When Caroline Holyoak was growing up, her mom kept a box of library books in the backseat of the car. During car rides, Holyoak became so engrossed in the stories that she ignored everything around her. Her mom would try to make up outlandish stories, like “I won the lottery today!” or “I just met Superman!” to see if she could distract Holyoak from her reading, but it never worked.
Years later, Holyoak’s attentive reading led her to become an English major and one of the University of Portland’s two valedictorians for the Class of 2019, alongside marketing major Nicole Edwards.
The University of Portland holds two commencement ceremonies: one for the Pamplin School of Business, Shiley School of Engineering and School of Nursing and another for the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education. The student with the highest GPA for each ceremony is chosen as the valedictorian, Provost Tom Greene said in an email to The Beacon. Edwards, with a 3.99 GPA, will speak at the first ceremony, and Holyoak, with a 4.0 GPA, will speak at the second.
Edwards, from Kennewick, Washington, was also the valedictorian of her high school and middle school. She said she was drawn to marketing because she enjoys presentations and public speaking, which is part of the reason she also chose to minor in communication studies. She described marketing as constantly evolving and “being different than when you woke up.” Learning about and adapting to those changes makes her excited for her classes and life after UP.
“My long-term goal is to get a job that I love going to every day, where I’m growing not only in the business, but as a person as well,” Edwards said. “I want to keep learning new things and applying things to my life.”
Innovation and entrepreneurship professor Jon Down said that Edwards’ work is notable for its depth, thoughtfulness and creativity and that drafts of her projects are better than many students’ final versions. But she appears to strive not for a grade, but to learn, he said.
“She would ask a lot of questions, but one thing she never asked me about was her grade, which was kind of interesting,” Down said. “Sort of like, if she didn’t get a perfect grade, ‘Why not?’ which is something you hear from some very good students.”
Communication professor Natalie Nelson-Marsh echoed Down in saying that Edwards values knowledge for its own sake and uses it to help others.
“She takes what she does very seriously and makes it meaningful not only for her life but the lives of others,” Nelson-Marsh said. “She really captures the spirit of the university and the mission — to be someone who grows in mind and finds what’s meaningful about the knowledge and then makes use of it.”
Holyoak, from Salt Lake City, Utah, came to UP undeclared, though she now says that she should’ve predicted she’d be an English major. Molly Hiro, English professor and director of the Writing Center, said that she started to recruit Holyoak as an English major after she submitted her first paper in ENG 112 the first semester of her freshman year and displayed the qualities necessary for an English major.
“She reads always with this attention to the details of the texts, and she listens and reserves judgments, and she thinks through the possibilities,” Hiro said. “She is generous with the text in terms of giving it time and patience. I think that’s really a quality that all good writers have.”
Holyoak’s interest in English lies in early modern British literature. With professor Joshua Swidzinski, she researched and created a digital critical edition of the work of seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley and co-authored an article about him, entitled “Abraham Cowley and the Secretaryship of the Virginia Colony,” which was published in the March edition of Notes and Queries.
Holyoak is also a Spanish major and psychology minor and appreciates the overlap between her disciplines. One of her favorite courses has been a "Don Quixote"-focused Spanish class. Matthew Warshawsky, Spanish professor and chair of the International Languages and Cultures department, praised Holyoak’s abilities and approach.
“She chose to write a continuation of the story or a chapter to be inserted in the narrative of Don Quixote, and she was the only student to do that,” Warshawsky said. “I think that speaks to her ability to push herself further and to undertake something where you have to trust yourself a little more and give free rein to your own thoughts.”
At UP, Holyoak has participated in a variety of activities and held a number of different jobs, working as a first-year workshop leader (and later coordinating the first-year workshop program), a writing assistant and an intern for the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature. She also played a leadership role for both the English and Spanish honor societies, and studied abroad in Granada, Spain her sophomore year.
“Granada absolutely changed my life,” Holyoak said. “Since then, it has absolutely shaped so many of the choices that I make and things that I think about and way that I approach the world.”
Like Holyoak, Edwards has also been highly involved on campus, working as a tour guide for the Office of Admissions, participating in four honor societies and a professional development fraternity, founding the new Sales Club, volunteering with three organizations and lectoring and administering the Eucharist at the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. She said her faith development has been an important part of her time at UP and helps her find balance in her life.
“I think it’s important to take that time away from school. Sometimes I’ll go to the Mehling Chapel and sit and pray or sit and breathe for a little bit,” Edwards said.
Edwards and Holyoak have also both played on many intramural sports teams, which they said gives them a break from school and other activities. Edwards has even won six intramural championships with some of her thirteen intramural teams.
Both valedictorians emphasized that knowing when to rest from academics and activities has been critical to their success and mental health. They both said they take Fridays off from doing homework and prioritize spending time with their friends on weekends along with completing schoolwork.
“Even if it’s off-campus for lunch for an hour, being able to get away from school and do something that take’ll your mind off of it for a little bit really helps with not getting burnt out,” Edwards said. “And I call home, too. My mom is like my best friend.”
Holyoak explained that she is an advocate for visiting the Health and Counseling Center to check in on mental health and also encourages people to value relationships alongside academics.
“I honestly don’t believe that you can have a successful academic life if your social life is really, really impoverished, and I think the opposite is true as well. If your academics are suffering, it will be really hard to be carefree and fun with your friends,” Holyoak said.
In terms of post-UP plans, Holyoak joked that she will attend school for as long as she can until somebody tells her to stop. She plans on taking a gap year teaching English in Madrid with CIEE before applying to programs for a doctorate in English literature, with the goal of eventually researching and teaching comparative literature. Edwards plans to work as a research analyst at Nuke Digital in her hometown and is eager to discover other job opportunities in her field.
In their respective graduation speeches, they will reflect on their time at UP and share lessons they learned in college. For Edwards, that means highlighting how students have written part of their stories here and how UP has given them the pens and pencils — “and sometimes the whiteout” — to write stories they’re proud of after graduation. Holyoak will stress the importance of seeking ambiguous rather than binary thought and critically analyzing difference, ambivalence and multiplicity, ideas she thinks have been highlighted during her college career.
She also said she wants commencement to be a time when all students and those who have supported them are celebrated for their accomplishments during the last four years.
“We all have put in a ton of work at UP, and also it’s never been anything that I’ve done alone,” Holyoak said. “It feels almost unfair to get the honor and to not be able to recognize all of those people.”
Dora Totoian is a senior reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.