergara Benitez says, “had an intensity to it, and sparked within me my own passion for government work.” Because of that spark, he hopes to work for a state agency in Austin, the Texas state capitol, after graduation.

With pleasure and with gratitude I am happy to share a message before an esteemed group of Bowdoin students, the Class of 2018.

Proudly we will proclaim our names as Bowdoin graduates. We persisted in our goal to reach this wonderful commencement ceremony. Perhaps there was a time, years before we dressed in our regalia this morning, when we faced various obstacles on this campus; it could be that we were challenged to question and evaluate standards we were used to; there might have been times when the rigors of the intellectual spirit alive on this campus seemed too stressful for us to master. In addition to the academic challenges, problems outside the Bowdoin bubble might also have been testing our strengths. Reflecting on how far we have come since our early days as new, enthusiastic Bowdoin students, we should be proud of how intensely we believed in ourselves—of our ability to stay focused as we wrestled to overcome our obstacles.

We might be tempted to assume that our Bowdoin degrees are solely the result of our own sacrifices. But I propose that we look at our success in another way. There is a Mexican proverb that says “El que a buen arbol se arrima, buena sombra le acobija” (the better the tree you find, the better the shade it provides). This proverb not only reminds us to appreciate the beauty of the environment, but also the importance of a supportive foundation. The strongly rooted tree shelters us in times of need; the good, refreshing shade made by the tree’s healthy branches heals us.

I know Bowdoin was my good tree—it gave me protection, even when I had to pause my undergraduate studies for some time. Perhaps some of you can relate to my experience. My time at Bowdoin was not always a walk in the park—I had my ups and downs. I know what it feels like to believe foolishly that your admission to Bowdoin was a mistake. Maybe some of you felt without a purpose while at Bowdoin—I know I did at times, and that emptiness affected my performance. During the times when I felt I was being tested, Bowdoin’s professors, deans, and counselors were on my side as I kept on moving forward, overcoming my obstacles; when I received the amazing support Bowdoin gave me, I clearly saw that I belonged here, so that I could celebrate this day with you. I am forever grateful for Bowdoin’s commitment to its students, and I am honored that I got to be part of such a warm community—I am grateful to have been sheltered by the shade of Bowdoin’s academic pines, as Nathaniel Hawthorne called them.

The Bowdoin community worked hard so that we could enjoy our success today. Whether at Hubbard Hall, Riley House, or at Searles Science Building, intellectually rich professors, talented at exciting us about a particular subject, extended their work far after classroom hours so that we could get a little smarter and gain deeper understanding. After walking up that grand staircase to the second floor of Moulton Union, we met with deans who cared about our success and who helped us reach solutions seemingly far beyond our grasp. Counselors at 32 College Street helped us find peace in times that felt chaotic. And our well-being was enhanced by all the colors we absorbed from this beautiful campus—the Bowdoin beauty created by hard-working groundskeepers and cleaning crews. We are so grateful to our Bowdoin community for helping us grow. This is what makes Bowdoin so special: the cooperative effort that sustains us all.

Those who have helped us also include many beyond the Bowdoin community. Parents, guardians, and mentors, you reminded us to move forward – you reminded us that we could do it. I will forever be indebted to my parents. I recognize how their choice to enter boldly into the American way of life made it possible for me to stand here today. In the early nineties, my father and mother, while carrying my small brother, faced that flowing and intimidating Rio Grande River at night. That night, my family looked towards Texas; behind them was the motherland: México; they made the hard decision to leave the life they understood to touch US soil; crossing the southern border, my parents prayed that the risk they were taking was worth it. Obstacles in Texas awaited them: unemployment, little money or food, and hardships in moments when America was not as welcoming as they had hoped; yet ever since they settled on Texan land my parents have pressed forward, creating opportunities for my brother and me. There was a good chance we could have ended up homeless, yet my parents worked hard to save money and purchase affordable housing on the east side of Austin; and because of the money from my mom’s breakfast taco sales and my father’s modest salary, my brother and I had enough school supplies to make it through each school year. My parents kept my brother and me in check—so that we could reach our potential in school, so that I could become a Bowdoin graduate. And so I would like to take this moment to say: Gracias Papá. Gracias Mama. Gracias Hermano.

We are all blessed in many different ways to have parents, guardians, and mentors who have enabled us to make this moment a reality despite obstacles that seemed insurmountable. Humbly, let us all direct our attention to our loved ones now and say: Thank you.

Of course, it is not only during times of trial that we rely on our community, but also during our best moments. As early as my orientation, the Bowdoin Science Experience, I felt the warm sense of camaraderie that I have come to associate with being on campus. In between and during our science experiments we could not stop laughing. I still cherish the friendships that began during those first few days. Throughout my time here, I have benefited from the guidance of wonderful professors, from the work I did in Hadley Horch’s neuroscience lab to the physics that Dale Syphers taught me in private. When I look back over my time at Bowdoin, it is filled with episodes of joy. For instance, late night pub meals with friends stressing about a problem-set suddenly became more about the delicious fajita fries; and during the historic October power outage we again relied on delicious food from Dining Services and the companionship of each other  to make us feel better as we felt the force of mother nature. Through moments like these we persevered, and strengthened our bonds with one another.

We are about to leave Bowdoin. We have gained important knowledge and skills, including what it takes to live up to our responsibilities to others. Bowdoin has taught us to work toward the Common Good, together. Now it is our turn to help others, just as others have helped us. We will meet new people in need, discover new problems to be solved. So long as people are grief-stricken after disease has taken the life of a loved one, so as long as people are persecuted and harassed just because they speak out against the evils of their society, so long as people are not given access to essential resources, so long as this country and the rest of the world are haunted by wrongs of the past, we must step up to the challenge. We must move forward with determination, to inspire hope for a brighter future. Inspired by the generosity of Bowdoin, let us with grace and courage inspire resilience within people so that they can win their battles. Our success in changing lives for the better will require a lot of hard work. Regardless of how hard it seems, we cannot back down.

The lessons, the importance of community, and the perseverance we have taken to heart at Bowdoin must forever remain part of our character.

Thank you so very much. Congratulations.

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