Class of 2022 valedictorian Jillian Updegraff wearing graduation cap and gown, standing outdoors in front of Lafayette College's Grossman House

Jillian Updegraff ’22

Major: History, government and law

Co-curriculars: Mock Trial Team, Concert Choir, Chamber Choir, Marquis Players, Arts Society, writing assistant, PARDner peer mentor, History Department activities and outreach coordinator

Post-graduation plans: Pursuing a J.D. degree at Villanova Charles Widger School of Law, starting fall 2022; planning to pursue a career in civil rights or constitutional law

Describe your senior year in three words.

Loved. My senior year, the first full year back since COVID, was a year filled with love from my closest friends and one of reconnecting with those who had grown distant during the pandemic. I could not have asked for a better group of people to surround myself with while at Lafayette. Their love and support truly made Lafayette feel like home, both before and during my senior year.

Demanding. This was an incredibly challenging year academically. Between the course load of a dual major, the joint thesis I wrote, and applying for law school, senior year was demanding. However, this year was also rewarding. I wrote a seminar paper that I recently submitted for publication review, I successfully defended my thesis, and I fulfilled the criteria for my dual major as well as my minor. While difficult in the moment, I look back on every early morning, late night, and all the time I spent staring at my computer screen with appreciation for the way this year challenged me and made me a better scholar and person.

Unbelievable. So many things about this year were unbelievable (in a good way). I was initially worried about what this year would look like, given that things are still not quite back to normal in the wake of COVID. However, senior year has been unbelievably good to me. This year presented me with incredible opportunities, like writing a thesis, participating in the inauguration of President Nicole Farmer Hurd, and finally getting the chance to go on a long-awaited trip with my friends. It also provided me with some unbelievably wonderful memories. I will never forget running across the Quad after passing my thesis defense, the surprise birthday party my friends threw for me, or the sing-along the senior class had on the bus back from the Last Night at Steel Stacks. Finally, this is cliché, but the fact that my senior year has flown by so quickly and I am now an alum of Lafayette is also unbelievable.

What does being valedictorian mean to you?

When I first received the email about being valedictorian, I felt a mix of emotions. Excitement and happiness, for sure, but also a great sense of relief and pride. Being valedictorian has been a goal since my first semester at Lafayette, and having my status confirmed marked the end of an eight-semester journey. To me, it represents persevering when things got tremendously challenging and seemed insurmountable. It is the product of all of the moments where I wanted to throw in the towel on a particularly hard assignment or just go to bed instead of writing another page of my thesis or a seminar paper.

Additionally, I have to thank every single person that served as a support system over the past four years to get me to this point. The constant support of my family—especially my mother—professors, and friends, and the way that they rallied around me when things became difficult, was invaluable, and I cannot thank them enough.

What’s your favorite Lafayette memory?

This is a really hard question, because I have so many fond memories from my four years here at Lafayette. There are a few that I hold closest to my heart. The annual Laf-Lehigh Rivalry game is a four-year memory that I am counting as one because it was consistently one of the best days of the year. Whether the game was at Lafayette or Lehigh, I loved Rivalry game day because the atmosphere on campus was absolutely electric, I got to wear what would normally be an absurd amount of leopard print, and I spent the day from dawn until dusk with my best friends cheering on Lafayette. Rushing the field at Lehigh after our win in 2019 still stands out as one of my favorite college memories.

I also have a special place in my heart for the weekly tradition that a small group of my friends and I started during spring 2021, our first semester back at Lafayette together after the pandemic began. Every week, Lafayette would bring food trucks to campus on Thursday or Friday nights (our favorites were the poutine and hot dog trucks), and my friends and I would stop by, pick up dinner, go back to our apartment, and spend some quality time with each other after being off-campus for almost a year. While that semester was definitely tough, I look back fondly on our food truck tradition.

Finally, I reserved a spot on this list for Senior Week. Senior Week was perhaps the only week of my college career when I got to hang out, take trips, and go out to eat with my friends without simultaneously worrying about an assignment or a grade. From late nights walking back up the hill, to brunch at Key City Diner, to spending our last night in the 512s talking about the last four years, Senior Week gave me the opportunity to make my last and greatest memories at Lafayette.

What’s the most impactful class you took?

The most impactful class I took at Lafayette was Prof. Bruce Murphy’s First Amendment In the United States: Law and Politics (GOVT 313), which I took my junior spring. This was by far the most challenging class I took during my undergraduate career, but also the course that I look back on most fondly, the class that taught me the most, and the class that reassured me that law school was the right path for me.

From day one, Prof. Murphy explained to us that he ran his classroom in a similar manner to a law school classroom. This class not only previewed the rigor of a law school course and taught me fundamental skills, like how to write a brief, but also challenged me in unexpected ways and showed me that I am capable of overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

As someone who often suffered from imposter syndrome, being given these rigorous challenges, working through them (a process accompanied by tears and the only all-nighter I ever pulled), and then seeing the positive results was a monumental turning point in terms of the confidence I felt in my academic abilities. As I now move on to law school, I cannot thank Prof. Murphy enough for the experience I had in his course, for the manner in which he constantly challenged me to push myself academically beyond what I thought I was capable of, and for providing me with one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my academic career.

Who was the most influential person during your time at the College?

This is a tremendously difficult question to answer with a single person, as I have had so many professors who have gone above and beyond and shaped my time at Lafayette.

During my first year at Lafayette, history professor Dr. Robert Weiner, who is now retired, and English professor Peter Newman played a central role in my academic transition from high school to college. Without Prof. Newman’s First-Year Seminar and his willingness to mark up every single error in my first-semester papers, I would certainly not be the writer that I am today. In his last year teaching at Lafayette, Prof. Weiner and his lectures reinforced that the History Department was the right place for me and renewed my love for 20th century history. Furthermore, his kindness and support during my first semester is something for which I can never thank him enough.

Beyond my first year, Prof. Helena Silverstein and Prof. Murphy of the Government and Law Department, and Prof. Joshua Sanborn of the History Department all hold a special place in my heart. Prof. Silverstein taught two of my favorite courses, served as my adviser, and led the first constitutional law course I ever took, which made me fall in love with the subject. Her guidance and support have been invaluable over the last four years.

As I noted earlier, Prof. Murphy also played a pivotal role in my academic career by pushing me to be the best scholar I could be, challenging me and giving me the confidence in my academic ability that I lacked when I first started his course. Finally, Prof. Sanborn encouraged me as both a writer and historian. In his seminar course, his guidance helped me to create one of the pieces of writing of which I am most proud. I am so grateful for the way that Prof. Sanborn challenged me to take good writing and make it into great writing, not only in his seminar course, but also while serving as my thesis adviser.

Without these professors and the ways in which they have challenged, guided, and supported me, I would not be the person or scholar that I am today.

What will you miss most about Laf?

It definitely has to be the people that I’ve spent the last four years with that I will miss the most. Saying my final goodbyes the night of graduation solidified to me that the bonds I created are what makes Lafayette so hard to leave. The friends that I have surrounded myself with at Lafayette were the most supportive and loving people, and they became my family. I will definitely miss living across the hall or down the street from the people who helped me make the best memories and stood next to me during the most stressful and overwhelming moments of my undergraduate career.

These people also filled all of my favorite spaces on campus with laughter and happiness. From the Ramer History Lounge, to study rooms in the basement of the library, to the 512s, my friends and fellow history and government and law majors are truly the people that made Lafayette home. Borrowing some wisdom from the TV show This Is Us, ‘If something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening,’ and that’s exactly how I felt the night after graduation and as I drove away from campus the next morning.

Describe your biggest challenge and how you overcame it.

The greatest challenge I faced at Lafayette came at the beginning of my four years, when I struggled to assimilate to college life. I was a very shy individual and came into college with the fear that I wouldn’t be able to make any close friends at Lafayette.

As Orientation week and the first month of classes came and went, my fears intensified as I continued to go to the dining hall alone and hadn’t really found anyone to spend time with. However, with some patience and bravery on my part, as well as the kindness and love of a few special individuals, I finally found the people that turned out to be my best friends at Lafayette.

Overcoming the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that engulfed me my first semester taught me to be brave, take chances, and to never be afraid to say hello. While I don’t always follow this advice, the difference between my first-year self and now is tremendous.

What do you wish for your fellow graduating classmates?

Despite the sweltering heat on graduation day, the message in Chip Bergh’s speech struck a chord with me. Our generation is already working tirelessly to make change. I see so many of you in the Class of 2022 already moving mountains with your activism. I see your work on climate issues, reproductive health, and issues of racial and gender inequality, and it amazes and inspires me.

As young adults continuing on to graduate school or about to enter the workforce, every single one of us has the potential to either continue working for change or to take the first steps toward improving the world we live in and helping others. Armed with a Lafayette education, we are unstoppable. So, Class of 2022, go out and make your mark on the world.

What advice would you give to your first-year self?

The first thing I would say to my first-year self would be the very simple statement: ‘It gets better.’ My first semester at Lafayette was far from the picture-perfect transition to college that all of my high school friends were experiencing and that I saw from other Lafayette first-years on my Instagram feed. I felt lonely and isolated. Looking back, however, I wish I could have told my first-semester self that some very kind individuals would soon reach out to me and help me find the best group of friends I could have ever imagined.

To this day, I owe the best memories of my life to these people. I would also tell myself to try and find the positives in everything that life throws at me. While my four years were far from perfect (namely because of losing a year and a half to COVID), this imperfect time I spent at Lafayette would provide me with the best memories, help strengthen relationships with some of the most important people in my life, and shape me into the stronger, braver, and more resilient person I am today.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with upcoming seniors?

Take advantage of every single moment and opportunity you have during your senior year, because it truly flies by so quickly. In addition to putting forth your best effort in your final semesters of classes, spend time with those who mean the most to you on campus. Set aside time to eat meals with your friends and go on that spur-of-the-moment weekend outing, because soon your friends might live across the country from you.

Cherish every moment you spend with your sports team, ensemble, or club, because senior year is your final year of competitions, concerts, and your favorite events. Spend time in your favorite spots on campus, because in a year’s time, you will be driving away from your late-night study spot, your favorite place to put your blanket on the Quad, and the dorm/house where you and your friends spent some of your favorite days and nights together. Enjoy your last year of Lafayette’s annual traditions, spend time with the people that mean the most to you, and soak up every minute of your senior year.

How has Lafayette changed you?

I was very shy around new people and very self-conscious when I started my academic journey at Lafayette. Over the past four years, I have grown tremendously as a person and have become more confident, more willing to take advantage of the opportunities available to me, and much more personable in settings that first-year Jillian would have run away from. Lafayette provided me with challenges that forced me to grow as a person and allowed me to develop a network of faculty members and a strong group of friends that made me feel supported and loved.

How do you hope to change the world?

It’s very cliché, but I want to be remembered as someone who used my abilities and the training provided to me during my undergraduate career and law school to do some good for those in need of help. These hopes go along with the saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’

It is the potential to serve those in need through the legal process that drives my passion for law, and I am convinced that advocating for those who are unable to do so for themselves is the right career for me. I read somewhere of a law professor who asked his 1L students if they were going into law to do well, or to do good. Years from now, when I reflect on my career, I hope it will be filled with stories of the life-changing impacts that result from using the legal system as a means to do good.

The most important thing you learned about yourself at Lafayette is:

After four years of rigorous coursework, I’ve been able to take a step back and look at not only how I grew as a person, but also what I still need from myself. Lafayette taught me to be more confident in my academic abilities and braver by granting me opportunities to step outside my comfort zone, battle my shyness, and make connections with people.

However, looking back on these four years also helped me recognize some areas in which I am still working to improve myself. Specifically, I am still working on being kinder to myself. As a perfectionist, it’s a difficult thing to say that perfection is unattainable and to be patient with myself and give myself grace when I make an error. However, my four years at Lafayette and the endless support from my friends and professors have shown me that perfection is not always the ultimate goal, and some self-love goes a long way. After my thesis defense, a member of my thesis committee commended me for, in his words, always chasing after the figurative rabbit. However, he also reminded me that this rabbit was mechanical and would never stop, and that I should always remember to take a moment to rest and recover before starting that chase again.

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