Min Woo Kim was named Valedictorian of the Class of 2011. Below are the remarks he shared at graduation on May 28.
Thank you, Headmaster Tracy, members of the Cushing community, members of the faculty, parents, distinguished guests, and especially, the best and the brightest, Class of 2011. I feel very honored and humble to speak today on behalf of myself and my fellow graduates.
But before I begin, I want to express my warmest gratitude for my mother who has spent more than twenty hours to be here with me. Truth be told, it is my first time seeing my mother on this campus. Although she and I visited most of the boarding schools that I applied to three years ago, Cushing, as luck would have it, happened to be the only school where we couldn’t make our scheduled visit. And so, it took her three long years to get a sense of the school where her son is having his very last day of attendance. And it also took me three years to finally tell her, “Mom, I think I really like this place. Whatever you do, just don’t tell them anything about Deerfield.”
Now, over the next few minutes, I’d like to share with you some of my own reflections on my years at Cushing. As we are saluting the 136th Commencement of Cushing Academy, we naturally feel a sense of pride and accomplishment for successfully meeting all of our demanding challenges. Here at Cushing, we have been fortunate to have been exposed to world class academic rigor in the beautiful bucolic setting of a quintessential New England boarding school. But more importantly, today, we are saluting one of the most vibrant and dynamic moments of this institution, which distinguishes our four years as being unique and irreplaceable from the previous one hundred and thirty-two years of Cushing history. These four years witnessed the collaborations with the world’s foremost scholars and institutions, the eighth Central New England Prep School baseball championship, the un-specialization of special assemblies, and finally, the replacement of paper-and-ink with Kindles. Let me elaborate on what I just said about paper and Kindles. Did you know that papyrus, the first man-made paper, was invented in ancient Egypt as early as the twenty-fifth century BC? Did you know that the history of Chinese inks can be traced back to the eighteenth century BC, and the modern industrial printing presses were developed over the past two centuries? Now, when we come to our twenty-first century, the Kindle first generation was released on November, 2007, and just over the four years since then, we have been replacing twenty-thousand traditional books in the library with millions of digital e-books. This is only one example of the dynamics that will reshape our way of living, for which Cushing has served and will continue serving as the foremost catalyst.
“If there is one unchanging theme that runs throughout these separate stories,” said one of my favorite presidents, John F. Kennedy, “it is that everything changes but change itself. We live in an age of movement and change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, both good and evil.” We are living in the age of Moore’s Law—the law of exponential improvements, the improvements in our technology, our wealth and health, our awareness of sickness and poverty, our education and communication, and most importantly, the exponential growth in our humanity. This is the age where the most powerful country in the world decides to remain the supreme defender of liberty and democracy, where a group of citizens decides to rule out the dictatorship through a nonviolent uprising, and where the richest man of the world decides to be the most generous donor for the world’s greatest needs.
What kind of decision do we seek, and what kind of decision do we need, in order to make the world an even better place? Some of us may become the next world’s largest donor. Some of us may become the first astronaut to travel outside the solar system. Some of us may finally find a cure for cancer. And some of us may give hope to other people in their everyday lives, just like all the faculty members here at Cushing. In this exponentially changing world, I have zero ability to predict what specific steps each and every one of us will take to better our future. And yet, I can share with you one inspiration from my father that guided me to make the right decisions and led me to where I stand now.
The story unfolds a little more than three years ago. In November of 2007, I decided to apply for boarding schools in the following academic year. I wanted to go to a larger school with more variety of courses and activities, better prepare for my future college, and befriend people from varying backgrounds—all the things that I ended up accomplishing at Cushing. But, by that time, I had not yet spent one full year here in the United States, and I was home-staying attending my freshman year at some small day-school in California for only about three months. So this young, ambitious boy, who was already having a hard time keeping his school work up to standard, was about to take on an even greater burden of academic work. Trying to manage the application process during school days turned out to be far more stressful and physically tiring than what I expected. During that month, I finished all my school work by ten in the evening and only then could I start figuring out the application process, filling out the forms, and writing the essays to potential boarding schools. I often found myself going to bed after midnight. One day, I realized there was something wrong with my lips. I was trying to make a smile, but somehow the right side of my lips was barely moving. It was a weird and scary feeling that I couldn’t control my own body. I went to the local hospital and the doctor said it was a facial nerve paralysis caused by mental, physical, or environmental stresses. At that moment, I said to myself, “This is it. If my own lips refuse to smile, it means I better stop.” There was no one forcing me to do this anyway. If I gave up, I could sleep some extra hours and hopefully my lips that had gone on strike may come back to me. And yet, there was one last thing I had to do before I burned and tore up my application forms. Earlier that year, the day before I flew over the Pacific Ocean to come to America, my father handed me a letter. In fact, the existence of that letter was in my mind all the time because it was probably the first letter that my father wrote me on a regular working day. I got back home and took the letter from the drawer. On the white envelop, it said, “From Dad to Min Woo. Open it when you feel lost in life.” There had been other times when I was tempted to read it, but that line just held me off because I wasn’t sure how deeply lost I had to be. But this time, I opened the envelope. From my father who was a translator of very sophisticated books and a writer himself, and who had himself studied in the United States, a profound letter of considerable length, full of wisdom and advice was what I expected. So, you can understand my surprise when a second later, I was staring at these seven letters with a big exclamation mark at the end. “Courage!” was my father’s word. Underneath was placed the same word in Korean. And of course, all of it so unexpectedly short. Bemused. And yet, I was captivated by the aura of infinite hope and possibility that this word was exuding. The rest of the story goes as you would anticipate. I was accepted by several schools. And although I didn’t get a second chance to visit the campus until its September orientation, I decided to become a penguin. By the way, since my decision was entirely based on its school website, for me to stand here on the podium and have this honor to give you a speech today is like one ending up marrying someone only met on Facebook. Why? Well, because pretty girls or handsome guys on Facebook usually turn out to be not so attractive. I mean, so I’ve heard. Since I came to Cushing, my three years have indeed proved the limitless power of courage. Whether it was to decide to take Mr. Shubleka’s infamously tough AP Calculus class, or to join Dr. Sponholtz’s educational company as a marketing manager, or to sign up for the Critical Issues Forum and travel to California to discuss nuclear non-proliferation with Dr. Shields, I stayed active and responsive to every opportunity Cushing provided for me.
I share this with you because these opportunities have been realized by many of you already, and for my fellow students who are currently under-classmen—yes, those of you way in the back there—these and many other opportunities await you, too. But you must have courage to set out a course for yourself to improve your life; to realize your potential and become the person you were created to be. Courage, in the final analysis, is not what you need to learn from the outside inwards; courage is to discover and believe in what is already there inside of you and demonstrate outwards.
My fellow graduates, with my sincere wish for the best luck and future for you, I’d like to finish with a quote from one of our greatest leaders, Winston Churchill, “Success is never found. Failure is never fatal. Courage is the only thing.” Thank you.