This year, WMS community members elected to include a senior speaker in the commencement ceremony program. Katherine Desimine ’15 was selected to address her class, faculty and staff, and guests. Katherine’s speech and the commencement address from Laurah John ’05 are below. The commencement ceremony video can be viewed here
A separate speaker from the Class of 2015, Ryan Stoddard spoke at Baccalaureate the night before graduation. A video of the baccalaureate speeches by Ryan, representatives from each class, a parent, and a current WMS teacher can be viewed here
Katherine Desimine’s speech:
About a month ago, I was feeling seriously emotionally conflicted, as most high school seniors tend to feel, about this impending, imposing event we like to call graduation. So I, as someone with lots of nervous energy, decided to take a walk. I had no destination or plan in mind, no specific thoughts in my head. Just a lot of emotions- fear, excitement, deep sadness. I walked down to Solar then up West Farm Road. As I walked past the Houghton Arts Center, I was reminded of my freshmen year when there was no building in that spot. Instead, there was a tennis court. Actually, more like the remnants of one. Its foundation was disintegrating, there was no net, and weeds and moss grew up through the cracks. Looking at the Houghton Arts Center, I realized that even though WMS has changed a lot on the surface, and will continue to change after my own class leaves, its indefinable spirit will remain intact.
As I continued my reflective walk along West Farm Road, my eyes wandered up to the Great Hall and my thoughts drifted to memories of Pass the Book. Pass the Book is an annual ceremony that we do the day before graduation. The whole community sits in a large circle in the Great Hall. In the middle of the circle is a bench with a book placed on it. Anyone who wants to has the chance to get up and say, well, just about anything. They thank people who have supported them, or talk about how much they are going to miss their friends or WMS, all while holding the aforementioned book. My favorite part is when Paula gets up at the end of the ceremony and reminds us that this is the last time ever that we are going to be together in this group of people, as this community. Just us. It is such a powerful moment, because it reminds me that even through all the fluctuating and growing, we are still one cohesive community, a family. It makes me think of continuity- of how many times Paula has said those words, of how many students have sat through the incredible tradition that is Pass the Book and had that startling realization that this year is over. It makes me wonder how many seniors have nostalgically walked around campus in the spring of their senior year, as I did that day in April, contemplating everything from where they’ll go to college to that one boy they liked their freshmen year.
My thoughts and my feet continued to wander without thinking about where I was or where I was going. I knew that I would end up somewhere that held a memory or a story, somewhere that I would be safe, as I feel when I am home. That day, my feet were taking me to Wedding Hill, which is up by the farm and, if you ask me, has by far the most beautiful view on The White Mountain School campus. If you haven’t seen it yet you should definitely go there right after this ceremony ends and check it out. I promise, you will not be disappointed.
I stood there on Wedding Hill, the late afternoon sunlight pouring onto the grass, and the trees spreading out in front of me with the vast mountains behind them. As I admired the scenery, I realized that there were tears streaming down my cheeks- for the first time in my life, I had been brought to tears by nature. I still struggle to describe the profundity with which that sight touched my soul. As I stared at the expansive mountains in front of me, everything that had changed in my life over the past four years rushed into my head. Everything that the school, sprawled out below, had done for me.
I kneeled down, and put my hands on the moist grass. I closed my eyes, intending to think of some grandiose way to describe everything this place means to me. Honestly, I dreaded trying to write this speech, because being at WMS has been such an incredible experience that I felt like no words could describe what this place has done for me and every other student who passes through here, how special of a place it is. How could I possibly quantify all of the friendships, cuddle-puddles, lessons, smiles, hugs, and teachers into one five-minute speech?
If I had to try, I think it would be something like… 2 light blue victories. 4 community weekends. 4 different advisors (which by the way is not normal, that’s just me). About 5 hours of collective advice from Paddy. About 0 minutes spent following that advice (sorry Paddy). 6 games of captain’s calling. 8 field courses. Approximately 14 collective hours crying in Matthew’s office. 25 different classes. Approximately 26 times hearing the word wicked during any given day. 41 teachers, dorm parents, coaches, field course leaders, mentors, advocates. 45 project blocks. 122 hours doing crew. 524 morning meetings, and too many friends to count (seriously, I tried).
All these numbers and experiences and stories, but only two words came to mind as I sat there on Wedding Hill trying to figure out how to express my love and appreciation for this place. As I said, it’s hard to define how extraordinary The White Mountain School is, but if I had to sum it up, I think these next two words would do the job: Thank you.
In keeping with last recent tradition, The White Mountain School commencement speaker was a member of the graduating class from ten year’s prior to this year’s senior class. Laurah John ’05, of Saint Lucia, delivered the following heartwarming address during the commencement ceremony. Thank for joining us and sharing your words of wisdom, Laurah. For more information on Laurah’s work after White Mountain School, read her Alumna of the Month article here
I would like to thank the White Mountain School for the privilege of standing before you today. It is indeed a great honour to be given the opportunity to address the graduating class of 2015. Congratulations on achieving this milestone; it is without a doubt the first in a long succession of milestones to come!
When Julie Yates, contacted me last December, after a nine and a half year hiatus, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her after such a long time. I was even more surprised when she asked me to be the featured alumnae for the February e-newsletter and to deliver the graduation address at this 129th Commencement. Apparently, a Google search had revealed that I was doing something noteworthy with my life, though it was only the beginning! But let’s be honest, you haven’t really made it until you have your own page on Wikipedia….so I am still working on that! Nevertheless, I jumped at this opportunity to reconnect with my alma mater and give back in whatever way that I could. I am truly happy to be back at the WMS and to share this mementos occasion with you all.
My goal here today is simple: to share with you a part of my life story and a few lessons that I learned along the way. Maybe it will resonate with you, maybe it won’t; maybe you’ll be inspired or comforted about the future; or maybe you won’t. At the end of it all it will really be up to you to find something of value…..if anything at all!
UNESCO Startup Weekend
As you heard in my biography, which was so graciously presented by your Head of School, Tim Breen, one of my most recent accomplishments, of which I am very proud, is winning the entrepreneurship competition in Paris in 2013. The competition consisted of 30 delegates from the Youth forum and 30 entrepreneurs from France, brought together over one weekend to essentially develop a Start-up. We had 60 seconds each to pitch an idea to a crowd of strangers, rally together a small team and use the next 54 hours to develop our business. We also had to prepare a 4-minute presentation that would be presented to a panel of judges on the last day. It was an incredibly intense, sleep deprived, adrenaline packed weekend and in the end, out of the ten teams formed, my team came out victorious!
Now that entrepreneurship competition is not actually what I want to speak to you about. The reality is that the genesis of my success in Paris – that one achievement – actually began ten years earlier, and that is the story I want to share with you today.
In The Beginning
In 2003, at the age of 17, I arrived in Bethlehem, New Hampshire at the White Mountain School, bright-eyed and completely ready to embrace this new experience that lay before me. I came from the small, Caribbean island of Saint Lucia where I had just completed Secondary School. Like most teenagers, I was anxious to leave the proverbial nest and pursue a life more glamorous, free and full of possibility – more than what I thought was being afforded to me at home.
On an academic level, I was constrained by choosing one of three career paths: to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. This tradition is a remnant of Saint Lucia’s colonial history as a former British colony. Now, to be honest, I was not particularly perturbed by this narrow field of occupational choices. I was actually quite content becoming a Veterinarian, as I love animals! Looking back however, it is funny how we are capable of never questioning the rules that govern our everyday experiences/reality. We take it for granted that this is simply how it is. I realize now what a mental straightjacket this was, which kept me from imagining the possibilities of a different kind of life for myself at home.
On a personal level, my family was going through a very difficult period as my parents were recently divorced after twenty-three years of marriage. I needed to escape the discomfort and stress that comes from newly divorced parents reeling from the trauma of a life and love lost. Each of my siblings’ were either away from home or preparing to leave home and there was no way that I was going to be left behind to deal with that situation. So when the opportunity came about to attend a boarding school in the United States, possibly on scholarship, I jumped at the chance!
The White Mountain School
Coming to the White Mountain School changed my life; my experience here took me down a path far greater than anything I had imagined for myself. The strong Liberal Arts curriculum and the dedicated teachers who fostered and encouraged my intellectual curiosity and authentic inquiry allowed me to expand my horizons.
One pivotal moment in this regard was being introduced to the field of Social Sciences, specifically the subject of Sociology. It was incredibly fascinating to learn about systems of power and oppression that govern our everyday lives; to learn about social phenomena like poverty and racism; and to undertake social inquiry. Never before had I been so drawn to a subject matter and I was fortunate to have a teacher who recognized this and continuously challenged and pushed me to explore this passion.
So, you could well imagine that it was not long before I abandoned my plan to become a Veterinarian and pursue a far more amorphous career path within this field of Social Sciences with no real or concrete occupation in mind. I am pretty convinced that such a shift in career is every parent’s worst nightmare! But it was more important for me to be honest with myself and to pursue my passion, however less traveled that path may have been. I wanted to be part of the solution in redeeming social issues.
I went to university and completed a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and then pursued a Master’s degree in Urban Studies. It was during my Master’s programme that I designed and undertook a research project that four years later would serve as the basis for my pitch at the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum’s Entrepreneurship Competition in Paris. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would go on to become the owner of a social enterprise, fulfilling my passion of addressing social issues through entrepreneurship.
Although it may not seem like it, please know that this journey was by no means straight and clear-cut. I have experienced my fair share of struggles and at various points in time I was not living, I was simply surviving. And I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. It is absolutely okay not to have it all figured out, because sometimes it simply takes time for things to fall into place. The key, however, is never losing sight of the bigger goal that you are working towards. I believed in my potential and have always been propelled forward by my desire to learn and experience more. I also used those challenges as an opportunity to ask myself some hard questions, to re-think, re-analyze and if necessary re-configure my trajectory.
No matter where I have lived or what I was doing, what has remained constant is my focus, my drive and my determination to excel. It has required an enormous amount of courage to be bold enough to live life on my terms, and to never apologize for it, even when my confidence was shaken and I questioned my next move.
To live according to your own principles is not strictly an intellectual, academic or professional endeavour; it is also a deeply personal and spiritual undertaking. For me, this has meant striving to become the best version of myself, no matter what I was doing or facing in life. It has meant being genuinely kind, especially when faced with unkind and hurtful words or actions by others, being compassionate, considerate, honest, respectful, self-less, bold, courageous and kind. This continues to be true today and will be with me for the rest of my life as the process of building one’s self is an ever-evolving endeavour.
At the White Mountain, a simple smile could ignite a life-long friendship. And I have learned that people may not always remember what you say or do, but they will remember how you made them feel. And in some ways that is one of the most valuable currencies you will ever have no matter where you go or what you are doing.
The White Mountain has also taught us that the people who care for us like the faculty and support staff are much more than simply one-dimensional beings here to impart knowledge and complete an annual work programme. They are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, friends, partners, avid skiers and rock climbers, musicians, artists, chefs, craftsmen. They are people who of have traveled similar paths to yours albeit with their own unique challenges, circumstances and adventures and are often times – if we would just take the time to acknowledge this and ask – willing to share the bits of wisdom that they have picked up along the way.
As you go through university this will be no different; your professors will be some of the greatest resources you will have. In addition to their knowledge and wisdom, they have accumulated an extensive network of friends, acquaintances and professional relationships over the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years, of their working life. So, I urge you not to dismiss the old, boring Political Science professor whose 8:30AM class may never know your presence. Instead, reach out to him/her so that they may know you and that you my gain insight and understanding and perhaps some unexpected opportunities may come your way!
In my case, it was my fourth year Political Economy professor who emailed me after I graduated from Bishop’s University to inform me about a graduate programme in Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University, where two entrance scholarships were being offered. She thought it was right up my alley based on our pervious discussions during my undergrad. So I applied, and not only was I accepted to the programme, but I received one of the two entrance scholarships. And as they say, the rest is history.
Everything that you have been doing for the last four years and all that you will embark on in the next four years at university is to prepare you for this thing we sometimes call “real life”. It is really up to you to maximize the opportunities that come your way; learn from the mistakes you will inevitably make; and persevere regardless of the struggles you will face, in order to give yourself the best chance of success….however you may define it. While it may not lead you on the path or future you envisioned for yourself, it may just be a journey far greater than anything you could have possibly imagined! So the question is, will you be bold and courageous enough to carve your own path?
Ten years ago I was sitting right where you are now, brimming with excitement and naive expectation of the world awaiting me beyond the walls of WMS! Although I was sad to leave the comfort of a place I had grown to love and call my home away from home; to leave friends with whom I had built amazing friendships that sustained me and were a staple of my everyday experience – I was ready to leave. The White Mountain School had prepared me well – just as it has prepared you – even if I did not realize then, just how well.
Today is a great day! You should all be so proud of yourselves for having made it to this point. It truly is a moment to savour and to celebrate. Congratulations to you all on your achievement!!! As you stand on the cusp of a brand new adventure, please remember this quote by William Hutchison Murray, and I quote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” End quote….the rest will fall into place.
I thank you.