University Medalist is optimistic about his uncertain future

Eric Olliff won the 2012 University Medal, and, as UC Berkeley’s top graduating senior, he got to address the rest of his class at Saturday’s Commencement Convocation. Here’s what he said:

So, when I found out that I was a candidate for this award, I immediately started freaking out. In part because it was such an incredible honor to even be considered, but mostly because I knew that if I won, I would have to stand here today and deliver a speech in front of 16,000 people … attempting to control both my voice … and my bladder. I had no idea what I could say that would be of interest and value to you all. Naturally, I decided to dig deep into my soul …. on … and when I typed “valedictory speeches” into that search box, I was pretty disappointed … no offense Eric. The results were along the lines of “tell people to follow their dreams” … “tell a funny anecdote with universal appeal” … pretty standard, run of the mill sort of stuff.

Eric OlliffSo, I decided to look at the past winners and finalists for this award in an attempt to borrow some inspiration. I found an article about Aaron Benavidez, last year’s medalist, and read something that caught my eye. Reflecting on why he was able to succeed, he said, “Berkeley is a place to which you have to come knowing yourself. By the time I arrived, I knew what I wanted to do and the courses I wanted to take.”

These words surprised me, because I had a very different experience here at Cal. I had no idea what I wanted when I came to Berkeley four and a half years ago. The main reason that I decided to take Chinese my first semester was simply because I wanted to be in at least one class with less than 500 students.

And although I didn’t know what I wanted to take away from Berkeley, I believe that I have received a lot. I had the privilege to live for two years in the fine establishment that is Cloyne Court, an historic hotel that has been converted into student cooperative housing and where I met so many of my closest friends. I got to spend a summer in the mountains at UC Berkeley’s Forestry Camp, where I leaned about Sierra Nevada ecology and soaked up the knowledge while marinating in the local swimming holes on lazy afternoons. In the true spirit of Berkeley, and in a fierce attempt to fulfill my own stereotype, I traveled down the California coast … in a rainbow-colored bus. I studied abroad in China, swinging alongside sagacious senior citizens on the monkey bars at public parks.

Last fall, I lived at a UC Berkeley research station in French Polynesia, where I researched the relationship between a shrimp and a starfish while at the same time researching human relationships  (our class had 18 girls and only three boys) on a tropical island … and I was the only boy without a girlfriend back home.

I fell in love here at Berkeley … twice.

So, I had no idea what I wanted when I came to this institution, and yet it turned out pretty damn good.

So while reading about other University Medalists to find inspiration for this speech, I noticed a common trend. They all had pretty remarkable plans — medical school at UCSF, a PhD program in computational engineering at Stanford, master’s program in evolutionary anthropology at Harvard. All that I have lined up is a summer research job that pays $13 an hour, and while I don’t take that for granted in this recovering economy, it still doesn’t have quite the same ring as graduate school at Oxford.

So, in the process of trying to figure out how to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduating class, I started spiraling into what I call … the “post college crisis”, a psychological disorder that has plagued many of my friends who are graduating.

While in school, a lot of us felt as though we had a purpose, a set path of required courses and interesting electives to reach the end goal of a degree. However, graduation represents the end of this path, which is both a cause for celebration, but also somewhat unsettling. Surrounded by thousands of accomplished classmates, we feel the need to know exactly what we want to do in our post-college lives, which is only reinforced by never-ending question from our parents, relatives, and peers: So what are you gonna do after graduation?

Naturally, a large majority of us don’t know the answer, myself included. On most Mondays, I want to return to China and attempt to master a difficult foreign tongue. On Wednesdays, I want to finish vet school prerequisites and pursue a degree in wildlife veterinary medicine. On Fridays, I want to enroll in a PHD program in conservation biology. And by the time the weekend rolls around, I mostly just want to buy a Winnebago and go live in Yosemite Valley. And while this uncertainty is unsettling and nerve-wracking at times, I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t have to be.

I came to Berkeley having no idea what I wanted to do with myself, and that turned out quite all right. Why then, do I have any reason to believe that the future will be any different? Some of us know what we want to do for the rest of our lives, and some of us are just as unsure as the first day that we stepped onto this campus. No matter where we stand, let us not fret or panic, but rather celebrate our accomplishments.

Berkeley is not a school that babies its students. Our hands have not been held throughout this process, and the very fact that we have made it this far demonstrates that we have developed the ambition and dedication necessary to navigate life successfully. So let’s not stress about the days ahead, for I truly believe that we can put faith in the fact that the same intelligence, drive and bad-ass nature that brought us to this very stadium today will continue to guide us into the future.

Thank you.