This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 Harker Quarterly.
Crowds poured into The Mountain Winery in Saratoga. Students cheered for each other, parents snapped photos and the graduates marched in, their graduation caps proudly displaying the names of the colleges they’ll be attending in the fall.
As the excitement echoed throughout the outdoor amphitheater on May 23, Butch Keller, upper school head, walked up to the podium and greeted the audience, then the graduates.
“This has been correctly labeled a journey,” Keller said. “Take a deep breath. Enjoy this moment. This is a class that has achieved so much.”
But before taking the next steps on their journey, the Class of 2015 listened to poignant words about two things integral to their near-future: choice and fear.
Class valedictorian Samyukta Yagati spoke first, about the meaning of choice and its essential role in shaping not only where they have been but also where they will go.
“In some ways, it’s been a long four years,” Yagati said. “But also, incredibly short in other ways.”
Yagati began her speech by reminding her classmates to give thanks to each other for the support system that they created over the past four years. She then dove into the speech she crafted for her classmates, beginning with a quote from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” by author J.K. Rowling.
“’It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,’” she said to her classmates and the audience. “It’s only recently that I’ve had a chance to pay attention to the choices I’ve made,” Yagati continued. “We’ve made choices without noticing, choices that have brought us here today.”
From spending an hour on homework rather than with friends to schedules and studying, there is always a choice to be made, even if it goes unnoticed.
“We’ve all been making these trade-offs,” Yagati said.
She recalled a time that she made a choice, rather impulsively, to forgo academic work for a chance to paint an eagle for spirit week.
“There was nothing tangible to be gained and I don’t think it was a conscious choice,” Yagati said. “But I decided to try something new to me and this choice has reminded me to have fun.”
Amid academics and other responsibilities, it’s easy to forget to enjoy the moments, the friendships, she said.
“We all have learned to understand the meaning of conscious, deliberate choices,” Yagati said. “We are getting accustomed to getting to choose. That’s what growing up is all about.”
Hannah Allam, foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, then gave the keynote address, discussing fear – what it should and shouldn’t be within their futures.
“This is your time. This is it. The day you were waiting for. Right here, right now, and I’m incredibly humbled to be here,” Allam said to the audience at the ceremony, which marked her first graduation keynote address.
Allam began by asking the question, “Who are Harker students? Mysterious millennials? Who are they really?”
The seasoned reporter did what came naturally to her prior to writing her speech: she did her homework. Between Googling Harker and doing some social reconnaissance via Harker tweets and a Skype session with students, the answers to her initial questions began to unfold.
“It painted a picture of brilliant, renaissance, self-assured students,” she said.
A common theme and experience also emerged in her Harker research: fear.
“Even here among the high-achieving students, [there is] the fear of what comes next,” Allam said. “I understood that.”
Allam shared how she initially felt when she was named bureau chief at the age of 27. She had the realization that it was both an opportunity to make her parents proud as well as a chance to “blow it.”
“I’d say, it’s OK to be scared,” Allam said to the graduates. “Just don’t let fear paralyze you. Don’t let the fear of failing trump the joy of a challenge. Even you will expect setbacks but it keeps you humble and lights a fire under you.”