05/21/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

To My Fellow Graduates: We Will Be Forgotten

Close your eyes for a moment and try to remember exactly where you were, one month before today.

Don't worry if it takes a while -- in the wake of Senior Week and associated graduation-induced revelry, I'm having a particularly difficult time remembering doing anything in the past month besides staring blearily at a screen, struggling to finish a thesis about which I am still slightly confused.

What I would like to talk about today is, in my opinion, the most incredible and complicated part of the human experience: memory.

Our graduation ceremonies this spring mark the end of four years of memories -- some that we'll never forget, and some others we'd prefer to. We've made friends that'll last a lifetime, we've set new records and donated a class gift, and on graduation day, as we sit together as a class, sweating up a storm in our polyester gowns, all of us will be thinking about those memories that we've made together.

I recently found out that human short-term memory, at best, only lasts about 20 seconds. Now, psychology and neuroscience majors know much more about this than I can explain in a few paragraphs, but the reality is, our 20-second short-term memory means that if something isn't significant enough to us, we'll forget about it almost as soon as it happens.

The fact remains that we only remember what matters to us.

We remember people who had an impact on us, whether they're our roommates, or our advisor, or that one person you met in the bathroom at the bar that one time who had an absolutely amazing conversation with you.

We remember experiences that changed us forever, whether that was presenting your research at a national conference or eating two medium pizzas in under half an hour. Or both.

Our graduations mark the end of this series of memories, and open the door for a lifetime of more. But I'd like to remind you -- when we leave our campuses after commencement, our diplomas will not the most important thing we'll be taking with us.

The most important thing we will leave with today is the memory of what we've learned in the past four years, and what we will do with it.

For St. Lawrence students in particular, each of us chose to come to a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere because we wanted to be remembered. We weren't happy with just being an anonymous face in a crowd of 20,000, we wanted to be somebody. At St. Lawrence, we could do that. We could look around us, anywhere on campus, and recognize just about everyone that's standing near us.

The thing is: After we become college graduates, after we pack up and head home, we're not going to be so lucky anymore. As soon as your car peels out of that perfectly manicured campus entrance, the responsibility to make yourself remembered belongs to no one but you.

If we are nothing more than the sum of everything that's ever happened to us, then our way forward is clear. If we want to be remembered, if we want to be significant, then we need to live our lives in a way that people will remember.

Think of what you have done in the month before today. Think of what you've done since you sat in your seat at Matriculation four years ago. Think of every friend you've made and every paper you wrote and every opportunity you had to leave a part of yourself behind for the benefit of someone else. And now imagine: what would your world be like, one month, one year, even four years from today, if you are consciously trying to change something for the better?

One of my favorite movies is called the Emperor's Club, and it's got Kevin Kline starring as a high school Classics teacher. He says something at the beginning that I will never forget. He's explaining why only certain people make it into history textbooks, and he says, "Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance."

Everyone knows somebody who has left a positive and profound mark on their lives, someone who came into your life and met you and changed you and helped you become greater. Their impact on you could have been anything: it could have been the tiniest gesture, but what they did, what they created, was greater than themselves, because what they did has survived into your own lifetime. What about you? How will history remember you?

It doesn't matter how grand your accomplishments were during your time in college. If what you've done hasn't had a positive contribution, then wherever you go, you will have done nothing more than eaten and breathed and slept and existed, and the moment you leave, you will be forgotten. No matter how much we try to slow it down, time will move too fast for us to record it.

So it is up to us, and only us, to become somebody now. To do less than what you are absolutely capable of is an insult to who you are as a person, and to what every single human being sitting with you on graduation day has the potential to accomplish.

Starting today, you have the chance to dedicate yourself to a lifetime of contribution. You can commit yourself to becoming everything that you are capable of. You can secure your place in history. You can become significant.

You have the chance to be remembered. But you have to take it.

To my fellow graduates of the Class of 2014: congratulations on getting this far. Now go and live a life that is worth remembering.