Grads say sense of self is best lesson learned at Sacred Heart

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As part of the traditional sendoff to graduates, Convent of the Sacred Heart departing seniors receive a bouquet of roses from second grader. Above, Greenwich’s Morgan Kennedy receives her flowers before she and her twin sister Blair graduated.
— John Ferris Robben photo

The Convent of the Sacred Heart’s (CSH) 164th commencement ceremony left its 82 graduates — the school’s largest graduating class yet — with bittersweet sentiments Friday afternoon.

Following a baccalaureate Mass, the speech portion of the event began with class salutatorian Sarah Hirshorn, who will attend Stanford University in the fall. Comparing the class of 2013’s time at Sacred Heart to a crew racing season, Sarah told attendees that her experience as part of a team was invaluable.

“My experience as a member of the Sacred Heart crew team has taught me that if we always strive for our personal best alongside our teammates, supported by our coaches, teachers and parents, and guided continually by our faith, we will be able to handle whatever the future holds,” Sarah said.

Making the journey through high school was made possible by teachers’ and parents’ support and guidance, she said. A common misconception about crew is that brute force is all that is needed to win a race, but they are truly won with finesse and artistry, Sarah said.

“So too do our teachers present us with the fundamentals so we will be able to explore the nuances of true mastery,” she said, later adding, “thank you, parents, for cheering us on, regardless of whether we were in the lead or lagging behind.”

What the future holds for the class of 2013, Sarah said, is dependent upon each individual’s outlook. It is during moments of adversity that one must remember the importance of positive self-visualization, she said. If graduates are able to maintain an optimistic attitude and visualize a favorable outcome, they will be capable of handling any obstacles thrown their way, she added.

And while the CSH racing season is at an end, it is simply the end of an era and not of life, Sarah said. Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat founded the Society of the Sacred Heart so that students could become “strong women of faith who are not small and finished, but seriously begun,” she said. “And the season of our lives is just beginning.”

Wrapping up her crew analogy, Sarah told fellow classmates that no matter what the future may bring, they must “maintain mental toughness, drive through the pain, keep faith and confidently move forward, remembering how far we’ve come. Because every stroke counts.”

Next up to the podium was this year’s commencement speaker, Linda Vahdat, professor of medicine, director of the Breast Cancer Research Program and chief of the solid tumor service at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. The mother of graduating senior Camilla Kummen, Dr. Vahdat explained that she asked her daughter’s classmates, as well as their parents, for feedback on life at CSH to make her speech truly authentic.

As part of her “quest for help,” Dr. Vahdat asked graduating seniors three questions: what do you think was the most important thing you got out of your Sacred Heart experience, what will you miss the most about CSH and what is something that you will not be sorry to leave behind.

“Without a doubt, confidence, community, closeness and capability in yourselves was far and away the most important lesson you learned from your CSH experience, she said.

A common theme among students’ answers to Dr. Vahdat’s first question, she said, was the sense of self they gained as CSH students. One student wrote that she learned to be completely comfortable with who she was, later adding that if she were to speak at graduation, she would emphasize how much the faculty taught her about herself. Another student considered her most important Sacred Heart lesson to be finding strength — “the strength to be different, the strength to stand up for what I believe in, the strength to explore my faith and most importantly, the strength to be me, and so much more.”

The answer to what the class of 2013 would miss most was highly centered on relationships, Dr. Vahdat said. Whether it was the girls’ close friendships with one another, connections with faculty members or the simple fact that each student could walk down the hallway knowing everyone they met along the way, relationships were vital to the CSH experience, she said. Many students wrote of the open-mindedness and unwavering support of their fellow classmates, while others spoke of the teachers who had come to be an important part of their lives.

One student wrote, “I am part of the ‘lunch-bunch’; we eat every day in Mrs. Bensen’s office. This is an environment in which I feel completely comfortable, even with a member of the faculty. This is an experience I will miss.”

When it came time to answer what students would not miss about their time at Sacred Heart, many simply couldn’t come up with an answer, Dr. Vahdat said. And while many mentioned Mrs. O’Grady’s strict uniform policing, there were no answers that reflected a negative overall experience at the school, she said.

As for her own words of wisdom, Dr. Vahdat advised the graduates to live life “boldly and courageously and in Technicolor.”

“Watching life happen from the cheap seats [is] a waste of precious time and opportunity, so be sure to follow your instincts; take a risk,” she said.

Dr. Vahdat asked students to imagine how different the world would be if the likes of Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi or Susan B. Anthony never took the risks that will change lives for generations to come. Reflecting on her own choices, she also pointed to how her own life, as well as those of her patients’, would be different if she hadn’t been bold in her decisions.

“I often think back on how my own life might have been different if I hadn’t been courageous enough to ignore the dean at my esteemed Ivy League institution when she told me that I was not really suited for a career in medicine, that I should find another career,” Dr. Vahdat said. “Where would I be? Where would my patients, medical students and research collaborators be, if I had not followed my instinct and taken a risk?” she asked.

Encouraging students to use their time on Earth wisely, Dr. Vahdat ended her speech by congratulating the seniors on all of their accomplishments.

“Well done, ladies,” she said. “Now, go do amazing things.”

After the conferring of diplomas, it was time for the class of 2013’s two valedictorians, both Greenwich residents, to impart advice on their classmates. Taylor Blevin, who will attend Washington University in St. Louis in the fall, advised fellow seniors not to wait for life to begin, but rather to recognize that the obstacles in their way were all a part of living life.

“Graduation has been the end goal for all of [these obstacles] — it was what justified those late nights and early mornings, those grueling sports practices and the many hours spent on extracurricular activities. And now that I’m here, I find myself asking, why is this worth it?” Taylor said.

The answer, she said, is not the classes taken, the sports played or the awards won.

“I’m sure what I learned in class will come in handy, but it is not what makes this diploma truly valuable,” Taylor said. After much reflection, she added, it was clear just how the Sacred Heart experience had changed her.

“I come out of these four years knowing how to challenge myself, how to be original, skeptical and creative; to question everything, and, consequently, with a deep, deep distrust of calculators and of math teachers,” she said, eliciting a laugh from the audience.

Co-valedictorian Carolyn Schnackenberg, who will attend the University of Virginia in the fall, also had some words of encouragement for the class of 2013.

Like many high school seniors on their commencement day, Carolyn asked herself and attendees, “So now what?” In nature, she said, lower order plants and animals are driven by instinct or biology, never questioning why they exist. However, she added, “because human beings have self-awareness, we tend to question who we are and what our purpose on Earth is.”

The key, Carolyn continued, is to remember that each member of the Sacred Heart class of 2013 is truly special.

“We, as a group, have demonstrable care for each other, towards the overall success of our class and towards the goals and criteria of the Sacred Heart,” she said. “Most notably, our grade has exhibited dedication towards goal one — a personal and active faith in God … but also a unique commitment towards the building of community as a Christian value.”

Later quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carolyn told her classmates that it didn’t matter what their future or past holds, but rather what their character is made of.

“I am confident that every member of the class of 2013 has the internal capacity to achieve greatness, regardless of past or present circumstances,” she said. “The uniqueness of each person in our grade will ultimately be seen in how she chooses to fashion her own essence with the existence she has been given.”

 

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