Valediction

How does it feel to graduate at the top of your class—and give a speech at Commencement? Ten former valedictorians look back on making the grade.

“I found out I could be valedictorian in fall of senior year, when a letter appeared in my mailbox. The language was A Christmas Carol-y: ‘If things continue as they are and barring any unforeseen changes….’ It hadn’t been a goal, but when I found out I thought, well, if I’ve made it this far, it would suck to screw it up. 

“The scary thing was that literally the week before graduation I came down with the worst case of bronchitis I’ve ever had. I lost my voice completely. I met President Jim Wright, he shook my hand and said, ‘How are you?’ and I croaked something back. He said, ‘Let’s get you some tea and honey.’ Then I met with professor William Cook to go over the speech. He took one look at me and said, ‘Ricola, you need Ricola,’ the herbal throat drops. I’ll give the credit to Ricola and tea with honey. I got better in time.

“As for an immediate effect of being named valedictorian: If you’re valedictorian, your family gets primo seats. My family sat next to Mrs. Wright in the really good seating section. That was nice, especially for my 86-year-old grandmother. Had I known that, I would have been working harder all along.”

—Rob Butts ’06
Quality assurance operations lead, Boston

 

“Being valedictorian allowed me to take a pretty wandering path after college. My first job at a hedge fund had nothing to do with my philosophy major, and my next job at a solar company had nothing to do with the hedge fund. In between those two jobs I took seven months off and started a side business called Double or Muffin, and that really had nothing to do with anything. As I made these transitions, people definitely raised their eyebrows at me. But I think the Dartmouth credential was enough to offset their skepticism and give me a chance.

“As for the speech, I did enjoy getting to talk in front of all those people. I opened my speech by welcoming ‘Mr. President, members of the board of trustees, honored guests, family, friends, Miles.’ Miles Kenyon ’10 was, and is, one of my good friends, and for some reason I thought it would be funny to include him. He had no idea it was coming.”

—Ben Gifford ’10
student, Harvard Law School

 

“Giving the speech didn’t faze me too much. I’m a teacher now. I speak in front of groups often and enjoy it. It was fun because President Bill Clinton was the Commencement speaker—and my speech had to be run by the White House. I think Clinton’s speech played off my speech a little, so it seemed they had actually read it.”

—Kristin Cobb Sainani ’95
associate professor, Stanford University

 

“One of my favorite memories is sitting in the Tower Room in Baker Library writing the first draft of my speech. The grounds crew was already setting up, so as I looked out over the Green I could imagine myself and all the students and their families there.

“The time limit for the speech was about five minutes—I think mine was two and a half. I remember the night before, telling my older brother I was feeling nervous. He put his hand on my back and said a prayer for me and I immediately felt calm. When it came time, it was fun to hear my voice boom out across the Green, bouncing off the Hop.”

—Dan Fehlauer ’97
high school physics teacher, Brookline, Massachusetts

 

“I almost didn’t get to give the speech—it was controversial because I was an ’02 graduating early and the administration felt Commencement should be a class of 2001 event. They resolved it by having two speeches—the ’01 student with the highest GPA was salutatorian. It was good—there were no losers, except maybe the people who had to listen to two speeches.”

—Brian Stults ’02
psychometric analytics consultant, Washington, D.C.

 

“I didn’t have the speech written word for word. I practiced it the night before, but I didn’t have a lot of time. I was hanging out with my friends—lots of end-of-an-era stuff going on.

“I went off script a little, talking about my hair, cheesesteak subs and shouting out to my grandmother, who sat outside in the blistering heat. It was more intense than anticipated. Even while I was sitting onstage, I was still thinking about what to say, while trying to be present. I was also trying to listen to the other speakers—Tom Brokaw was one. I remember noticing one person in the audience was knitting. The gravity of the situation, looking into a sea of all your friends and professors—I was overwhelmed, but in a good way.”

—Sandeep Ramesh ’05
investor, New York

 

“Writing the speech was harder than delivering it. You want to be reflective without being sappy. You’re trying to distill four  of the most important and incredible years of your life down to a few minutes. Professor Cook spent a lot of time with me, and he was phenomenal. The writing was all me, but he helped me practice the delivery. I stood at the front of an empty room in Sanborn, and he sat in the back while I practiced. He helped me with my presentation, how to modulate pitch and engage the audience.

“The best part of the experience was seeing how proud my parents were—that meant a lot.”

—Jonathan Altman ’02
private equity investor, Burlingame, California

 

“Conan O’Brien was the main speaker, and he used the same introduction that I had planned—except his was much, much better—which meant I spent the rest of his speech frantically reworking mine in my head.

“For the first year after graduation I worked  in Ukraine on the Tucker Foundation’s Lewin Post-Graduate Fellowship. Occasionally, when my supervisor introduced me to local Ukrainian leaders, he commented that I was ‘first in my university class,’ which for various reasons held less significance than in the United States, and seemed not to impress them. 

“In general the subject rarely comes up, except whenever I say something particularly dumb around my family. I had a spectacular comment about whether Christmas was celebrated in July in the Southern Hemisphere due to the seasonal differences, followed by my family’s inevitable musings about ‘the valedictorian of Dartmouth.’ ”

—Alexandra Heywood ’11
foreign affairs officer, Tysons Corner, Virginia

 

“I really procrastinated on writing the speech. I had three weeks off after my thesis defense, so I went to New York and was doing things you do there, not thinking about graduation. Then I got a call from the library that if I didn’t return a library book I owed, I wouldn’t graduate. That’s when it hit me—that I was really graduating. I hurried back from New York and realized I should do this thing.

“Originally I was quite excited, but I looked at past speeches—most were the kind of stuff I would snooze through—and I didn’t want to inflict that on everybody. I had done a research paper on Dartmouth valedictorian speeches from 1790 to 1800 for a micro-history class. Students in those days were trying to display their know-ledge, to show what they had learned, to be accepted as a member of the societal elite. Today valedictorians look forward, to what we hope to do in the future.

“Being valedictorian didn’t much affect my later life. Professionally, I think it may be an impediment. I’m in finance now, and people in finance are like, ‘This is not rocket science’—it puts a cloud of suspicion on the academic standings of other people. Personally? People in the States are not too impressed. In China it’s different—there it’s a matter of national pride. Except that people in China don’t want to hear about liberal arts, because it has the word liberal in it. They are impressed by the Ivy League, but not the liberal arts.”

—Yangyang Liu ’09
asset manager, Shanghai

 

“My valedictory speech is something I thought back on often when I worked as a foster care caseworker in New York City. I talked in my speech about the importance of listening to others’ stories without judgment, which was a challenging part of my job since there is so much judgment inherent in the family courts, the child welfare system, and social services. At times I felt burnt-out, but my valedictory speech became a touchstone and helped me remember how I wanted to be working, both with my families and coworkers.

“To my surprise, my speech was good publicity for Pati Hernández’s Telling My Story program, which I had been a part of, working with inmates. I recently met a ’16 on campus who said that she watched my speech online before she came to Dartmouth, and she had been inspired by it and by what Dartmouth has to offer. I’m so happy that I could attract that kind of student to Dartmouth, someone who finds resonance with the ideals of practicing diversity and sharing stories.”

—Anna Morenz ’13
student, Harvard Medical School

 

Editor’s Note: The student with the highest standing in the graduating class who has attended Dartmouth for at least three years is given valedictory honors. Current protocol allows only one valedictorian speaker at Commencement, ultimately chosen by the president based on the student’s interest and recommendations from a committee of deans. In 2016 eight students were recognized as valedictorians. Jonathan Vandermause ’16 delivered the valedictory address.

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