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If I were a valedictorian…

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 23, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2007: Congratulations. Each of you has spent the past four years being slapped around like Tina Turner by the harsh rigors of Notre Dame academic life, the customary foibles of Notre Dame athletic life and the indescribable awkwardness of Notre Dame social life. We’ve laughed together at Paul Hornung’s racism and loose pants, we’ve cried together at bowl games under whichever coach decided to take us to Tempe, and we’ve vomited together under Indiana State Excise Police on horseback at tailgates. The important thing, however, is that we have all survived – as they say – to begin the next chapter of our lives.

Unfortunately, life is not a book. There are no pages, no illustrations, no dust jackets and certainly no chapters. Life, boiled down to its very essence, is nothing more than a case of beer. Sure, some lives are mere racks of Natty or Keystone – frequently quite bitter, and tending to go down in huge gulps so as to ease the pain of consumption. Others, like that of this year’s commencement speaker, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, are tiny four-packs of Guinness Extra Stout – smooth, rich and impressive to drink in public, yet at the same time extremely dark and only at their best when lightened up with some Irish cream. The rest of us, though, with our bright futures and lamb-skin diplomas (unless you’re a lamb-hugging hippie who ordered a paper one), are merely amorphous variety packs – filled with the potential for both great success and bitter disappointment depending upon the choices that we make over the coming years.

While college may have been “the best four years of our lives,” it is highly unlikely that they will go down as the most defining. Sure, we have been given countless opportunities to sample the variety of choices available at the open bar of life – medicine, law, business, engineering, academia, service or whatever it is that Arts & Letters majors do to make money – but the next two to five years will truly be our chance to put those sampled choices to the test.

Some of you might run from this Midwestern sanctuary of Catholicism, red-heads and dive bars for the heathenism and debauchery of New York City or Los Angeles. While there, you will probably reach into your variety pack of life and start with a trendy Belgian or German brew – perhaps a Stella Artois or a St. Pauli Girl – and sip slowly on this Western European wonder while pondering your existence from the lonely back wall of a chic tapas bar on the corner of Wall and Water Streets in Lower Manhattan. As you casually nurse one of these frothy, golden lagers, most likely from the chilled rim of a peculiarly feminine and stemmed beer glass, you will soon find yourself battling with the true questions and goals of your post-collegiate life. Are 100-hour weeks crunching numbers at Goldman Sachs worth the personal costs? Is it possible to find love or start a family in a big city? Is marketing a real job or just an outlet for B.S.? And why is Stella Artois always served out of these girly wine glasses?

Some of you will likely be spending the next two to five years engaged in service toward the world’s neediest people. While treating malaria patients in Africa, teaching impoverished schoolchildren in the rural South or building community infrastructure in Third World countries, you will most likely find yourself too busy at times to even think about experimenting with your variety pack of beer. When you do have a free moment, though, one can imagine that you would probably grab for a 25-ounce oil can of Fosters as you battle with the stresses of service. A million questions will certainly rattle through your head as you imagine your i-banking friends in New York casually sipping on their nine-dollar glasses of Stella Artois as they consider whether to buy the Tiffany earrings or the Cartier bracelet for their next black-tie gala. Am I truly happy giving myself to these people whom I barely know and receiving minimal compensation in return? Will I continue seeking personal fulfillment through community service for the rest of my life, or will I begin searching for a traditional job when my time here ends? And why do Australians feel the need to drink out of such enormous beer cans? Are they trying to compensate for something?

Many of you, as well, will continue to test your academic mettle at graduate school. Here, in the often pretentious milieu of even higher standards of learning, you might grab an Amstel Light after a long day of organic chemistry at med school, reach for a Bud Light to calm you down after a stressful week studying torts at law school or pound six or seven Rolling Rocks to break up the grind of your tedious, yet rewarding Ph.D. work in Anthropology or Psychology. Similar questions will bounce through your head as you continue to sit in the same types of college bars that you’ve sat in since you first snuck into Boat Club as a Notre Dame freshman. Will my future career be worth the $50,000 in loans that I’m accumulating here? When will I get the chance to settle down and start a family with 10 more years of this hectic “Grey’s Anatomy” lifestyle in store? Will I be one of those people who forces everyone to call me “Doctor” because I have a Ph.D.? And why am I still drinking Bud Light? This stuff tastes like Aquafina.

In the end, we will all be grappling with the same types of questions, no matter where we move, no matter what we do and no matter which beer we decide to pull out of our variety packs. Forrest Gump’s mama may have been right about a number of things, but she was wrong about one: Life is certainly not like a box of chocolates.

Life, with its endless choices that we have earned after four years of learning at Notre Dame, is like a case of beer. You do have the power to know what you’re going to get. You only need to have the will to reach in and grab a beer, the faith in yourself to trust your choice and the humility to dive back in for a second, third or eighteenth can if you’re dissatisfied with the first.

Once again, congratulations, Class of 2007, on an amazing four years, and good luck to everyone with whatever you decide to do for the next sixty.

Bottoms up!

Joey Falco is a senior American Studies major and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy minor. He can be reached at jfalco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.