Lessons From My Classmates
This speech was delivered at the 70th Annual Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2017 on May 13th, 2017.
Thank You, President Chodosh. Thank you to our distinguished guests, as well as to all our administrators and deans. Sorry for all the trouble we caused. A huge thanks to our fantastic faculty for constantly pushing us to be better. Mom, Dad, Viveka: I can never repay your sacrifices that brought me here, but thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m sure you’re glad my graduation cap covers my haircut. Finally, thank you to my classmates, the incredible graduates of the Class of 2017 and some of the best dance buddies, intellectual foils and friends a person could ask for. I’m honored that at least half of you wanted me to give this speech; I’ll try and do you justice.
Someone once described the experience of finishing college as being “young and uncertain, starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful."
And when thinking about what to say here today, I realized that I finally understood that description and the contradictions it contains. So, I hoped to find something to say that could be of assistance to you all as we work through these contradictions. Originally, I was planning on saying something about pursuing your passions and taking this great privilege and education we have and giving back to the communities around you. But that seems redundant. Not only have countless individuals told us that already but more importantly, I’m already quite convinced that all of you will do this. You have found or are searching for your passions, you understand the value of your education, and you are itching to go out into the world and do as much as you can to make it better.
So instead, I want to take this opportunity to describe three lessons that I have learned during my time at CMC. These aren’t necessarily lessons I have learned in the classroom, although they are certainly applicable there. Rather, these are things that all of you have taught me. They are the qualities I admire and the principles you hold that contribute to your success but that I worry we often forget when we most need them (at least I do). So, I wanted to codify them here today, with the hope that they will be of some use to you after we leave this strange four-year-long camp tomorrow.
The first lesson is the importance of revealing your true preferences. At its core, this is really just about constant and open communication. It means expressing your thoughts and feelings to yourself as well as the people around you, and it also means voting (in all elections, not just every four years). It means letting your friends know when you really want to see Hans Zimmer at Coachella, but also expressing when you think a friend has had too much to drink. When your views are made public, it forces other people to be aware and respond to them and fosters healthier relationships. (It also means that Google and Apple and Facebook know absolutely everything about me, but I’ve just accepted that). True, it does require a certain level of vulnerability, which I admit can be difficult. But when we’re not comfortable with expressing our views, it’s clear just how much it limits us. The flip side of this is that we also have to be considerate when others reveal their preferences, and even when we don’t agree, engage and understand why they feel the way they do.
Second, you all have shown me the value of humility, especially in the epistemic sense of not believing that you have all the right answers. If there’s one thing that CMC has taught me, it’s that I don’t know anything (including why you all selected me to give this speech). The day I realized and accepted that was one of the most freeing days in my life. As someone who has always been something of a stubborn fool, I was incredibly impressed by my peers who would enter conversations without the goal of proving that they were right and that they would change your mind. Rather, they simply wanted to learn more, about themselves and their positions as well as about other perspectives. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be confident in your beliefs and principles, just that you should not be arrogant in your infallibility. The world is so much more complex than we can comprehend and our views are rarely nuanced enough.
I used to support ban-the-box policies because they were designed to benefit formerly incarcerated individuals and, well, they seemed liberal. And then I met a researcher who described how these policies actually had very negative effects on Black job applicants, and I began to oppose them. Later, over dinner at the Ath one night, someone brought up the value of ban-the-box and how it does reduce the stigma of having a criminal record. So now, I have no idea what the right answer is (other than that it’s complicated), but I understand that constantly searching for it can only be beneficial. Every time I open up my beliefs to be picked apart, I find myself learning more about my own views. One of my favorite characteristics of CMC students in the classroom is how we always work to be constructive, not competitive, and I think that same dynamic is important in all of our interpersonal interactions. Basically, sit down and be humble.
Lastly and probably most importantly, I think we have learned that Things Work Out. We all face a slew of troublesome situations and circumstances (some that are of our own creation), but I truly believe that it all comes together in the end. And this doesn’t happen because the universe has a plan for you, or because of the robot alien overlords that control our simulated lives, but because we make things work. So many times I have seen you all take the most difficult situations, and figure out how to make the most out of them, because you know that no one else is going to do it for you. Things work out because we persevere until they do. I am constantly in awe of how brave and courageous you all are, and the amount of work you put in to make the best out of otherwise mediocre circumstances. I like to compare the process to the experience of a mosh pit. Sure it’s chaotic and you might take a few hits, but you stay on your feet, you keep moving forward, and in the end, you’ll have had an exhilarating experience. Have faith in yourself and recognize your intrinsic value and worth, and I have no doubt that you can get through anything this world may throw at you.
I want to conclude with a small note, and that is thank you all for teaching me to live for love (which surprisingly is not a lie). To quote James Baldwin, “I use the word "love" ... not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth." Be daring, Class of 2017, and congratulations. Thank You.