Valerie Melson ’17, selected by the campus community as the recipient of the George Wharton Pepper Prize, gave a speech at Lafayette’s 182nd Commencement and presented the sword of the Marquis de Lafayette to her classmates. The Pepper Prize is awarded annually to the senior “who most nearly represents the Lafayette ideal.” Melson, of Upper Marlboro, Md., graduated with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience.
Listen to her speech:
The text of her speech:
Thank you, President Byerly, for that thoughtful introduction. Good afternoon. I am extremely humbled to speak before you today. Thank you to administrators, faculty, staff, and students for giving me this honor. But, before I begin, graduates, take your tassels and move them from right to left. Now, let’s pause to breathe this moment in and embrace it. We are college graduates!
For some of us, our graduation today was an expectation. Our family legacies make this one small step setting us up for greater success down the line. Still, we have earned the praise from the culmination of all of our hard work. It is no easy task to stay committed to this four-year journey. For some of us, there was no certainty that this moment would ever arrive. Perhaps, like many of my friends sitting in these seats today, you are the first in your family to graduate college.
Regardless of how we arrived at this moment, it’s safe to say that sacrifices were made. So without going any further, let’s take this moment to celebrate those people who have helped make this milestone possible. Whether it has been a family member, a friend, a sibling, an organization, a faculty member, a staff member, or an administrator, please join me in saying thank you to those who made it possible for us to walk across this stage. I personally know that I would not be here now if it were not for them. Now I know that I stand between you and celebrating with your loved ones, so I’ll try to keep this short.
My time at Lafayette College has taught me the importance of surrounding myself with people who elevate my being and genuinely care about my growth and success. Looking back on these four years, it has been the people with me that have made all the difference. We all can remember being up at 2 a.m. during finals week with a friend pushing us to keep going. Whether it was writing a 15-page paper, or studying for an exam, or editing a film, we all needed someone or somewhere we could go to find strength to keep working—to keep grinding. For me, it was the back of the library, where the Mac computers are, that I found a community that refused to give up and consistently pushed through. That collective willpower kept me fighting, and it made me enjoy the fight. Well, in hindsight, at least.
So now, as we set off on this new journey, it is so important to find and surround yourself with people who make excellence an expectation. Surround yourself with people who celebrate your success and support you during the difficult times. Find people who will cultivate your happiness, who will bring you food and Rita’s for your 30-minute break during your practice MCAT, who will spend their Saturday nights with you brainstorming about ways to bring awareness to issues close to your heart, like hanging a banner in Farinon marking the black lives lost due to police interactions. These are the people whose kindness, support, and love will help make you the best version of yourself.
It is also important to be that person for others. I cannot begin to describe how integral so many of you have been to my college success. To my Posse trainer, whom I called during the first week of school crying because I did not think I fit in or that I would ever find a community here on campus. Thank you for telling me to get back out there and try again, because it was definitely worth it! To Chanel Mowatt and Sade Evans, thank you for speaking truth into existence! You believed I would be the Pepper Prize winner before I had the courage to believe in myself. To Professor Reynolds, who intercepted me this fall when I was over extended and at my breaking point. Thank you for letting me cry in your office and helping me pull my life back together. Each of these people nourished my soul at a point where I was ready to surrender, and I cannot thank them enough.
We all have people that have meant so much to us over these past four years, and we cannot possibly thank them enough, but what we can do is pay it forward. We can be there for someone else in a moment when they are in need. Sometimes it is the smallest acts of kindness that make all the difference, so please, as you move on from Lafayette, take the time to get to know others and find ways to remind each other why we continue to live this life.
I have the honor to stand before you as the first ever African American woman to be awarded the Pepper Prize, Lafayette’s highest honor. If you had asked me four years ago if I thought we, as a campus, were ready for this, if this moment would have even been possible, I would have said no, quickly and without hesitation. We made this moment possible through the connections we formed and the communities we united to address issues of diversity and inclusion on this campus, this nation, and this world. For me to hold this honor means that so many of you also deserve praise because it would not have been possible without you. However, we are far from finished.
So as I close, I want to emphasize again how important it is to know and care about the struggles of others. To take the time to find common ground with those whom we call neighbors and share a world. There are issues of homelessness, food deserts and redistribution, education reform, public health access, refugee status, immigration, religious intolerance, gender violence, racism, and so many more issues that need to be addressed by our generation. Collectively and especially in today’s climate, we need to find ways to listen to one another, to care for one another, to co-exist and support one another for the betterment of all parties involved.
This four-year journey has solidified in me that inequality is real and violent. That injustice still exists, even on a campus as picturesque as Lafayette, and it is not going anywhere unless we snuff it out. It can be easy to assume that this is not our fight and therefore, we have no need to engage, but that’s not true. So much good comes from allyship—from standing in solidarity and from being willing to lose some of your privilege so that another person is not robbed of their life or the rights that all humans inherently possess. Take the time to stay informed because often those with power and in positions to make change do not understand the issues that they are deciding. We see this to be increasingly true today. So, please take the time to know how your future jobs and careers will shape the people around you because there are people whom you may never meet but could still be very much affected by what you do. Make no mistake about it, we will soon be in positions to actively create change.
As college graduates, we carry with us now a privilege that few others in this world will ever receive. So if I can be so bold as to give the Class of 2017 one last graduation task, I urge you to ensure that this degree serves more than just you. That as you enjoy the fruits of your labor, you create spaces and opportunities for others to fill their bellies too!
With that said, to the friends, classmates, and peers, thank you for all the memories, and congratulations!