‘Facing Fears’ Charter Day Speech 2013, April 19th, 2013
Full Text of speech below:
By Alexis E Santí
Alexis E Santí, H ’99 speaks on dreams and fears. Speaking to the Hobart honor societies in the chapel on HWS campus in Geneva, NY. April 19th, 2013.
I’d like to thank the Deans, President Gearan, my wife, the honor societies: the Druids, the Chimera, and the Orange Key, and my friends who made it up from short and long distances.
This is a special day. Charter Day was a sacred and still is a sacred time, in my opinion, so thank you for allowing me to share some of my thoughts with you on this special occasion.
I wept as the Druids were picked my first year. I think it’s a sacred tradition and it’s with them in mind that I dedicate this speech; but it’s also with the rest of the statesmen who stand up every day and do work and perhaps will not be picked today that I would like to dedicate this speech. So a round of applause for the statesmen who are leaders.
So no matter what you do over the course of four years, it’s about the next forty that matter, so try to keep that in mind. If there’s one theme to my speech, it’s what you do afterward. I’m not a prize-winning novelist, I’m not a prize-winning photographer, I’ve not donated tons of money to Hobart and William Smith, despite all the pleas I get from Alumni House (hope my check is going to be cleared soon, guys), and while I have a wealth of experience in university administration, I haven’t risen to the highest of ranks. I’m not a Dean; I’m a Coordinator of Travel Safety for the University, and I’m humble about what I do, but I work hard and I love what I do.
More than anything, I’d describe myself as an artist. Kurt Vonnegut said, “The Arts are not a way to make a living; they are a human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or how badly, is a way to make your soul grow. For heaven’s sake, sing in the shower, dance to the radio, tell stories, write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward: you will have created something.”
I’m in the process, just like the rest of you. Further, I admit and believe that being in the process as a human being is the most important place that you can be, to be honest with yourself.
I grew up down the road from here, in Ithaca New York. I’m the son of Cuban refugees. My father left my family when I was in fifth grade and I grew up with my mother, very middle class. I was a B/C student, the counselors didn’t really care much, and I was never really encouraged to go to college. I knew I was going to, though. I believed and understood that “making something of yourself” had college inside of it. So I had a dream of doing other things. If my speech has a second theme, it’s: know that; follow you dreams.
I went to college, though, at Cortland State, at first. SUNY Cortland is down the road from Ithaca, and every Tuesday and Thursday and I’d go to this little fish fry stand, and I’d have a milkshake, and a big thing of fish, and then I’d go to class. So, you can see where this is going. Every Tuesday and Thursday I’d be asleep half the class, and by the time the semester ended I weighed about 190 pounds. I got a D in Math, and a C in Political Science, and I was told that I probably should transfer.
So I didn’t know what to do. I thought college was something you just “did.” So I asked some friends: Where could I transfer to? What could I do? And they said, “Well, Hobart and Williams Smith is a great place, it’s up at the north end of Seneca Lake.
So I came and visited, and something changed in me. I realized college wasn’t something you just “did,” it was some place to believe in; it was some place that you learned to love. It was some place that you started dedicating yourself to. And I felt all that just by walking on these hallowed grounds.
So I walked into Admissions and I told them that I had never been to college before and that I was weighing my options. So I sort of fibbed my way into Hobart, to tell you the truth. So I went back down to Ithaca and enrolled in a community college and worked my butt off. It’s true. I got a 4.3 and I came back, and I met with Kathy Regan, who worked in Admissions at the time, and I said to her, “I haven’t been completely honest with you,” and then I showed her my transcript from Cortland State. She shook her head, and said she’d think about it.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and I’ve had a lot of great successes, but the day that I got a call from Hobart College, that was one of the best days of my life, because it let me accomplish my first dream.
Sometimes you have to risk it all to get what you want out of life. So that’s probably my next theme: it’s about chasing those dreams, because getting into Hobart meant I had a chance. I had a chance at life. I wasn’t just some kid who was sitting in a fish fry, eating a big plate of fish and drinking milkshakes.
So I came to HWS. I learned I love these things: writing, creating, writing poetry, being active on campus. I learned intensive techniques in facilitating dialogues about race and racism, class and the “ism”s.
There are two ways to live your life: by length, and by width. Colleges like Cornell teach someone how to live the length of their life; how to be intense in just one discipline. Someplace like Hobart and William Smith lets you live with the width every single day. You’re training to be warrior poets in your life. To be not only a biologist but also a photographer or a novelist on the side. There’s something incredible about that, and society doesn’t pay enough attention to it.
During my junior year, we received a speech from the head of the Cherokee nation: Wilma Mankiller. In that speech, she talked about going where the fear is. She talked about, when it comes between two roads, that you always have to think about what it is that you need in your life to fill those gaps, what it is you need to face. Now, you’ve heard about things that I did: I was a trustee, I was Vice President of Chi Phi and the Secretary and I did everything possible on campus because I think deep down inside I still thought of myself as that kid that was sitting at the fish fry. The truth is I wasn’t, but I was working so hard to convince myself that I had to earn my place every single day. Well, my coping technique for that was downing about six vodka and cranberries at the side show every night. I know it’s funny, but by the time I was a senior that had taken a toll on me, and I definitely had an alcohol problem. It’s difficult to admit in front of everybody here, but it’s true. Sometimes facing your fears is the hardest thing that you had to do. So I turned to the people that knew me best, which was my fraternity, and I said, “I need help.”
During the course of my senior year, my brothers watched over me, making sure either I took it easy or I didn’t drink at all. I can now celebrate fourteen years of sobriety because of them. [Applause.]
Without my fraternity, and without the faculty who supported me and the other administrators who knew me and supported me, I probably wouldn’t be here today, and I certainly wouldn’t have done the things that I was able to do in my life.
After I graduated I went where the fear is again, and I became a Peace Corps volunteer. I had two fears from that: one, living in a post-communist country really scared me; and two, learning another language really scared me. You see, I was raised by Cuban parents but I didn’t learn another language growing up; I was raised right in Ithaca. So I faced that, and I went to Romania, and I traveled, and I saw amazing things, and I worked with street children for two and a half years. You do Peace Corps not because you’ve looking to save the world but because, deep inside I think you have a desire to save yourself. And over the course of those two years, I learned Romanian fluently, and I became a coach, a fundraiser, I applied myself to different languages and I tried to absorb the whole world around me. But most importantly, I left the community behind just a little bit better than it was when I first found it. And I like to think that that’s one of the themes that I have in my life, and that I think everybody should have, is that the ultimate goal of human experience is to go wherever you are, and leave it just a little bit better than when you found it.
After the Peace Corps, I took my small stipend—I’m talking very small—and went to Spain, and I faced that next fear: I wanted to learn Spanish.
Within about a month I was speaking in sentences, and within about two months, I was fluent. Be bold, and strong. Don’t ever listen to anyone else about how you can’t do the things that you love. You’re never too young. You’re never too old.
The next choice was coming back to America, in a post-9/11 world. And you have to understand, when I left America it was 1999; it was the boom years inside of America. Guys who were C-minus averages in European Studies were going to New York City and getting big paying jobs. It was the sort of economy that we haven’t seen ever since then. But when I came back, I responded to this great job offer working for… they needed somebody to speak Romanian who understood Romanian culture, and I thought that sounded sort of me, and applied while I was living in Washington D.C., and I was told that it was to work for the Prime Minister of Romania. To run his political campaign. I was kind of shocked. I just come back to America and I had been applying to Masters in Fine Arts Programs. My next dream was to pursue the arts; to become a writer. I also had another dream: do international education and hire administration. Give back to colleges.
So when the second round of interviews came about, the first thing that the person said to me—Jeremy Rosner, who Mark knows—Jeremy turned to me and said, “Well, I’ve spoken to your references, and Mark Gearan says you’re a genius.” (Pause.) “For hiring him.” (Laughter.) “And he said, the job will pay $10,000 a month; there will be a sign-in bonus of $10,000 a month. You’ll have a campaign completion of $10,000 a month, and it will all be tax free.”
And I thought about it a lot. Trust me, it was really hard. But it wasn’t my dream to work for the Prime Minister of anyplace. I just wanted to write. I just wanted to work with people like you; people who care about students.
Don’t chase false dreams. Don’t chase false dollars for no reason. Life is too short for that.
So I turned that down, and I haven’t thought about it since, really.
Coming back to America was difficult. We were just starting to go to war in Iraq. We were still in war in Afghanistan. And I think it’s a shame, a shame much greater than Vietnam. It’s lasted longer and it’s cost just the same.
Since then, I’ve earned two Master’s degrees, been a publisher of a literary journal, worked in many places and had all sorts of life experiences; traveled to thirty different countries and rounded out the lessons that I learned at Hobart and William Smith. The lessons that I learned here, the education that I earned here, excels my Master’s degrees and excels the experiences that I’ve gotten in other places. We live in an absurd world, and that’s the one thing you need to learn as you’re getting ready to graduate, my friends, and as you think about this job and work force. Stop trying to make sense of it all. Stop trying to fit in. And if you need examples of living in an absurd world: global warming has torn apart two of our coasts; two wars in eight years, and an impressive amount of waste went into them and we got very little; major writers are content with writing about zombies and vampires (even though I like some of those); the most trusted newsmen are Stephen Colbert and John Stewart, who are both comedians; you can buy a fully-loaded semi-automatic weapon online with removable clips, but health insurance is a controversial subject. America needs you to seriously go forward and fight for truth, and to go and do amazing things. Stop trying to hold on to models of leadership that maybe aren’t working that well.
I now work and believe in serving others, in both international education and being a writer and supporting others.
One more quote from Kurt Vonnegut:
“Be soft, and do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
And I think of that in terms of our friends in Boston and for everybody who is suffering today in America, both there and Texas.
I am in the process. I have only these things that I’ve learned so far. I have more to do. I just need time. That’s all it’s about. Time to write. Time to help others. Time to take pictures. In another fifteen years I’m going to have more to say, more to tell you about. But what I know is all of you have so much time in your lives, for things to do, and that we need you for a better world and a better place. This is a special place, Hobart College. It creates radically different men than any other place in the world. You are all wise beyond your years, and I’m anxious to hear all of your own stories.
–Transcribed by Dalena Frost, MFA