Vassar and I fell in love the moment we clapped eyes on each other. I distinctly remember the day I came to her as a wide-eyed Venezuelan boy. Having just graduated from this life-changing hippie-anarchist boarding school in Hong Kong,
I was traveling alone on one of those sweaty-sticky afternoons that only exist in August, trying to reach campus on time for international orientation. I had just landed in New York, only to find that my suitcases had been lost somewhere between Caracas and Atlanta.
“Er… Pukipski?” I said to the confused lady at the missing baggage desk when she asked for the address where they should send them. I could barely spell the name of my new city, because in all honesty I had never set foot on campus even though I applied early decision. I had taken a huge risk, but Vassar had chosen me and I had chosen her from the other side of the world.
I like to think that it had to do with deeper things than just the pretty typeface on the admissions website, but I’ll never know for sure. Four years have passed, and all I can say is that this has been a unique, irreplaceable experience and I am incredibly proud of the person Vassar has made me.
A poem by Elizabeth Bishop ’34 reads: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/ So many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” In many ways, I started building my life at Vassar by losing things.
Not only did I arrive without luggage, a hookah as my single carry-on item, but my move to Vassar signified bigger losses: of internalized prejudices, repressed emotions, and my dad’s last words to me before I boarded the plane—“Beware of the gays.” Coming here meant losing the worldviews I had been taught to believe and creating and reshaping some of my own.
We tend to think about graduation as the period during which we collect our belongings, pack up, and leave. But what if we thought about it as a time to celebrate what we have lost during the past four years? Right now, it’s tempting to try to sum up those things lost—and found. It’d be nice to take everything we’ve learned, fix a little handle on it, and carry it with us onto the shiny train of the future to say “This was my time at Vassar College! Wasn’t it great?”
It doesn’t really work like that, of course. In our academic lives, we want to analyze and synthesize. In our personal lives, we make fairly poor subjects for those same kinds of studies.
We want big epiphanies, profound truths, and meaning. But real life, the day-to-day, doesn’t always vibrate with significance. Things turn out ambiguous, incomplete, sloppy. There were the books we lost; the all-nighters that felt a little like knowing how long life is; Retreat pizzas that weren’t worth the wait; boys that broke our hearts; boys that made our nights; boring Fridays lost to paper-writing. Loose ends aren’t always tied up, lessons aren’t always learned.
But guess what? This is okay. More than okay, actually. It’s just plain wonderful. Failure and loss represent, to me, a road toward those things that are not essential. True, they have taught me things about myself that I could not have learned otherwise.
It is our inability to become our ideal selves that finally defines us and sets us apart. If we accept the fluster of disaster and learn to work with it, our perceived failures can be the catalyst for deep reinvention. During my time at Vassar, I discovered that I have a strong will, with more than a pinch and a half of discipline. I also discovered the value of true friendships, which are worth more than a thousand emeralds to me.
But resounding revelations only define some of the things we do in college. The rest, even the majority, are shaped by simple time with the people around us: the ones joking with us, the ones cooking with us, the ones smoking cigarettes with us, the ones climbing roofs with us, the ones running naked in the Orchard with us. These memories will reverberate through the spaces and halls where they came to life. My time at Vassar has been characterized by losing things, yes, but in another, major way it has also been about congregating and bringing kindred spirits together to share food, drink, and conversation. After all, they say, a liberal arts degree is the dinner party degree.
We came to Vassar not only to study Foucault and Vermeer and Le Corbusier. We came here not just to learn how to think but to learn how to live. Here, together, we endured. We wallowed, we reveled.
And now we emerge. We emerge better read, more passionate than when we began. We come away more confident and more confused than when we began. We’ve emerged as the smartest we’ve ever been. The most engaged. The most creative. The most sleep-deprived. We emerge as the selves we were meant to be. Whole and complete. No postscripts, asterisks, or footnotes.
I can’t predict the future. I only know that, whatever paths we take, they won’t be the easy ones. We will have to endure again. And I know we will emerge, again. However we emerge, each and every time, we will be marked as Vassar alums, people who know that what’s too easy is apt to be boring. And, let me tell you, class of 2014, boring is the one thing we definitely are not.
Vassar has given us the beautiful journey. Without her we would never have made it to this meadow-plateau. But she has nothing more to give us. And even though at times it might have felt like it, Vassar has not defrauded us.
Today, I know that I must move on like all of you because that’s what life was saying when we were hearing without listening. However, today, I’m not sure I want to move on. Perhaps because I know that these four years I was in the right place to be, not the perfect one, but the one in which I felt…complete.
Today I understand that the beauty of some things is that they perish. Like those suitcases four years ago, we all lose Vassar today. When we first came to this place, there was this sense of possibility. This immense, indefinable energy, and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away.
We must remember that we can still do anything, because we’re young, and because we carry away with us the people this place has made us and the experiences it has given us—truly things that we cannot lose.
Here, I’m meant to insert a final clever quip about life that elicits rigorous introspection and personal enlightenment. But I’m neither intelligent nor eloquent enough for that.
I will venture that, after Vassar, life and all its delightful truths will hit us with overwhelming force. We will be greeted by a world in which most people don’t care about academic niceties, because the ability to spell or pronounce “heteronormativity” makes it no easier to form real human relationships. Or earn large tips. Or avoid apartment scams in New York City.
Let me close with gratitude to all my friends, colleagues, partners-in-crime. Today I know who you are right now, and tomorrow I’ll know who you are right now, and in twenty-five years I’ll know who you are right now. My Vassar life unfolds before my eyes. My old friends, and my new friends.
Thanks to Vassar, the things I learned here, and to its people, I am headed to a great institution to complete graduate studies in architecture.
But what counts most with me is the friendships, the love and the sheer joy we’ve shared making art, our worlds, and life together. Thank you for an inexplicably wonderful time at this college. I look forward to the next time we meet each other on a meadow-plateau. I’ll be there with my curly topknot, a blanket, and a nice bottle of red.
—Carlos Ignacio Hernández is the outgoing Co-Chair of the Urban Studies Majors Committee and a former Student Docent at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. He will start his studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this fall.