Chanwoong Baek ’12, Class of 1868 Prize Winner, delivered the address,”Preppy Look and Sweatpants,” at Bowdoin’s 207th Commencement, held Saturday, May 26, 2012.
President Mills, members of the College and guests:
I am honored to stand before you today to deliver these remarks. Today is a momentous occasion for all of us. With four years of great learning and achievement, we are about to move onto the next chapter of our lives. I would like to thank everyone who has guided and supported us with their love and care.
As commencement was getting closer, my anxiety toward life after Bowdoin made me start to recollect what I was like in my first year. It feels like just yesterday that we arrived to this campus for the first time. I cannot believe that it is already time to say goodbye to this nurturing place. Now let’s just close our eyes for a second and try to remember our first day at Bowdoin. Some of you might remember step by step what happened on your first day, and some of you might not. I, however, clearly remember my first day, the day when I was accepted into this community for who I am.
On August 26, 2008, as an international student from South Korea, I was carrying four extra-large suitcases with me. While other students had their parents to help them move their belongings to their rooms, I was wandering the campus alone trying to figure out where my first year dorm, Coleman, was located. I did not ask anyone questions because I was nervous about using my English. I was very afraid, worried and confused about everything. When I finally found the dorm, I was exhausted. The Residential Life staff in front of the building offered me help. However, I was not good at accepting help and insisted that I would do it by myself. This I soon regretted!
You see, I had been an independent and responsible student. Like most Bowdoin students, I had been successful at everything through high school. But, I was not fully confident in my decision to study at a school abroad in a place I had never been. I was under a lot of stress to be successful, and the first step to my goal was “fitting in.”
Before I left South Korea, I surfed the Internet for hours gathering information about Bowdoin. I wanted to know what I needed to be successful there. Then, I read a description online that said Bowdoin students are very “preppy.” The problem was, at the time, I did not know what preppy meant so I had to look up the word in a dictionary, which told me, “Preppy: typical of a student or graduate of an expensive prep school, especially with reference to their style of dress, the preppy look.” Then, of course, I did not know what the preppy look was so I had to do more research. After going over many Google images and asking my friends who had lived in the States, I realized that the essentials for the preppy look were a button-down shirt and khaki pants. I went out that afternoon and bought four pairs of khaki pants. Not because I wanted four pairs but because I was not sure what color range khaki covered. I am actually wearing a pair of them right now so at least the money was worth it. You are probably thinking right now, “Wow, this kid is crazy.” And you are right, that was me trying to be someone who I was not.
Back to my first day at Bowdoin, after I moved all of my suitcases into my room, I was sitting on my couch wondering who my roommates would be. Soon, someone came into the room with his mom. I awkwardly stood up and said hello. The boy said, “You must be Chanwoong.” Then, he came up to me, shook my hand and said, “안녕하세요? 만나서 반갑습니다,” which means “Hello, nice to meet you” in Korean. It may have not been the most articulate hello I have heard in Korean, but it was the most sincere. In that moment, I received my first true “Bowdoin Hello.”
As soon as I heard him greet me in my native language, my anxiety magically disappeared. It was not because I heard Korean all the way up in Maine; but rather, it was because someone cared enough about me to take the time to learn an expression in a different language. I still remember the initial warm feeling that I had about the Bowdoin community, and I am lucky to have enjoyed that warmth throughout my years here. For that, I want to thank President Mills, and all the Bowdoin faculty and staff for working so hard to make Bowdoin such as a caring and inclusive place.
I have to say, however, this story is not a fairy tale about a boy with four pairs of khaki pants who lived happily ever after, after his roommate greeted him in Korean. Soon, I realized I was not worried about how I needed to dress, but that I was actually concerned about what not dressing preppy would mean. Most Bowdoin students wear sweatpants everywhere anyway. I was afraid that I would be excluded because I was different; I thought I would not have the same experiences that other Bowdoin students would share. In fact, it turns out that my anxieties about fitting in were actually justified; however, for completely different reasons than I had imagined.
As I got to know more about Bowdoin, what I found at Bowdoin was not the homogenous place that I anticipated but a remarkably diverse place. Ironically, this should have been the place where I felt the least compelled to fit in, given its diversity in the way that people look, sound, act, and believe.
This realization left me two options for how I could spend my four years at Bowdoin. The first choice was I could simply go with what I expected about this community and what was comfortable. The second option was that I push myself out of my comfort zone, embrace differences and take advantage of the tremendous learning opportunities available. But I would have to work hard to understand how other people live and believe. I am sure that each of us, regardless of our backgrounds, has confronted this dilemma and had to respond to it at some point here at Bowdoin.
Everyone might have dealt with this dilemma differently. Speaking from my own experience, my time here has been extremely rewarding because I decided to embrace the hard work and be open to differences. Had I stuck to the stereotypes, I would have missed out on the opportunity to get to know the real Bowdoin and build meaningful relationships. Only after I engaged in passionate debates, confronted by different opinions and backgrounds, did I have the chance to explore my own assumptions and values, helping me understand who I am as an individual.
Now the question you might have is “What is next? How is this new understanding of myself and others I discovered here going to play out in the future?” My answer to that question is “I don’t know.” But I can hope. I hope that regardless of where I end up, I am able to sustain this sense of individuality and this belief that I should be myself. And I hope to continue sharing this experience with other people. Whether we will be studying at a graduate school, working on Wall Street, or traveling around the world, once we depart this place today, we will be in a new environment and might feel tempted to just “fit in.” It will appear safer and easier. However, I urge you to explore who you are and learn about others. This is going to be a difficult task but whether you wear sweatpants or preppy clothes, Bowdoin’s liberal arts education has trained us to seek truth, challenge ourselves, ask questions and serve the common good. I believe that we will all rise to the occasion. Trust who you are, and trust what you learned at Bowdoin.
Bowdoin College Class of 2012, thank you so much for being who you are. It has been my honor to be a part of this exceptional community.