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July 6, 2005:

2005 Valedictory Oration: ‘The best of what I’ve learned’

By Varun K. Phadke ’05

It is in the nature of the valedictory address to be trite, pontifical and uncompromisingly dull. So, before I begin, let me warn you that I have some tough acts to follow. However, let me also assure you that my speech is in English (and that I did not forget it on my bathtub).

A week and a half ago, I submitted the first draft of this speech to the Office of the President. Within one day I had a response. What was the chief complaint? Namely, that I was not “serious” enough. This begs the question: What exactly does it mean to be serious?

For example, speaking of seriousness, we just heard some thoroughly lucid and timely remarks from the salutatorian on the Second Punic War. I don't know about you, but I found the allusions to Vergil and Horace to be especially illuminating. (That was not a joke.)

Similarly, Princeton is so serious that during our four years here, we witnessed and participated in a campuswide intellectual debate about the lack of intellectualism on campus.

Finally, Princeton is so serious that the night before Commencement, it holds a senior prom until 1 a.m. that serves unlimited quantities of free alcohol.

In all seriousness, though, it is important to be serious – sometimes. But that does not mean we should be uninteresting. It is just as important, if not more so, to be able to laugh at ourselves. For one, it allows us to better appreciate our own inadequacies. Take me, for example. Why am I delivering the valedictory address? Indeed, this was the first question that came to my mind when Dean Williams informed me of this news. Being a good neurobiologist, as some have referred to me, I approached this question scientifically.

First, I made a rather curious observation. President Tilghman is a molecular biologist. So am I. And so were the last two valedictorians. Now of course, as we all know, correlation does not imply causation. But as they say in our business, these findings merit further study.

My second insight was also quite reasonable. I am confident that I speak on behalf of all my classmates when I say that if there is one skill I have learned from my time at Princeton, and especially from that time-honored institution that is the Princeton precept, it is the ability to appear like you know what you’re doing, without actually knowing what you’re doing. And so, apparently, because I have the honor of speaking before you today, this is something that I am fantastically good at.

Being able to laugh at ourselves is also important because as much as the PDF standard belies this fact, we will all one day experience failure, or at the very least, a “D.” Yes, in life. Indeed, being a scientist-in-training means that I am extraordinarily well versed in total and utter failure.

Experiments are rarely, if ever, successful. And as hard as it is to believe, data is frighteningly hard to come by. Of the 12 weeks I worked on one particular biochemistry project, 11 were spent just getting things to work. I also especially enjoyed collecting all the data for my senior thesis in one week, four weeks before it was due. I have never slept that little in my entire life, excluding, of course, this past week.

In any case, if one takes into account the near-impossibility of successful experimental work, sometimes you just have to wonder if scientific publications were created simply to celebrate the few wondrous times that something actually works. In fact, some other more qualified, but equally unfortunate, victims of bad luck have even suggested starting a journal that publishes exclusively negative results. Think about that for a second. A journal devoted to experiments that failed. Based on this proposal alone, I must say, to those of us going into scientific careers, the future looks exceptionally bright.

Ultimately, we will all make mistakes or meet failure at some point or another, whether in the laboratory, or the office, or the classroom, or on stage, in front of 6,000 people. For instance, the collective typos from all our theses could, in all likelihood, be compiled into an entirely new thesis. How else are we to survive these and other far less serious mistakes if we don’t stop to laugh at ourselves? By bringing a refreshed sense of humor to work every day, we not only will have more fun, but we are more willing to try the hardest things again and again.

Finally, perhaps the most important benefit of being able to laugh at oneself is the willingness to accept criticism and advice. Indeed, given the quality and spirit of this particular speech, this consequence is particularly apt. The simple truth is that we are all equally qualified to deliver this particular address, and I wish all of you could share with me this opportunity to speak one last time beneath the gaze of Old Nassau. I know this partly because virtually every conversation I’ve had in the past month has started: “You know what you should say in your speech?”

But more importantly, I know this because there are things that you learn from your classmates and friends that you will not find in any classroom on this campus. This is the Princeton education you don’t read about in the admissions viewbook, and the education for which no degrees will be conferred today. But it is no less important. For this reason, I have collected the best of what I’ve learned – some of it just in the last few weeks, and some of it in, let’s say, less than “valedictory” circumstances – and decided to share it with all of you.

So, what choice words of wisdom do I have from and for the great Class of 2005? Let’s see:

First, don’t be nervous. Remember, it could always be worse. For example, in my case, all the Nobel laureates could be here.

Appreciate simple things. Like birds. Before my thesis I knew nothing about them. I still don’t, but I would like to.

Life’s too short to hold grudges or to be in a bad mood. Besides, there are few things as pleasant as seeing that those around you are happy.

Always be willing to help your friends. One day you will need their help. As for your enemies, you have two choices: Try not to make any, or, if that proves difficult, help them anyway. Just not willingly.

(Finally, and perhaps most importantly, always be genuine. Even when you need to be serious, you need to be yourself.)

In closing, allow me to perform the duty actually required of the valedictorian. In fact, being the conscientious but non-Latin-speaking individual that I am, after Dean Williams broke the news to me, I went home and looked up what “valedictorian” actually meant. According to my sources, the valedictorian is the student chosen to bid farewell on behalf of the graduating class. Leaving aside self-deprecation for the time being, I know for a fact that this is something I cannot do. As President Tilghman said yesterday, today we may be graduating, but we will never truly leave Princeton. Therefore, I cannot honestly say farewell. The best I can do is to say: Classmates, teachers, friends – until we meet again.

Congratulations, Class of 2005. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

Valedictorian Varun K. Phadke’05, a molecular biology major, is from Syracuse, N.Y.