Stanescu-Bellu: The Valedictorian

It’s time to stop clinging to our titles and embrace ourselves.

by Sofia Stanescu-Bellu | 2/28/17 12:20am

The other day, I felt compelled to check the website for my high school’s student newspaper. Since arriving at Dartmouth, I hadn’t paid any attention to current events at my old school, and I was curious to see what changed during my first five months at college. Sports highlights, interviews with teachers, movie reviews — typical high school journalism filled the paper, until I stumbled upon an article titled, “Valedictorian and Salutatorian titles will no longer be offered as GPA recognition during graduation.”

At this, I felt a rush of annoyance and anger. Removing the title of valedictorian? Were they kidding? I thought back to those long nights junior and senior year when I stared dejectedly at the piles of unfinished work on my desk, wondering if I should just go to bed. My goal of being valedictorian was the only motivation that kept me up through the seemingly endless hours of work, countless tests, exams and quizzes and 14 Advanced Placement classes. The goal of walking across the stage at graduation, delivering a speech in front of my friends and classmates and being able to tack on the title of “valedictorian” next to my name fueled my drive to succeed. And I was successful — I remember the euphoria I felt when I met with the principal, and he told me that I was number one in my class.

The title of valedictorian isn’t the only honor out there that people like me dream of adding to our résumés, LinkedIn profiles, Facebook pages and Twitter bios or casually sneaking in during conversations with others. “Ivy League Student,” “4.0 GPA,” “software engineer at Apple,” “investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs,” “MBA candidate at Harvard Business School” — the list of titles and status symbols goes on. These titles have become the holy grail of many students at Ivy League schools, and Dartmouth is no exception. Why do we cling to these words and to the prestige they invoke?

At the end of the day, these titles mean little in determining what we are worth as individuals. It hurts me to say this after wearing the valedictorian sticker for so long and aiming to add more coveted titles to my résumé. But it took some self-reflection to realize the brutal truth: these titles don’t hold as much weight as I once thought.

As David McCullough said in his “You Are Not Special” graduation speech, each year there are 37,000 valedictorians graduating from high schools across the country. Based on fall 2015 enrollment figures, there are currently 61,305 undergraduates enrolled at the eight Ivy League schools and 16,000 Software Engineers at Apple, according to LinkedIn. Sure, going to Dartmouth sets me apart from the 99.6 percent of college students that don’t attend an Ivy League school, but within this subset of the population, what differentiates me from another student at Dartmouth?

It’s not my “Ivy League student” title that makes me unique or speaks for who I am, it’s my personality, my Romanian heritage, my ability to play chess, my passion for French, my love of peanut butter, my fascination with computer programming that make me, me. While it is true that attending Dartmouth and being valedictorian of my high school class speak for my drive and ambition, that’s not all there is to me. In clinging to these shallow titles, we lose a sense of who we are and the little nuances that make up our identity. We begin to identify with those typed words on our résumé so much so that they consume us and leave nothing behind but those Times New Roman 12-point precision typed letters.

In saying all of this, I still don’t agree with the stripping of the valedictorian and salutatorian titles from my former high school. While being valedictorian will no longer matter in a few years and doesn’t represent all aspects of my identity, I still value the hard work and grit that I put in to attain this title. It is still a validation of the attainment of my goals and proof of my abilities, and these titles should still be awarded to recognize individuals’ hard work. There is nothing wrong with having these titles or enjoying the feeling and prestige that comes with them. There is something wrong, however, in letting these titles define — and strip away — your identity. You don’t have to be valedictorian to have a passion for learning and an ambition to succeed. You don’t have to work at Goldman Sachs or Apple to be considered a success. You don’t have to have a title to have an identity.

A title should be an afterthought — our passions, drive, interests and identities should speak first and titles second. The title should be the icing on the cake, a garnish that makes the cake sweeter but doesn’t represent the whole flavor. When we remove the crutch of our titles and stand alone, we can see the full picture of who we are: our triumphs, our defeats, our past and a glimpse of our future. Looking in the mirror, I see me: Sofia. Not “The Valedictorian” or “The Ivy League Student,” just Sofia. And that’s all that matters.