Aleksa Milojević, the Class of 2023 valedictorian and a mathematics major from Belgrade, Serbia, delivered the valedictory address at Princeton's Commencement ceremony on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.
—Remarks as prepared—
First of all, congratulations! We made it through the pandemic, through countless papers, problem sets and exams, through the junior papers and senior theses. We are here today to recognize these amazing achievements. But in recognizing them, we must not forget to recognize and thank all those who helped us during the last four years. We must thank our professors who guided us through Princeton, putting immense energy and care into every single lecture they gave. We must thank all the University workers who supported us on our way around campus every single day, cheering us up with their jokes and inspiring us with their stories. We must thank our friends and family for their endless love, for they were present whenever we needed them. And above all, we must thank all those who made an effort to be kind to us, encouraging us on our journey through Princeton.
Last week, my family came to campus for my graduation, for the first time after four years. As we walked around campus, my mother was exhilarated. “Ah, how beautiful this building is! Wow, such a splendid house!”, she kept repeating. The first few times, I mechanically responded, “Yes, our campus is really pretty. But the architecture is a little inconsistent and now there is construction everywhere.” It seems that I got used to this campus, to the point where I stopped actively appreciating its beauty. These buildings became so familiar to me that I forgot what it was like to see them for the first time. But now, seeing the Chapel and Firestone Library through the eyes of my family, I started recalling my own excitement when I first came to campus as a pre-frosh.
In the middle of a hectic semester, it is often very hard to stop and appreciate our campus — we just run from class to class with our busy schedules, trying to finish all our problem sets and papers. In this constant whirlwind of work, it is so easy to forget the beauty of the Rocky courtyards and Nassau Hall, especially because we witness it every day. But I do think it is worth taking a minute on that walk across campus to stop and find one new thing that makes you appreciate this place. Looking at these familiar sites, try to remember the joy of seeing them for the first time. Try to defamiliarize them, try looking at them in a new light. This is not easy, and we have to make an active effort to do it.
More important than appreciating the buildings on campus, we must not forget to appreciate the people around us who treat us with kindness and love. But mere appreciation is not enough — we must return the same kindness and love to them. If actively enjoying our time here is not easy, actively loving those around us is even harder. For the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, this active love was the utmost virtue and the path to happiness. In his final work, "The Brothers Karamazov," the character of elder Zossima exemplifies the difference between imagined and active love, as he says: (I quote)
“Active love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a complete science.”
For Dostoevsky, active love consists of all these small acts of love and affection, which are neither glorious nor grand, but are offered every day with persistence. It is all about making those around us feel better in small, tangible, and practical ways. As I tried to understand why Dostoevsky’s words resonated with me so much, I understood that Princeton made me feel this love in action long before I read about it. I saw this active love in the encouraging words of dining hall workers who tried tirelessly to learn every student’s name, and I saw it in the efforts of my friends to cheer me up on bad days.
Whether it’s actively enjoying campus or actively loving our community, I believe active engagement was central to my Princeton experience and I suspect many of you feel the same. Even academically and professionally, I believe it is important to enjoy what we are doing, as we are doing it. At Princeton, it is often very easy to feel that you should take a certain course because it will look good on your CV or just because all your friends are taking it. But when you find yourself alone in the library at midnight, trying to finish that last problem on the problem set due tomorrow, nothing is more comforting than knowing you like what you are doing. No job offer or brilliant CV will redeem the nights spent doing something you did not like.
As you set off to find new paths around the world, I hope you will keep in your memory the excitement of that cheerful freshman you were four years ago, who would exclaim: “Wow, this campus is so cool! Look at this building here!” I hope you will keep the intellectual curiosity that made you take classes outside your major that would not necessarily “look good on your CV.” As you carve your future, I hope you will actively love those around you, as the people on this campus loved us!
With that, Class of 2023, I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors! Congratulations!