Baccalaureate 2013 Address: Marissa Daisy Alioto ’13

Marissa Daisy Alioto ’13, DeAlva Stanwood Alexander First Prize winner, delivered the address,”A Tent In Manhattan,” at Bowdoin’s Baccalaureate held Friday, May 24, 2013.

President Mills, Members of the College and Guests,

The summer after my freshman year, my mother left a recent copy of Bowdoin Magazine on my bed. I was drawn to a short feature on Willy Oppenheim, class of 2009. Willy was (and is) a Rhodes Scholar and the founder of a global non-profit. He graduated from Bowdoin magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa — but what really put me over the edge was that Willy spent his sophomore year at Bowdoin living in a tent. A tent?! Why didn’t I think of that?!

Marissa Daisy Alioto ’13

Marissa Daisy Alioto '13

Marissa Daisy Alioto '13

Marissa Daisy Alioto, of Wrentham, Mass., graduates with a major in government and legal studies, a minor in English and a promising career in journalism.

As a Bowdoin student Alioto threw herself headfirst into blogging and social media when she founded the first-ever news and lifestyle website for NESCAC students, called “In the ‘Cac.”

Her site averages about 1,000 views a day and has more than 6,000 Twitter followers. Alioto will tell you that’s more followers than NESCAC has, but adds — “we don’t rub it in.”

Alioto has worked at the Bowdoin Library for all of her four years  here. She has also co-edited Bowdoin’s chapter of HerCampus, written for The Bowdoin Orient, and danced in the campus ballet group Arabesque.

While studying abroad in Rabat, Morocco, Alioto took Arabic and did an independent study on media portrayals of Morocco’s Arab Spring movements.

She received a Creative Nonfiction prize from the English Department and was also awarded Bowdoin’s Academy of American Poets Prize for poetry she wrote about her travels.

As a senior Alioto did an independent study on how the Islamic conception of civilization shapes urban spaces, spotlighting the Moroccan city of Casablanca. Following graduation, she will spend her second summer as an intern at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

I let the magazine slip to the floor and plunged into a state of deep brooding. Later that day, I peeled my face from where it was pressed against the passenger side window, turned to my mother, and said with anguish: “Mom, I have done nothing and gone nowhere!”

She didn’t try to argue with me; rather, she did what every good parent would do: she took me to Chili’s and ordered me a virgin daiquiri. And then we talked about another tent: potential. It wasn’t one of those “everybody gets a trophy for showing up” speeches, and neither is this one. More along the lines of: you can’t put a blue ribbon on something that hasn’t happened yet, but you can expect the happening to be its own reward.

So I returned to a dorm room at Bowdoin, and — in my junior year–I finally made it off the continent. And I wrote some things, and then wrote better things. Now, I’m starting to see around me canvas flaps of my own delineation. Just faint etchings, really, enough to keep out the chill of discouragement and a ceiling transparent enough to see the stars.

We are all learning to live in tents of our own construction. Admittedly, some of these tents will look a lot like the financial district in Manhattan–but they are tents nonetheless. For all the literalists in the audience, these aren’t actual tents, they are spheres of thought and being, and we’re all entitled to have them — even if we believe we’ve “done nothing”, even if we’ve “gone nowhere”.

In fact, we must have them, for we are individuals.

I guess the reason why Willy’s story made me feel so unsettled is because I felt like I was in danger of missing out on some fundamentally profound experiences. Maybe if I were tougher I would have spent my time at Bowdoin with a root digging into my side instead of a library book. If I were smarter, my heart wouldn’t pound every time I waited for my grades to load on Bearings — or better yet, I would be doing something cooler than sitting with my laptop waiting for my grades, anyway.

I thought I had to symbolize something more than myself to make a difference at Bowdoin, and this — of all the bombastic sins I’ve committed — was the greatest. I couldn’t accept that I was the best that I had to offer, that I was all that I had to offer.

Many of us are infatuated with the idea of leaving a legacy. I’ve sometimes heard a lament about Bowdoin’s lack of secret societies — one collective signifier of prestige. But in my four years here I’ve learned that the best kept secrets on campus are not of a social variety, but an individual one. And while a Bowdoin education challenges us to expose our sanctuaries, it also teaches us the preciousness of a solitary clearing.

In John Steinbeck’s bestseller Travels With Charley the state of Maine is the first leg of his drive across America. In some ways the book is dated — after all, Steinbeck buys a cattle whistle at Abercrombie and Fitch. However, I was struck by how the author’s conception of Maine coincides so perfectly with mine. He writes:

“One thing I remember very clearly. It might have been caused by the season with a quality of light, or the autumn clarity. Everything stood out separate from everything else, a rock, a rounded lump of sea-polished driftwood on a beach, a roof line. Each pine tree was itself and separate even if it was a part of a forest. Drawing a very long bow of relationships, could I say that the people have that same quality? Surely I never met such ardent individuals.”

Well I have never met such ardent individuals as I’ve met here, at Bowdoin, in any season. This year it was hard to mark the passing of time: the vines on Hubbard beginning to blush, snowmen erected and melted, without being dogged by a whisper saying “this cannot last.” For a process that begins with the plea “admit me” and ends with “don’t forget me” it is hard not to feel like a pebble in the hand of a prolific pebble collector.

I think about how all these speeches must have an element of what we are up against, an allusion to “an uncertain world”. Surely the perenniality of such statements should inform us that what we are up against is really what human beings are always up against: the hand that lets the magazine slip to the floor, overcome with self-doubt. Ourselves.

But I do have something to say about an uncertain world — the one that we are graduating from this weekend. In March, a student’s “breakup letter” to Stanford University began to circulate on the internet — a poetic critique of the elite institution. Admirers of this letter, and others, fear that our expensive schooling fails to teach us that people who use a cardboard box as a pillow have just as much of a narrative as textbooks written by the children of people who wrote textbooks.

I thought about re-writing my speech to be more of a kicking and screaming against traditional education — but then there were other voices, saying Bowdoin is not traditional enough! In accordance with one well-known test of intelligence, I tried to hold all opposing ideas in my mind simultaneously. My attempt to insert the condition “all things considered” into my reflection on my Bowdoin education was noble in the same way that waking up in a damp sleeping bag is noble. I realized that it isn’t possible to take a position that includes all other positions without perpetually being covered by the dew of a world regenerating itself at my own expense.

I found myself coming back to the same image: a skyline consisting of disparate thoughts and beings, tents pitched as far as the eye can see.

We’re all the same: climbing hand over hand up a mountain of questions, looking for a sturdy place to pitch the framework of our intellectual, ethical, and spiritual dwelling…To pitch the framework of our potential. But we can’t be the same at all. We’d be inadequate if we tried.

I’ll be honest — I haven’t been camping in years. It’s no small regret of mine that my one night spent in the Sahara Desert was in an inn. This summer I will spend a lot of time underground on the DC metro. Deep underground. Deep in contemplation. Surrounded by that strange and beautiful wilderness that arises wherever human beings congregate. And I will shake off the dew and greet that wilderness, and learn again that individual potential is a portable abode.

It is my belief that a Bowdoin education, at its best, encompasses both individual struggles and collective solutions. Know your interior as intimately as that of a dining hall mug or the office of a favorite professor. Make peace with your neighbors as they do the same, and do not be unsettled by them.

I want you to remember, whether it’s years before you drive north on the PISS-CAT-A-QUA River Bridge again, or experience vertigo staring down the escalator at the Portland International Jetport: individualism is the fabric of Bowdoin’s continued success and the longevity of the liberal arts — it sets us apart so that we can camp together.

Class of 2013, as we go off with our bag of tent stakes, swinging mallets and strutting into this new world, my wish for you is that you may come to rest in the sweetest tent of all — contentment. I’ve shared it with you for four years; I will see you here again.