Michael van den Berg's Valedictory Speech

May 15, 2012

Commencement 2012
Photo by David Woods

On Sunday, May 13, Michael van den Berg delivered a valedictory speech at the College of Arts & Sciences and Professional Studies’ 2012 Commencement Ceremony. Below is the speech he delivered.

Valedictory Speech

So, graduates, here we are. Assembled together one last time before we are dispersed to the various corners of the world. When I found out I was valedictorian—that I had to speak to all of you—my first reaction was panic. What on earth to say?

I got a lot of different advice: some of my professors told me to challenge the system. “Don’t be cliché,” others said. “Why don’t you say a nice prayer?” my grandmother suggested. “You should open with a quote!” said Dr. [Jana] Mathews. So, in five minutes, I’ll try to do all of those things.

Years ago, I peer mentored a class for Dr. [Mario] D’Amato that examined the intersection between film and various religions. In that class, the first film we analyzed was the 1999 classic Fight Club. I want to tell you, as Tyler Durden would, that “you are not special. That you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.”

This is a tough truth for us graduates to face. To know that we are going out into a world that can sometimes make us feel that we are not unique, or beautiful, or valuable. A world that can feel impersonal, cruel, and will not clean up our messes. Times are uncertain, and it’s difficult knowing that sometimes those high numbers on your résumé might not get you what you hope.

I myself have confronted disappointment and adversity in the job market. I had spent the first three years of undergrad preparing for a career in corporate finance/investment banking. I felt pretty sure that my ship had come in when, last spring, I made it to to the final round of interviews for a job at a prestigious investment banking firm in New York City. Out of a thousand candidates, I was in the final twenty. “I have this in the bag,” I thought to myself. So I went, talked, told my story, answered their questions, smiled, looked nice in a suit. At the end of the day, the hiring committee called me in. I sat in front of a panel, a few folks who were looking at my résumé.

“Very impressive,” they said, “But we have chosen to not award you the position.”

I was completely devastated. I figured out very quickly that I don’t deal well with rejection or failure. I sat around and brooded for weeks, alternately angry at myself, at the bank, at the entire financial sector. But eventually, I came to, and realized the truth of Tyler’s words. Here in the classroom or at home with parents, we are always told that we can be whatever we want. We are loved, held, coddled, comforted, protected, guarded, and supported. When that is stripped away, what is left? It’s almost existentially terrifying.

Of course, I’m not here to totally depress all of you. Rather, we must understand something deeper in Tyler’s words: we are not born; we are made. I can say, in truth, that Rollins has made me: it is my close relationships with Professors like Dr. Mathews and Dr. D’Amato that pushed me to deeper levels of scholarship; my collegiality with Dr. [Eric] Smaw that inspired me to go to law school; my friendship with Dr. [Twila] Papay that encouraged me to write and rediscover my creativity.

It was this fact that I realized in that dark place in my life. I accepted that I was not a unique, beautiful snowflake; I accepted that I was entitled to nothing. I came back to school determined to work harder than before, to succeed, to not allow rejection and disappointment to define me as a person. Six months and no social life later, I was accepted to my dream law school.

So, I stand here, not just to congratulate everyone on their graduation, but to challenge you: challenge you to not view this as the end of your journey, but as the beginning; challenge you to not expect anything but to struggle for everything; challenge you to not be defined by the things you own but by the things you do. I want to conclude by telling you that you will fail. But you will also succeed.

Love and Respect

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