Page 10,The Institute Report, June 2013
Valedictorian Reflects on the Meaning of Cadetship
For Matthew Waalkes, to be elected valedictorian is to be affirmed
as one who “speaks to the ideals and the beliefs of the class.” It is to
be called to represent what it means to be a cadet and to speak to what
the future holds for himself and for his Brother Rats.
And when Waalkes reflects on the meaning of cadetship, his thoughts
are drawn to another who served his class as valedictorian more than
50 years ago – Jonathan Daniels ’61. Four years after his graduation,
Daniels was shot and killed as he attempted to protect an African-
American child while assisting with voter registration in Alabama.
“I feel like I relate to him a lot,” said Waalkes in an exam-week
interview. “He’s someone I tried to emulate.”
As valedictorian, Waalkes looked to Daniels’ advice to his own class.
“He says that each person has something from VMI that they’re going
to regret leaving,” said Waalkes, noting that graduation from VMI is not
the end, but the “very beginning.”
“It’s the beginning of using what each person has gained from VMI
to become the best version of themselves. In a very odd way … part of
the mission of VMI that’s not always stated is this idea of finding yourself
– you have to find essentially who you are.”
A biology major with minors in chemistry and writing, Waalkes
has invested himself fully in opportunities offered to him as a cadet,
participating in the Institute Honors program and pursuing and
presenting research in biology, traveling to Bolivia and Haiti with
Engineers without Borders, working as a tour guide and a tutor in
biology and writing, and holding rank in the Corps.
Yet, like Daniels, he has the sense that he wasn’t the best cadet.
“It’s the introspective nature that both of us have and both of us value,”
said Waalkes. “It’s looking at deeper questions and not just looking at
leadership for leadership’s sake.”
Though Waalkes admits that, like many cadets, he has at times
wondered whether the challenges of the VMI cadetship paved the most
direct path to personal development, he nevertheless looks back on his
cadetship with much satisfaction.
For instance, although his research allowed him to dig deep into
specific topics in biology, what he values most about his studies is
the sheer variety of classes he has been able to take and the diverse
perspectives that different disciplines.
“It’s definitely shown me the value of a liberal arts education,” Waalkes
And, of course, there are the friends he’s made along the way.
“This is a world that you need to be able to relate to everyone, to
become really good friends with people who have divergent personalities
and beliefs,” he said. “I know VMI has given me some of the best friends
I could ever have.”
Waalkes hopes to begin his career as a teacher in a Catholic school.
Valedictorian Matt Waalkes addresses his class during the commencement ceremony.
– VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.
Matt Waalkes (center) shovels sand onto a screen to be sifted
made into concrete during the Engineers Without Borders project
in Bolivia in 2011.
– Kevin Remington photo courtesy of Washington and