Mr. Farnham, who had been invited to give the keynote at the school’s annual Cum Laude induction ceremony, recalled his first announcement in the Phillips Stevens Chapel —a one-sentence sports recap.
“I got up, came to the podium, and said something like,” Mr. Farnham cleared his throat, adjusted the microphone, and said in deep voice, “JV cross country traveled to Westminster on Wednesday, and…”
He paused, looked mournful, and finished, “We lost.”
That public speaking debut was only one of the adjustments that Mr. Farnham had to make during his introduction to Williston life. Another shock came when he took his first French class.
“I walked in the first day, sat down, and Monsieur Mayer started speaking to us. In French! No English, just French,” Mr. Farnham said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to learn anything if I can’t understand what he’s saying?’”
Rather than settle for a low grade, though, Mr. Farnham—who would eventually become valedictorian of his graduating class—began to work on his French verbs and prepositional phrases. By the end of the grading period, he had achieved a B+.
“It was not the class in which I was getting my best grade, but it easily was the class I was most proud of,” he said on Friday. “It was the challenge, and the experience of meeting the challenge that was so energizing, so stimulating, and it kind of woke me up to what Williston was going to be about.”
Mr. Farnham, an associate professor at Mount Holyoke College and director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, applauded the 13 Cum Laude inductees for also approaching their academic careers with discipline and enthusiasm. He asked them, though, to reflect on others who had helped make their journeys a success.
“No doubt you spent a lot of hard hours alone studying, and taking tests, and writing papers. But who has presented you with the challenges?” he said. “At Williston, you have teachers and mentors who are both your challengers, and some of your biggest fans. Think about it—that is a priceless combination.”
Whether they had been newly inducted into the society or not, Mr. Farnham said that it was up to each student to strive for personal excellence. He urged them not to fear failure, but to use the possibility of failing as motivation, as he had in his French class.
“If we don’t fear failure, what should we fear? We should fear going out and not giving it everything we’ve got,” he said. “Living a life in which you only are giving half effort is a life lacking passion, lacking purpose; it’s not fun—it saps your energy. Giving it your all is always where it’s at.”
Read Mr. Farnham’s full speech here.