I was honored to deliver the following Student Address last weekend during Brown University’s Doctoral Commencement Ceremony:
‘On Making It, and What to Make of It’
Doctoral Commencement Address
Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle, Brown University
May 29, 2016
Thank you, Dean Weber. Good Morning, everybody.
Mr. Mencoff, Dean Weber, Members of the Faculty, Friends and Family, Fellow graduates—fellow doctors. What a beautiful morning this is. And what an amazing gathering.
I’m extremely grateful to my peers on the Graduate Student Council for giving me the high honor of speaking to you today, and for the privilege of taking in this remarkable view. Friends, there is now no question that we have, indeed, earned these stripes. And they look great on us! Congratulations.
We made it! But what is it that we made? Well, maybe you’re familiar with some tongue-in-cheek interpretations of the letters we have earned – of Ph.D. as “piled higher and deeper,” for example, “philosophically disturbed,” or as a colleague once warned me, “permanent head damage.” We might laugh at these—maybe even wince a little—but the letters also appear in the word ‘pathfinder’ – a word that captures some of the richness of the experience we have just completed.
What do I mean? Well, whether we work in the lab or the library, whether we grapple with numbers and data, or meaning and interpretation, we each have a tale to tell of facing the challenges and opportunities for self-growth, motivation, and discovery—and of an exploration of ourselves, as well as our subject matter. In so many ways, we have remade ourselves: as scholars and innovators, teachers and mentors.
Today symbolizes the culmination of narratives far deeper, far richer, than the impressive dissertations we have written. I suppose this is often something that we try to capture in our written acknowledgments—well, my friends, today is a day to acknowledge ourselves, too. We made it—and we made it here, in this special place, and among a special group of people.
How should that experience shape our future conduct? Well, that’s where I’m going over the next few minutes. So let’s appreciate the journey we have just completed, and consider the great opportunity and responsibility we have to all those we will lead, teach, and mentor in the days and years ahead.
Think back to your arrival at Brown—five, six years ago (maybe more!) How did it feel? Maybe you felt some newness and the uncertainty in the path that now lay ahead of you: the sacrifices in time (and income—because nobody came here to get rich from a grad school stipend). The commitment to deep study and sustained research, and the newness and uncertainty of being a new kind of ‘student’—one who is also a researcher, a teacher, an advisor, and a professional communicator.
As I recall my arrival in Providence nearly seven years ago, I remember feeling both inspired and intimidated: inspired because Brown University had chosen me—a young man from a tiny corner of South Wales, well-credentialed but not of academic lineage. Intimidated not least because I was the first in my family to go to college—I was unschooled in the whos, hows and wherefores of academia—so there was nothing but newness and uncertainty here for me. And there was even more of it for others, not least because so much of the academy still, today, looks and sounds a lot like me.
Our experiences can tell us something about what is incumbent upon us, once the hoods are upon our shoulders, and the diplomas in our hands. I will tell you what that looks like for me—and maybe some of it will strike a chord with you.
First, though, I want to offer a whistle-stop tour through graduate school for all our friends and family. We’ve fielded your interested questions at so many holiday gatherings:
‘What is it you’re doing again in school?’
‘You’re still in school?’
‘What are you going to do with this, again?’
I’m still working on that last one. But what are we going to do with it?
Friends, while you’re pondering that, here goes: Graduate School in five “easy” pieces.
First, the coursework—we spent a couple of years taking advanced classes, finding our feet and getting to know our fields in great depth. Trying to make it through gargantuan reading lists, that millionth problem set, or endless lab prep. Eventually, we began to speak with authority and confidence.
Then came qualifying or comprehensive exams—an exacting, sometimes brutal, rite of passage where we each showed mastery of a body of knowledge, and the skillsets crucial to our field.
Next, the research: Onward we forged through the experiments. The advisor meetings. And, oh yes, the writing. Oh, boy, the writing. Comp answers, lab reports, book reviews, grant applications, dissertation proposals, chapters, abstracts—you name it, we wrote it!
All the while we were learning to teach and present: communicating is not as easy as it sounds, especially to curious, expectant audiences. Through TA assignments, conference presentations, workshops and more, we learned to shape the knowledge we create, to make it exciting and accessible to others.
And lastly, this wasn’t all plain sailing: we had our obstacles, the moments less pleasant to recall. The self-criticism. The patron nemesis of scholarship, impostor syndrome, with its ‘why am I here,’ the ‘how the heck am I still here?’ questions.
That dizzy moment of: SOMEBODY ELSE WROTE THE BOOK I THOUGHT I WAS WRITING! THIS IS HORRIBLE! WAIT MAYBE THIS IS VALIDATING? NO THIS IS HORRIBLE!
Well my friends, here’s to all of those beasties, because wherever and whenever they came at us, we prevailed, and they did not stop us reaching this moment.
So we made it. We’re here. Our paths in graduate education have reached their destination. What should we make of that? We can start by asking ourselves what parts of our journey we’re most thankful for right now. I am especially grateful for three things.
First, Fellowship and Community.
We each made it through the graduate school journey with the camaraderie and support we gave one another—fellowship like nothing but shared endurance can create. In study groups, peer mentoring, student community meetings—and, of course, just pure good fun. At GSC socials. Board game nights. Pawsox games. And at the GCB. I’m thankful for the friends I gained and the ways I grew during my service on the Graduate Student Council, advocating for graduate student concerns across the university. This, and everyone I worked with nurtured my confidence and my determination to push for institutional change.
Second, I’m grateful for an Expanding Consciousness of Privilege and Inequity.
It’s pretty clear now that Brown, like other institutions, has work to do to live up to its best ideals and achieve a more inclusive environment for all. This is a dynamic place—due in no small part to the dynamic and dedicated people among us, who challenge all of us to think critically about what we do—and how we do it. I have learned from so many who have raised and highlighted the experience of underprivileged and marginalized Brunonians. They, and some of my fellow scholars, have taught me more than I ever knew I needed to know about power, privilege, race, gender, and class in the United States and beyond. About the importance of really seeing and hearing others, and learning to be a better ally—learning which is my responsibility, our responsibility, not theirs. I am a scholar of democratic citizenship—and my work would be poorer were it not for their example and insight.
Third, I will be forever grateful for the privilege of learning to teach here.
Brown is where I uncovered my vocation and ignited my passion for education. I had never thought of myself as a teacher, so when our bright, motivated, and curious undergrads uncovered me as one, it was to more than a little surprise on my part. Their questions have deepened my knowledge and understanding; they have challenged me to explain better, advise better, and occasionally to speak slower.
Many have taught me things about myself—not least the First Gens at Brown, to whose example, inspiration, and generosity I owe more than I could ever say. I will treasure my adventures on College Hill as a teacher-in-training for the rest of my days.
What do I make of that? Fellow doctors, as we prepare to leave this special place, we have a responsibility to think about our experience, and about how the paths we forged will now become part of the ground onto which others will venture after us.
In light of this, I ask you today to consider making two commitments:
First: Learn from the worst and the best of your journey through graduate school.
Take the worst, the saddest, the most frustrating, and the least helpful—acknowledge it, and heed its lessons. Share the learning and the struggle, not the darkness.
Take the best, the most inspiring, the most motivating—those moments when you felt the pulse of your agency—treasure and build from it. Share the greatness of your journey of inquiry; be frank about the obstacles, but give due respect to the passion which drove us, and will drive others, to tackle them.
Second: Be the best of your mentors.
I hope all of us have known mentorship at its best, whether in our formal advisors in the amazing Brown faculty, or in other confidants. We should look to these for our example.
Be that person, that leader, that boss, that advisor, who finds their charges a short-cut to clarity and progress; who knows where the pot-holes are and will share enough of their own experience to point them out.
Now, I’m not saying here that we should work to eliminate struggle entirely. That would be absurd. Struggle can be productive—revelatory, even. The pursuit of knowledge is, after all, a crucible—and it ought to be. But a crucible is for refining ideas, for burning away conjecture and speculation—it is not for burning away people’s spirit or their hope.
There will always be rites of passage in this as in other professions, but we must avoid treating the rites we have undergone as fixed, and merely reproducing them. We know better than that. Rigor is not the enemy of compassion, and we should avoid making it so—in our practice, in our debates, and in our leadership.
This is true of tomorrow’s faculty, deans and researchers, and its consultants, industrial scientists, and museum curators. We will all find ourselves guiding the experiences, learning, and growth of others. It’s incumbent on us to be intentional in driving change, and supporting those who come after us, especially when they don’t look like us and have lived lives very different from ours.
For now, though, today, we must celebrate this moment, and the people who have aided us in reaching it. On behalf of the graduates gathered here, I offer our appreciation for the advisors, mentors and friends in our faculty and staff who have accompanied and guided us along this journey.
To our friends, family and loved ones, we offer thanks for the blessings we have found in your boundless love, encouragement, and faith—and the occasional reality-check. We forged our own paths with all of you. And though the journey may have been solitary—painfully so at times—we were never alone.
Lastly, I thank you, my friends and colleagues, for the privilege of having learned and grown in your company. Enjoy this special day. You’ve earned it.
I wish you fair skies and interesting journeys.
Congratulations, and good luck.