This article was originally published in the summer 2013 Harker Quarterly.
Of all the remarkable milestones Harker students achieve, none is as great or as meaningful as their final rite of passage when they receive their diplomas. The pride was palpable on May 24 at the Mountain Winery as the Class of 2013 walked across the stage, collected their diplomas from Head of School Chris Nikoloff, gave a hug or handshake to Upper School Head Butch Keller, and smiled at their class dean, Jeff Draper, who read each of their names.
The weather was perfect – cool and clear; the music, provided by Harker’s chamber ensemble and all-choir Graduation Chorus, was beautiful; the speeches, perhaps among the best yet of the upper school’s 12 graduations.
Ashvin Swaminathan represented his class as valedictorian, and his speech found a perfect balance between honoring the past and preparing for the future. His first words remembered those who are gone: “Let us not forget how blessed we are to have had our lives touched by the love and friendship of” Jackie Wang ’13, teachers John Near and Sharron Mittelstet, counselor Sandy Padgett and school founder Howard Nichols.
He spoke of his own sickly childhood and his mother’s successful struggle with cancer and posed the question, “By what means did every one of us manage to triumph over our tribulations?” The answer? “Our parents,” who were “iron girders” of support. Introducing his theme of “Let us vow,” Swaminathan adjured his classmates, “Let us vow to continue to treat our parents as our heroes,” to honor them, make them proud and not neglect them “at any time.”
He asked his peers to vow to “never compromise on the value system that our teachers have established for us” in the face of all the temptations to come, and said, “Let us vow to share our leftover resources with those who are not as fortunate as we are.”
The teachers who had led Swaminathan and his classmates on what he called a “beautiful scholastic safari” were on their feet moments after his talk concluded, to be joined almost immediately by his classmates.
Keynote speaker Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace, an organization dedicated to volunteerism which has nurtured projects resulting in the gifting of millions of dollars of services, including website creation and pay-it-forward restaurants, at which a person eats for free but pays for the meal of the next customer who comes in to dine. He has devoted his entire adult life to the pursuit of giving.
Mehta’s engaging speech was a rallying cry to fix what is “at the core of all of today’s most pressing challenges: … we have become profoundly disconnected …. We have forgotten how to rescue each other.” He says humans are wired to give and to help each other, and asked, “Will you, Class of 2013, step up to rebuild a culture of trust, empathy and compassion?”
There are three keys to living a life of giving, Mehta said. The first is to give, no strings attached. The second is to receive: “When you give externally, you receive internally.” His third key is to dance. “Our biggest problem with giving and receiving is that we try and track it. And when we do that, we lose the beat.”
He closed with this final thought: “Harker Class of 2013, may you all find greatness in service to life. May you all give, receive – and never, ever stop dancing.” Nikoloff also had an opportunity to offer some words of wisdom to the class, which he did in a lighthearted talk titled “Love like a Labrador,” meaning unconditionally and with joy. (See full text here.)
Then diplomas were bestowed, doves were released and tassels were switched from right to left; the graduates processed out of the amphitheater and walked through a tunnel formed by their teachers, who gave a final round of applause as Harker’s newest members of the alumni family were fondly sent on their way.