Valedictory Address - Kerry Shortell '20

Saturday, May 22, 2021
Kerry Shortell '20

 

Kerry Shortell, valedictorian of the Class of 2020

 

 

President Boroughs, Incoming President Rougeau, Provost Freije, Dean Anderson, Members of the Board of Trustees, Sister Donna Markham, Reverend David Beckmann, Faculty and Staff, Fellow Members of the Class of 2020 and all those who have supported us during our time at Holy Cross and beyond.

Welcome. After a trying year, I am so excited to share this honor with all of you as we celebrate this milestone Honorary Degree Convocation as well as the one-year anniversary of our very own degree conferral. At long last!

I was on the Spiritual Exercises silent retreat when I first learned of the tragic accident involving the Holy Cross women’s rowing team in January of 2020. It was Fr. Mac who tearfully broke the news to us, a group comprised mainly of seniors standing on the brink of everything—the shining promises of our final semester together on Mount St. James, the dreaded job hunt, and the infinite possibilities of life beyond the Cross. Shocked as we all were in that terrible moment, I could not help but feel amazed that even in the silence, our broken hearts beat as one. There was a wholeness to it all, a feeling of being a part of something tremendous.

Over the next few days I did what any Holy Cross student does when tasked with nothing more than to remain silent: I read. I desperately sought answers despite knowing there were none to be had. Even when news reached us of the immense response both within and beyond our community, I was unrelenting in my search for meaning. Eventually, my labors bore fruit in the form of a single phrase that captured my imagination: “There is always hope at the cross.”

“There is always hope at the cross.” Now, the Christian meaning of this statement is quite apparent: in times of sorrow, grief, and uncertainty, healing and promise can be found within God’s loving embrace. This statement comforted me. But my interest was piqued for another, equally compelling reason. Amidst the all-embracing love pouring out in the wake of this tragedy, I could not help but think about my experiences of hope at Holy Cross, “the Cross” with a capital C as we so lovingly refer to it. Sure, we are a deeply imperfect community within a deeply imperfect world. But even and especially in those imperfections there is room for hope. Hope is in the walls of every building here at Holy Cross. It flows through every brick in every ivy-covered wall of every academic building, every residence hall, every inch of this place we call home.

Hope lives in Fenwick, where prospective students anxiously await tours and wonder if this campus can truly be this beautiful year-round. Yes, it can!

Hope lives in Hogan, where student leaders of groups ranging from DESI to Eco-Action to Feminist Forum have made their causes the center of their storm and share this passion with our community.

Hope lives in Stein, in O’Neil, in Smith and Beaven and so on, where we built individual connections with our professors and FLAs; where we encountered others who share in our dedication to learning; where time and again we were awakened from what theologian Thomas Merton termed the “dream of separateness,” coming to terms with the responsibility accompanying the fact that each of our lives is inextricably intertwined.

Hope lives in Campion, where all are welcome regardless of creed or identity… welcome for a cookie and welcome to stay awhile.

Hope lives in BrooksResidence Hall, where the first class of Holy Cross women resided, taking the first tentative steps into a brave new world of co-ed learning. Irrespective of gender, each of us stands on the shoulders of these women.

Hope lives in the Luth Center, where student athletes participate in a vibrant community united by their tenacity to represent our college and to represent it well; where athletes, families, and alumni come together in support of The Cross.

Hope lives in the foundation of the performing arts center and the newly completed Jo, which remind us of the humbling and exciting promise that just as we will evolve and grow after Holy Cross, Holy Cross will evolve and grow after us – each of us inching towards a future that has yet to be seen.

Hope lives in Dinand, where I parked myself for hours on end two summers ago studying domestic violence as my fellow scholars researched addiction, immigration, and other pressing issues, striving to expand our minds so that we might one day build the more just and hopeful world we have heard so much about.

Hope lives in the Worcester community, where students participated in after-school tutoring programs, staffed the Abby’s House thrift shop, acted as big brothers and sisters to local students, and in doing so explored basic human questions surrounding dignity and solidarity.

Hope lives in St. Joseph’s Chapel, where we were enveloped in the boundless love of God and in that way we were renewed.

So yes, there is always hope at The Cross, I determined, excited to commence my final semester on the hill. You all know how this story goes. Not two months had elapsed before we were packing up our things and saying the goodbyes for which we were meant to have months to prepare. We mourned the loss of what was supposed to be the best semester of college, the culmination of years of hard work and dedicated study. No more Working for Worcester, no more Tuesday pub nights, no more spring weekend. Before long, the only hope we could cling to was the hope for some kind of gathering, for a chance to give a proper farewell to the people and the place that had made us. Even that hung in the balance as the pandemic continued to grow more dire.

The story of the Class of 2020 is unlike any other. While other classes may have experienced hope alive in the place that is Holy Cross, we were forced to recognize hope alive in the people. After all, what is Holy Cross if not a community of individuals united by their desire to learn and to grow as one? No longer able to delight in the physical place that is Holy Cross, we began to delight in one another and in the hope of a reunion, becoming what the Jesuits would call a communitas ad dispersionem—a community dispersed, but united nonetheless. Before long, we began to experience that same wholeness we felt after we lost Grace Rett, as well as a sense of pride for being a part of a community that resisted any and all forces that could have fractured it.

This past year has been one of enduring, extraordinary suffering – there is no denying that. Some of us are weary of mourning family members and loved ones; weary of navigating the job market in an economy battered by the pandemic; or simply weary of having to choose hope over and over despite the isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty we face. And maybe some of us are doing absolutely fine, seamlessly beginning our careers or moving on to further education and opportunities. Regardless of where each of us stands, the fact remains that willingly or not, we have been marked as part of Holy Cross’ legacy of enduring hope – an incredible and transformative hope that has carried and will continue to carry us forward.

See, where there are cracks in our hope, there is room for all things good to trickle in. If we did not ever feel hopeless, there would be no potential, no opportunity. This experience has made us stronger, braver, more prepared to do the courageous work of going forth and setting the world on fire—although I might add that our world has had enough fire and chaos to last us a lifetime.

Still, this story is not defined by its closing chapter. There will come a time when we will gather to celebrate our accomplishments together, emphasis on the together, before we once more disperse across the country and world, carrying all that we have cultivated along with us.

I would implore you to take what you have learned at Holy Cross to build a more just and hopeful world, but really, that is what we have been doing all along. Instead, I extend an invitation to continued hope, a hope I define as the gift of seeking wholeness where it is and an invitation to action, to address the injustice and suffering woven into the fabric of our world. Our world may be deeply imperfect, but we must continue to draw the hope we need to change it from the Cross, from what we have learned here, from who we have become and are still becoming.

Hope is in the walls of Holy Cross and so too is in each of us. More than ever before, I believe that there is always love, there is always home, there is always hope at the Cross. I look forward to seeing that hope alive in you, as I always have, when we come together to celebrate the Class of 2020 as we always dreamed we would.

Thank you.