Graduate student speaker Nicholas Armstrong’s address to the Class of 2023

“When you’re surrounded by brilliance, it can be so easy to dim the light within you for fear that it doesn’t shine as bright as the light you see in others. Do not dim your light,” graduate student speaker Nicholas Armstrong told the Class of 2023. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Graduate student speaker Nicholas Armstrong, who earned a juris doctor from the School of Law, delivered his message to the Class of 2023 at Washington University in St. Louis during the Monday, May 15, Commencement ceremony on Francis Olympic Field.

Below are Armstrong’s prepared remarks to the graduates.

Good morning, Class of 2023, administrators, faculty and loved ones.

I would like to begin, respectfully, by taking a moment to thank you all for this opportunity to stand before you and speak at what will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable moments of our lives. As we graduates gather here today surrounded by our families, friends and instructors, beneath the feelings of excitement, success and perhaps even disappointment and uncertainty, rests the reality of transition. Graduation is in essence the marker of transition, the ending of one season and the beginning of another in the continuum of life. In that same vein, author William Bridges wrote that change is situational, while transition is psychological. I quote, ‘Without transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.’ As such, each transition requires reflection, introspection and prescience.

Speaking as a graduate from the School of Law, I would be remiss to not mention the ways in which I witnessed the events of the last few years impact the lives of my classmates and those around me. Having to begin our program entirely remote was an experience that for many was emotionally and academically challenging in ways that would seem incomprehensible to some. Additionally, our society witnessed social and political turmoil at levels not seen in a half-century. To be quite frank, the magnitude of that experience can only be understood by those of us who lived through it. In the succeeding period, I recall conversing with several of my classmates, who expressed in detail just how challenging, how unpleasant the university experience was in those early days.

But, despite the magnitude of it all, we were able to reflect on the ways in which we found strength in ourselves and experienced personal growth. Undoubtedly the shock of the experience allowed many of us to bond with one another in ways that would have been unimaginable in 2018 and 2019. Speaking for myself and others, not only did we grow tremendously from the experience, but we found ourselves more tolerant of our classmates as individuals, more willing to listen to and engage with one another at the risk of encountering opposition and rejection due to a myriad of differences.

During the mid-19th century, our forebearers introduced to us the idea that politics makes for strange bedfellows; well, 23 years into the 21st century, I am saying that pandemics do as well.

I hope you found that funny!

I won’t attempt to humor you again, but in all seriousness, I heard someone say many years ago that the greatest individuals are those who find the strength and courage to persevere in moments of adversity. Looking back and evaluating where we are today, I believe that the Class of 2023 is the embodiment of that. I ask you to ponder this — we were given one chance to be students in our respective programs. The same can be applied to life. Make the most of it while you can and try — even in small ways — to make a difference. You only live once.

When we take the time to view ourselves as part of something greater, we realize that our lives, our existence, these moments in time, and the spaces which we occupy are part of something greater than ourselves. Our lives are but mere heartbeats in the grand scheme of creation, and yet the choices we make and the actions we take can be impactful in ways that extend far beyond our spheres of influence. Let us consider that as we pursue our respective careers.

What starts at WashU can change the world. Looking ahead, I have the utmost confidence that the future is bright for each and every one of you in the audience. And so, I will close with simple reminders that we all tend to forget from time to time. 

Let us watch how we treat people. A simple act of kindness can go a long way, changing the course of someone’s life and — given the uncertainty of where life will take us — it could even change the course of history. In a world where common courtesy has reached an all-time low, let us remember to leave people better than we found them.

Similarly, people will always remember how we treat them. Again, life is uncertain, and how we treat individuals today could carry weight on how they treat us tomorrow. It is most prudent to take a chance and plant good seeds in others. The result might be a harvest of blessings to you down the road.

As was told to me many times by my mother, ‘Don’t block your blessings.’ 

Remember to build bridges, not barriers. Speak up for what is right. Call out injustice, but remember to call the perpetrators in afterward. We have to live here together.

When you’re surrounded by brilliance, it can be so easy to dim the light within you for fear that it doesn’t shine as bright as the light you see in others. It’s easy to measure your own success by the milestones in other people’s lives. Do not dim your light. You are your greatest competitor, because you have a unique place in this world.

Remember, the sun and the moon shine at their respective times.

Lastly, as you move forward, allow the hurdles you’ve overcome to motivate you. Even if your beginnings were rough, there is a lifetime of experiences that await you. It is not how and where you start, but how and where you finish. Don’t despise humble beginnings.

I can only speak to my life experiences as a man in his 20s, but I would surmise that life is ultimately about change and how well we can adapt. Our perspectives are what add value to that change and allow us to transition from one chapter to the next. Our resilience forms our character.

So, individually, I would ask each of you to remember this as you write your story; it will make for an interesting narrative should you get a chance to tell it.

Thank you again for your time, and congratulations Class of 2023!

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