Senior Class President Joey Vettiankal’s message to the Class of 2019

Senior Class President Joey Vettiankal reflected on the many ways the Class of 2019 “worked harder” to improve Washington University. Vettiankal graduated with degrees in history and political science from Arts & Sciences. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

My fellow students of the Class of 2019: Congratulations and thank you for allowing me to speak today. I’d like to thank all the faculty, staff, parents, friends, and the other special people in our lives who helped us to reach this moment.

I speak to you today as a senior in Arts & Sciences, but I also hope my words will resonate with the engineer, the doctor, the artist and the freshly minted PhD. This day is the culmination of years of academics, the friendships and relationships we developed and the growth we all experienced all have led up to this moment. Our journey has come full circle quite literally, from the beginning here at Convocation for many of us to this very moment at our Commencement.

I began my own personal reflection of the past four years of my undergraduate experience when I was given one of the best possible graduation gifts I could’ve asked for: a letter I had written my first year addressed to my future self. I wrote it as part of one the final assignments for Dean Jill Stratton’s class on leadership I took during my second semester here. The prompt asked us what we wanted our legacy at WashU to be.

I wrote about how I wanted to be remembered for making a difference here. That I wanted to leave this place better than I had found it. I even finished the note by writing, “Make the world a better place, future Joey.”

Like many of you, it was my experiences here throughout these last few years that allowed me to transform into a completely different person than who I thought I’d be.

But that’s what college is.

It’s in this unique environment where we spent late nights in Olin, cramming for finals, met people from different backgrounds than us, witnessed history unfold when we hosted the 2016 presidential debate, bonded with our friends at WILD and shared in overwhelming grief when T-Pain canceled this year.

But it was the people here who proved that at a place like WashU, the seemingly impossible was possible. WashU was where a guy with a Ninja Turtle backpack playing music could brighten everyone’s day, a first-generation student could be the first in their family to receive a college education, someone could get published in an academic journal as just an undergraduate, and a place where the son of an immigrant family from a small Kentucky town could have the opportunity to stand here and address his class for the last time at his college graduation.

But my story is only one perspective amidst a variety of experiences, and it would be impossible to capture the serendipitous moments of each of your experiences. However, I find there are universal truths of the college experience.

Like all of you, I’ve spent the last few years studying serious stuff, but today I want to talk about my not-so-secret passion: comic books. While I am not a superhero myself, I feel it’s a useful tool for explaining our own graduation. You doubt me, but let me show you!

I have found my own college experience to be eventful enough to be its own entry in the Marvel cinematic universe. It even followed the same narrative structure: the origin story, the team-up, the challenge and the final victory. I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or born in stately Wayne Manor, but I came here with cautious optimism. And as I found with all great teams such as the Avengers, the Justice League, and for the parents sitting in the audience, the Super Friends, my team-up was the friends, colleagues and those who I could share my experiences with or turn to in hard times that I found along the way. They would be important to me in facing the challenge.

I realize for all of you it was something different, but like all of you, the challenge I faced was finding out what I wanted to do with my life. For me personally, the great test was switching from pre-med to pre-law after discovering my passion for politics and history.

And finally, the victory was when we realized our true potential. It was finishing my senior thesis and fulfilling my academic interests. For many of us, it was landing our dream job, getting accepted to grad school, or embracing the uncertainty of what comes next if we haven’t figured it out yet.

And of course, the post-credits scene is our life after graduation. While we may not know what is in the works, the future certainly looks promising.

As any good hero has their wise, older mentor, I had mine. I think back to the words of my thesis adviser, Professor Peter Kastor. For those who have undertaken the task of completing a senior honors thesis, there are countless hours of research, writing and editing, and if there’s one thing that thesis writers love more than working on their thesis, it’s complaining about writing their thesis. Whenever I would find myself complaining, Professor Kastor would offer two simple words of advice: Work harder.

Professor Kastor didn’t offer this advice as an admonishment. He knew what I was truly capable of doing and pushed me to reach that potential when I found myself slacking. Looking back at these last four years, when the going got tough, that’s exactly what the Class of 2019 did.

They worked harder.

And the accomplishments of the Class of 2019 could come straight out of a comic book. We will be defined not by the challenges that we faced but rather the ways in which we overcame them.

When a group of students banded together to exercise their right of free speech to advocate for a WashU that lifted its workers up through a higher wage, they worked harder.

When members of this class recognized the grave danger of climate change, they challenged our university to take a position of environmental leadership within our nation and take action through their own investments; they worked harder.

And finally, when students wanted more accountability and a better process out of the Title IX investigation process, they created Title Mine and organized over 500 students to demand reform. They, too, worked harder.

These were moments that mattered to me. I realize they may not be the issues that motivate all of you. These may not be issues we agree on, but what I want to emphasize are the ways they teach us the value of standing up for what we believe in. I recognize that what it means to work together in other disciplines may seem different, but the central value of collaboration and mutual respect is exactly the same.

So the problems of today’s world don’t necessitate a suit of high-tech armor or a magic hammer, but rather that we use our greatest powers: our hearts and minds. And these heroes that I had been so enamored with all my life had always been there right in front of me all along. It was these individuals who worked to create a more equitable and just place, on a campus we’ve called home. Because heroes are just ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

To my fellow undergraduates in the Class of 2019, it’s been one of the greatest honors of my life so far to be able to serve as your class president during our last year together here at WashU. I am so inspired by all of you and I will miss you all very much. But our work has only just begun!

We must carry the torch passed down to us from previous generations and continue along the trajectory of progress. The world needs our hearts and our minds as we become the leaders of tomorrow.

So let’s go be heroes because a brighter tomorrow begins with what we do today.

Thank you.