2017 Valedictory Address
Jin Yun Chow
"Our Unsung Heroes"
The indomitable Class of 2017, I don’t want to talk about us today. We’ve heard enough praises sung about how much we’ve accomplished, how much we’ve grown, how much coffee we’ve consumed over the past few years. And it’s true. We do deserve to be congratulated for our successes and achievements. But for these few minutes on stage, I want to entertain the perhaps uncomfortable idea that today, contrary to what everyone will tell us, is not entirely about us. It’s also about our unsung heroes. They are the people in our lives whose names we don’t always know and whose lives we don’t always stop and recognize. They have played a large role in our success yet remain largely invisible from today’s celebration: from café and dining hall employees to security guards in libraries to PSafe officers to janitors to construction workers to McCosh nurses to CPS counselors and many, many more. They truly deserve our thanks, and I hope we all will find ways to express our gratitude.
I would like to start by telling you a story about the most memorable moment I had with one of my own unsung heroes: Margaret Campbell at the Firestone café. A few weeks ago, I was waiting in line for coffee when I saw that she was holding a Kindle ebook. As I approached the counter, I asked her out of curiosity what kinds of books she enjoyed reading in her free time. She showed me her Kindle and invited me to scroll through the pages as she made coffee for the next student. As I skimmed the long list of books, I learned that she was going through all of Friedrich Nietzsche’s important works and that she had a particularly large collection of fiction-writing style guides. When I asked her about the latter, she smiled as she handed me my latte and brushed it off with the comment, “Oh, I’m writing a book.” “A book?” I repeated, wide-eyed, “About what? Can I read it?” She chuckled modestly and told me that she had been working on it for years and that it was a thriller story about two female African American tourists in France. She already had more than 250 pages but she’s still working on it, hoping one day to get it published. She blushed at the thought of having others read her work and said she would send it to me once she’s had a chance to polish her writing. I walked away that afternoon with a tingling feeling in my stomach. I marveled at how easy it would have been to have walked away after getting my coffee, not stopping to chat and never learning about her amazing literary endeavors. I wondered how many interesting people I didn’t get to befriend over my four years here because I never gave them a chance to talk and never gave myself the chance to listen.
Now, Margaret is not the only unsung hero; there are countless other University employees whom we don’t get to know because our meticulously planned schedules fool us into thinking we simply don’t have enough time. We rarely stop to talk to them, to ask them their names, because if we’re not rushing off to our next precept then we’re already running late to our next meeting, our next practice, our next rehearsal. If we remember to say thank you and to ask for their names, our backpacks are already zipped up, our headphones already on, music already blaring, our bodies halfway out the door.
So what I want to say to you today, my friends, is this: slow down. Slow down and take the time to recognize your unsung heroes. As we get ready to leave this cocoon that is Princeton, adulthood will urge us to run faster, climb higher, become more successful; it will entice us to swim upstream through the river that is life itself, and it will tempt us to devote every free minute to advancing ourselves and our ambitions. I challenge us to be the salmon that swims downstream, taking the time to get to know and appreciate the people who surround us as we glide through the water. More often than not, the most meaningful interactions on this campus blossom not at the meetings that we have diligently planned or at coffee dates that we set up weeks in advance. Rather, they often take root unannounced as we’re leaning against the counter waiting for our coffee in East Pyne, as we’re spooning yogurt into our bowl at Whitman, as we’re leaving the bathroom and someone comes in to clean. If we take the time to get to know these dedicated men and women and let them get to know us, we are often rewarded by conversations we will long cherish.
So, no. At least in what’s left of my time up here, today is decidedly not just about us. Of course we recognize the debt that we owe to our faculty mentors and teachers, but today is also about Ed, Tashel and Margaret at the Firestone café, who never fail to greet students with the biggest of all smiles and the warmest of all hugs. It’s about Tracy and Josephine at the art museum, who always manage to make that place feel like a second home. It’s about Howard and Larry at the Mathey dining hall, who brighten up everyone’s day with their infectious, resonating laughs. It’s about Oxene at Wu dining hall, who is always willing to help students practice French. It’s about Frenel, the indomitable Petey Greene driver, who is outside Firestone every single day at 7:20 a.m. to pick up volunteers. It is about Leslie, Charlotte, Albert and Stan at the Firestone security guard desk, who are often the last friendly faces we see before running home at 2 in the morning and going straight to bed. These are only a few names that have shaped my Princeton experience — I know that all of you have your own list of unsung heroes who deserve a place in today’s ceremony.
One of my dearest friends put it best when he said that I am not generous enough with what he calls unscripted time. It is amorphous time that falls outside of the structural rigor of meetings, classes, meals and other obligations; it is unscheduled time that allows for organic, spontaneous and unscripted interactions. This is the time when instances of extraordinary candor crop up naturally, when episodes of exquisite tenderness surface unexpectedly, when heartfelt sincerity slips out spontaneously. As we leave this place, I ask that we remember to slow down and make room in our lives for this kind of serendipity; I ask that we give genuine human interaction a chance to bloom amid our over-packed schedules; I ask that we give thanks to the unsung heroes who did what they did without expecting our gratitude. It is often in these unexpected moments that confessions are at their truest, that genuineness is at its rawest and empathy at its purest.
So, Class of 2017, I leave you with this. Learn the names and stories of all those unsung heroes in your life and learn to be more generous with your time. More often than not, it’s not because of some orchestrated, preplanned effort that we end up sharing a beautiful bond of friendship with someone. It’s because we were present to talk. It’s because we were there to listen.
Here’s to all of our heroes, known and unknown, sung and unsung, who got us through these four years. To them, and to everyone who has been there for us through this journey, thank you.