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Monday, Sept. 29, 2014

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2014 Valedictory Oration

2014 Valedictory Oration
Katherine Pogrebniak

Commencement
June 3, 2014 — As Prepared

Esteemed faculty, trustees, students, honored guests:

Welcome! Let me start off by saying to my fellow classmates that I have some bad news. I know we have all been in denial, but I just heard it from President Eisgruber himself that the faculty and administration are kicking us out! I know, we could protest by staging a sit-in (oops … looks like we may already be doing that). Oh, or we could try yelling and screaming (I have heard a lot of that over the last few days) but alas I am sad to say, I believe all our attempts would be futile. Instead I say with a heavy heart … go change your identity and apply to the Class of 2018! It would be even more fun the second time around (you would know this time to completely avoid organic chemistry) and maybe, if you are lucky, grade deflation will be only referred to as something that happened at Princeton a looong time ago!

It has been said that most people do not remember much from these types of speeches. I took great comfort in that thought when preparing this, but on the outside chance that you are the exception — because of course, we all know Princeton students are … exceptional — I will share with you a few thoughts.

The pursuit of answers — that is what education is about, right? In mathematics it is called "solving for the unknown." Yes, a mathematical term which in its purest form involves plugging in a number for X that solves an equation ... pretty simple really. In fact, when we first learn these types of equations, there is always an answer for X, always a solution. Later we learn that some equations in fact do not have an easy solution, and some have no solution at all. There are so many unknowns in life. If only finding the answers to life's challenges and questions were as easy as plugging in a number, but just as with solving mathematical equations, life is not that simple. Finding the answers to life's challenges often eludes us. That does not mean that we should not try, because often we surprise ourselves.

Speaking of the unknown, I am sure you all can remember starting our journey here at Princeton. My journey actually started my senior year in high school when I took a computer science course. As a high school student who liked to spend her Saturdays at the beach or at the mall, this seemed like a big risk. Not only was I worried about the course material being too challenging, I didn't fit the mold of who I thought a computer scientist should be. I was the only female in my class, and to be honest, I felt like I hid behind my computer more than I ever used it. Everything in the class seemed foreign to me, right down to the programming language that we were learning. It was a steep educational curve, and all I could do was hang on for dear life!

When I came to Princeton, I wish I could say I had one of those epiphany experiences when Steve Jobs comes down from heaven and points me to the Computer Science Building, but alas it did not happen that way! So, perhaps like many of you, when I came in as a freshman, I realized that I had no prospective career path and I wondered whether the admissions office had made a mistake. Looking around at my fellow classmates, I found that unlike them, I didn't speak fluent Arabic, I couldn't play a flawless Concerto in E Minor, and I couldn't solve a Rubik's cube in under seven seconds. In other words, my major choices appeared limited. Looking at the course openings, I saw that there were spots left in the introductory computer science course, so I figured I would give it a try.

As it turned out, computer science worked out pretty well for me. That is not to say there were not tears, some Saturday nights I spent with only my computer, and doubt. Would I ever be able to handle the upper-level classes? In the end, I took a risk and I am glad I did. When I finally get a piece of code working, I can't take the smile off my face! I also enjoy knowing that there is always a better, faster way to write the code, so I am never really done, and it can always be improved. Not only have I enjoyed the challenge, but I also believe that computers will be critical in solving a wide array of problems faced by society, whether curing diseases such as cancer, bringing education to developing nations, or helping you Gchat with your friend who is 10 feet away.

I am a computer science major, but I am also a mathematician using numerical methods to solve complex differential equations, an artist using creativity to see problems in a new light, a historian learning from my previous mistakes, and an English major looking for incorrect syntax in code. This isn't just true for computer science majors. Whether a geosciences major, a classics major or an economics major, thanks to Princeton, we are all so much more.

While we have had to make some important choices over the past few years, we will have many, probably even more challenging decisions once we walk out those gates. We can't be afraid to take a risk and to reach for the unknown but rewarding choice. Our own President Eisgruber majored in physics here as an undergraduate and now specializes in constitutional law. So I guess you can still be successful if you change you mind after college. Princeton has given us the knowledge and self-confidence to be trailblazers, and now it is up to us to find a new path.

Looking out at the audience, I am reminded to thank all of the parents, grandparents, relatives and friends of today's graduates. With children there is an element of the unknown. For those of us that are familiar with Legos, children do not come with a set of instructions that can be followed piece by piece resulting in the picture on the outside of a box. Instead, you took an active role in shaping us into the people we are today. You believed in us, supporting and guiding us toward our dreams and goals. For that, you should take great pride and know that we, the Class of 2014, will always be eternally grateful to you. This is your day as much as it is ours!

OK, I guess our departure from Princeton is being thrust upon us. We have no other choice but to walk out the gates together as a class, just as we entered them four short years ago. As we leave the orange bubble, we will have a few adjustments to get used to: First off, we will have to do our laundry more than once a month since the steady supply of new Princeton T-shirts is going to decline drastically. Unless you are going to Google or grad school, free food will also be harder to come by. Most importantly, we will enter into the obscure, yet spirited realm of Princeton alumni. "Going back to Nassau Hall" won't just be words in a song, they will be our motto by which we count the days until Reunions. And with that, I will say goodbye Class of 2014, but not for long — see you again in 359 days!

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