Civic Scholars Gephardt News

Dan Sicorsky Challenges New Students to “Bravely Imagine a Life”

Dan Sicorsky, a Dr. Margaret A. Olsen and Dr. Joseph N. Marcus Civic Scholar, addressed incoming students at Convocation in August 2018 as the senior speaker, urging them to pursue their dreams, discover their passions, embrace uncertainty, and respond to their civic and community responsibilities. Dan is a senior studying political science and writing. On campus, he is the co-editor-in-chief of the Washington University Political Review, a peer tutor at the Writing Center, and an Annika Rodriguez Scholar. 

I am deeply honored, and a bit scared, to speak with you tonight. Thank you for having me here, and thank you for your patience as I begin, but promise not to end, on a somber note.

I didn’t feel too well on this night three years ago, sitting where you are right now. My own Convocation fell on my birthday. Instead of celebrating with family and friends in the comfort of my hometown, I was in a very unknown place swarmed by new people. Once it was all over, once I had cheered my throat away and exhausted my introverted self, I returned to my Rutledge dorm room. All my new suitemates were still out celebrating, and the room was empty, quiet. I laid down on the common room couch, hugged my knees, and closed my eyes. I cried.

I cried because I missed my family’s traditional Argentine dulce de leche birthday cake. Because I’d had enough over the past few days of feeling like capitalism’s unwitting victim at Bed, Bath & Beyond. At least one tear was also shed for a roommate I could already tell did not flush the toilet. But mostly, I cried because I was overwhelmed by a feeling of unprecedented independence and loneliness.

It’s that feeling that I want to discuss tonight. I want to talk about how we can have confidence knowing we control our own lives, and more specifically, about how we can grow comfortable, during college but also after, with being off-path, unanchored. This advice will be for you as much as it will be for me; I could also still use it.

I wager that despite all the accompaniment and support tonight, despite all the advice you’ve already received, a lot of you also feel like you’re on your own. You must realize that once your parents leave, a frightening load of responsibilities will fall to you. What you eat and whether you exercise, how you shape your daily schedule, which classes you take, who you befriend, what you do with all your time, what you do with your life—it will all be up to you. The world, for you, right now, is enormous.

Some of you, more than others, have been craving this independence. Part of me was, too. But part of you is probably also scared. And, as you should be. We’re social animals, all of us. We can’t believe our futures are up to us—us tiny, four-limbed, temperamental mammals. Everyone here—your RAs and WUSAs, your parents, professors, the campus leaders on this stage—everyone fears treading alone at one point or another, no matter their air of confidence. Long ago, humans lived tribally because packs promised resources, power, security. Have we really changed all that much? Today, we call ourselves Cincinnatians and Cubs fans, doctors and bankers, Hispanic, biology majors—names, titles, and identities that deliver us security in numbers. It’s a big, turbulent world out there. Sometimes it feels we are drowning in a decade of especially rough waters—politically, environmentally, economically—so of course we dash for the few life-jackets scattered about. We want to feel accompanied. We want to feel safe, grounded.

On my Convocation night, I feared the boundless agency to do and be whatever I wanted. The entire world felt open. Among millions of next moves, which would I choose? This indecision didn’t exactly resolve itself. As a senior, I am often asked what’s next. I don’t know what’s next. I have no next step. I’m torn choosing between a high-paying but mind-numbing job and a career as a writer or teacher, jobs I’d love, but that might leave me financially unstable. I can’t tell you what’s next, nor can I tell my mom, her friends, nor any of the absolute strangers who love to ask. All I can tell anyone is that I have a more general idea of what I’m after. I seek to live a full, happy life, one spent learning forever, developing relationships with others and with myself, living worldwide, building a family, helping those in need, and producing things—be they books, school lessons, vegetables—that make me smile.

That’s the life I would like. And it unnerved me during Convocation, just as it has on many nights since, that none of that dream can be guaranteed by a major, nor a degree, nor a profession. There is no surefire way I can “make it.” It’s just me determining whether I succeed, whether I screw up, whether I give up or settle for less. I don’t like how accountable, how alone, and how responsible this makes me feel.

Every time our world grows bigger, it is tempting to want to make it smaller. Because sometimes we don’t trust ourselves with so much responsibility; we follow tried-and-true paths that will, most likely, guarantee us jobs, money, success. It’s comfortable. It’s why in college, students often latch on to a major, cling to a group of friends, pledge loyalty to a fraternity or student organization. These bases have long defined “successful” college students, and they make us feel like we’re on some path, any path.

By all means, go ahead and absolutely make friends, join these groups; they will fill you with community and love.

But do consider this: College is not a place where you should always feel on track. At this university and during your time on this earth, I encourage you to follow you and your heart above all else. No freedom is greater than that of commanding your own days. So be original. Individuals strong enough to design their lives as original compositions instead of presets relish that they answer not to the routine but to themselves.

Now, I absolutely agree that this is uncomfortable and scary. The truth is that most of us are not naturally confident and strong enough to take big risks. Endurance is an ability we must develop, strenuously, and not without a good deal of self-doubt. Often it feels easier to just make safe decisions, to go down well-established roads that have already worked for others.

Whether that’s actually in fact the smarter alternative, I can’t say. I’m 21, not 81; I don’t know what works out best in the end. But I refuse to believe, and I think you would, too, that wealth, fame, and career success are the most important goals worth fighting for. Of course we should be ambitious and seek professional success. We just shouldn’t focus only on that. I think you should decide for yourself what to prioritize. Health, justice, love… happiness, self-respect, passion—I think these should be our priorities.

I believe passion matters because each of you has your own aspirations. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, at an internationally-renowned university. During college and also after it, you’re seeking the highly personalized dreams in your head. To arrive at that original dream, you will often have to take unfamiliar and risky steps. Think about it. You wouldn’t go look up a recipe for a brand new dish that you imagined yourself. No one’s made the dish before! Any recipe you find online might get close, but it’ll only be an approximation. It couldn’t possibly taste like what you imagined, could it?

I personally dream of being a writer. I knew this more than ever at 5:30 a.m. on October 13, 2015, when I found myself in Olin Library joyously typing up a recap of the Democrats’ first primary debate. I had a French midterm the next morning, but there I was, doing what I loved, not noticing my latte getting cold or the sun rising.

Maybe you’ve felt that feeling before. The clock stops ticking, your eyes stop wandering, you neglect your phone, and nothing distracts you. The whole world belongs to you and your task. Think back to the last time you felt this way. What were you doing? Coding computer language? Teaching schoolchildren? Advocating for a cause you really believe in. Maybe you were learning chemistry. In which case I don’t get you—but that’s the point. You are the one who’s felt that passion, that sense of knowing that, “this, this is me.”

None of this is a multiple choice question and you have no obligation to choose among the provided answers. You can forego premade paths, make of your life what you want, wherever you want, however you want. Imagine that. Imagine following you above all else. It’s tempting, I know, to silence the idealistic voice within us. And it’s tough to develop the confidence to pursue what we really want. But tonight is your warm welcome to college—one of the most comfortable, encouraging settings to explore, make mistakes, and question what matters to you. And tonight is your induction into none other than WashU—an institution whose communities and support systems are especially determined and prepared, if you let them, to help you arrive at your unique definition of your path. Because that’s no easy task, I might offer some tips to help along the way.

One. Don’t rush to closure. Try new clubs and activities. Accept that it might be three years before you meet your lifelong friends. Take random classes in new departments, and please do not wed yourself to a major. I admire the “undecided.” It’s what we should all be, because even if we have a major or a career, it is never too late to turn around. Should you decide today or 30 years from now to become a doctor, farmer, physicist, or artist, you could find a way. Good things, among them refined taste, come to those who wait.

Two. Align your time and your values. You will perform best when your responsibilities harmonize with your priorities. When all my friends rushed Greek life, I, very much not a frat boy, thought I should, too; I accepted a bid, only to drop it a full three days later because I had joined a group that was not me. Remember to ask yourself often if you’re doing things for the right reasons. “It looks good on a resume” should rarely suffice.

Three. Reflect constantly. Your mind will always be by your side, and it’s darn important you develop a good relationship with it. So speak with and listen to yourself. Take long walks, lay on the grass, or listen to music with closed eyes. It’s in those meditative, contemplative moments that you’ll find some clarity.

And four. Remember that you have many cheerleaders. Close friends, parents, professors, staff—all are invested in you. Talk with them. Phone home. I learned the value of support once I got through crying on my own Convocation night. Sweat and tears had smudged my face paint, but I walked with another Rodriguez Scholar to dinner. Waiting for me at BD were fifty people I had only just met, ready with a cookie cake and the most sweet-sounding birthday greeting I’ve ever received. There is more virtue than shame in a good cry, but you don’t need to reach tears to seek support from campus institutions and the people who love you.

To recap, I trust that if you 1) allow yourself to not have all the answers, 2) hold yourself to filling your time with involvements that ring true, 3) think and reflect and dream, and 4) keep close your supporters, you will move toward the life you desire confidently and with grace.

Before I end, I wanted to make an entreaty. Your freedom to pursue your dreams is scary, empowering, and unanchoring, but above all, it is a privilege. You must realize that 93 percent of the world has not and will not attend college. As you consider your extracurriculars and St. Louis involvements, as you go through your daily interactions with everyone from cashiers to that old goof at the baseball game, remember your privilege. The whole world is open to you, but it is not for someone who doesn’t have enough to eat, someone living under authoritarianism, someone homeless or hungry, bankrupt or without any degree. Those of us here tonight have a civic duty to help create, in our own ways, a world in which everyone has the freedom to dream, move, and live however they desire.

Today, when I doubt myself and my priorities, when competition and fears derail me, I travel back to a song my parents taught me when I was four years old. Microphone in my little hand, I used to stand on a kitchen stool and sing,

Pintarse la cara color esperanza
Tentar al futuro con el corazón

Paint your face with the color of hope.
Seek the future with your heart.

We are all here because we do dream. We do aim high. We do think about what will bring us happiness, love, joy. We demand of ourselves that our days be our dreams and our dreams be our days.

Welcome to college, and welcome to Washington University, a place where, if you regard unfamiliar roads less as dangers to avoid and more as liberating paths to pursue, you will live both the present and future you imagine.

Thank you.