2015 Valedictory Oration

2015 Valedictory Oration

Misha Semenov


June 2, 2015 — As Prepared

"It's not true," author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote, "that people stop pursuing their dreams because they get old; they get old because they stop pursuing their dreams." As we walk out of FitzRandolph Gate, supposedly on the path to becoming full-fledged, independent adults, it may seem odd for me to encourage the Great Class of 2015 to never grow up, but I'm convinced that it is the most important advice I can offer today.

You see, it turns out that unlike the brains of our closest primate relatives, ours retain more or less their infant shape throughout our lives. Humans are hardwired to be lifelong learners, open to new experiences and endless play. 

Think back to your childhood. What gave you joy and excitement? Singing or listening to music? Gazing in wonder at a growing plant? Studying a car engine? For me, it was exploring my hometown of San Francisco and sketching fantasy cities for hours on end; nobody encouraged it, it just happened. It was like the attraction of the earth to the sun, and I followed it blindly. As children, we had the freedom to spend hours playing and exploring, the open-mindedness to admire small details we’d gloss over today, and the lack of restraint to ask questions and let loose emotions we would later repress. 

Now, if you think about it, hasn’t our orange bubble offered a continuation of that child-like existence? For the last four years, our daily needs have been taken care of, allowing us to fully dedicate our minds and hearts to playing with the passions we began developing as kids. But Princeton is a very special kind of kindergarten. The other day, I paused to read a poem carved over the entrance to McCosh 50, by an H.E. Milrow from the Great Class of 1914: "Here we were taught by men and gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die." As I stood there in the company of those same gothic towers, I thought about my own time here and realized that my biggest aha moments had come when I discovered that my childhood passion of architecture had a relationship with bigger "unseen things," that a building could be made to embody democracy, that a city could have its own ecology. In whatever field each of us has pursued, Princeton has layered onto our childhood perceptiveness the ability to appreciate and love the unseen, whether it’s a cure for a rare disease in the elegant structure of a protein or the deep beauty and significance of a complex theme in a musical composition.

This ability to walk around the world with the open eyes of a child and the analytic capacity of a scholar is something that, invoking my mother tongue of Russian, I’d call chuvstvitelnost, a word that means something in between perceptiveness and sensitivity. Science writer Brian Swimme explains that "the universe is your teacher, the forests are your teachers. You will know when you fail to learn, for failure is punished with boredom. If you develop even the least flicker of sensitivity, the universe will come alive within you." We've read dozens of textbooks in our time here, but the greatest takeaway of all is the ability to now use the entire real world we are about to enter as our textbook, to perceive both the seen and the unseen, the beauty and significance, the interrelationships and discourses, in everything that surrounds us, to never be bored. I know I will never walk through a city the same way again, for every column and arch is now imbued with meaning. Having chuvstvitelnost is not about being "smart"; it's about connecting intelligence to something deeper, to the fundamental instincts a child uses to explore the world.

The interactions this sensitivity enables are never unidirectional. After you learn from the forest, Swimme writes, "there will no longer be the self that approached the forest, for you will be new, you will bear the presence of the forest with you." It reminds me of what Chapel Choir director Penna Rose tells us, that "when you sing in a space, you embed the sound forever in the stones." I'd add that the space becomes a part of you, too. Our interactions with people, things, institutions are always exchanges: you leave part of yourself in them, and they give something back to you, just as we’ve left part of ourselves in Princeton, and Princeton is now part of us. And that’s why the chuvstvistelnost we’ve honed here is so powerful, because it lets us change the world by learning from it, playing with it, engaging with it, and the more we give, the more we get. 

But play is only one side of childhood.  The other side is a candid openness, and the vulnerability that goes with it.  And this offers a further lesson: that if we desire to give and get the most we can in every interaction, to heal others, to heal this broken world, we need to be our full, vulnerable, open selves, the children within. Rather than hide from our pent-up fears, our insecurities, our idiosyncrasies, we must express and accept them, not as imperfections but as part of the unique story we share every time we touch someone or something with our power of sensitivity. This is a difficult task for Princetonians who have been taught to hide behind grown-up facades of perfection and compete for so-called "success." Yet only when we redefine our notion of "success" to include a childlike love—for ourselves, for our passions, for those “unseen things”—can we rightly use this gift of sensitivity, which is such a privilege to possess.

And it is indeed a privilege few have to remain a child at twenty-two, to be able to focus on those "unseen things" and bigger pictures instead of getting caught in the minutiae of life. I may have been named valedictorian of this class, but all of us are the valedictorians of the world, so to speak, some of the most intelligent—and fortunate—people alive. Even as we celebrate our accomplishments, we must begin a lifelong journey of applying our chustvitelnost and childlike openness to our everyday interactions, sharing the gifts we have been given with others, with those who were forced to grow up too soon, with those who helped make possible our standing here today.

When the seniors in the architecture department visited São Paulo this fall, a local professor, in his best attempt at translating a Portuguese idiom, encouraged us to "always keep the shining water in our eyes." We were all puzzled at first about what exactly he meant, but I think I understand now. He was reminding us to never lose that childlike joy and wonder, to keep our eyes and hearts open for the seen and for the unseen, because maybe, just maybe, if we radiate the love for unseen things that these gothic towers have instilled in us out into the world, the world might respond, generating novel expressions and applications of the ideals we have learned here, ones as concrete as the gargoyles and spires that surround us. 

Classmates of the Great Class of 2015, thank you, congratulations, and remember to never, ever grow up!