Graduation Season Is Upon Us, Help

Shonda Rhimes speaks at Dartmouth

Graduation season is upon us! Maybe you yourself are donning a cap and gown, and shaking hands with your university president, and posting social media updates like, “That tassel was worth the hassle.” Maybe you are traveling to clap for the culminating achievements of people you love. Or maybe you’re staying up at nights surrounded by crumpled cans and bags of chips, tears tracking their way down your cheeks as you scroll through pictures of other people’s academic success and wondering where it all went wrong.

If that’s you, I’m with you. I used to hate-read the end pages of my alumni magazine because it seemed like everyone was doing something more exciting and more worthwhile than I. Here are two of my favorites from that dark period in my life:

Julie is still living at an orphanage in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. She runs the English Institute in town and leads an environmental education project in the local public schools.

Qian is composing, working at the Asian and Pacific Island Wellness Center, and volunteering at The Walden School. … He recently served on the 30th Anniversary Coordinating Committee for Community United Against Violence, an LGBTQQ anti-violence organization. On a recent Northeast tour, he enjoyed [fellow alum’s] opera and celebrated enlightenment with [other alums]. Qian also recently attended the Queer Contra Dance Camp in Aptos, CA, with [alums].

As I came to terms with my own limitations, of course, other people’s achievements became easier to bear. But graduation season can still be tough. It’s one of those moments where even those who aren’t crossing a stage can take stock of where we have been and where we are going. I look at people beaming out at me from selfies and crowd shots and self-doubt rises in me like bile. Should I be pursuing a diploma, investing in more education? Was I right to turn down grad school (twice)?

Newly minted scholars don’t need encouraging speeches from luminaries; we do, we folks sitting at home who wonder whether we’ve made the right turns. Someone inspire us! Someone give us some sage advice!

If you are interested in the speeches, here are a couple of recent highlights:

+ Natalie Portman got real with her alma mater:

Portman told the crowd that she had had some kind of impostor syndrome when she arrived on the Harvard campus in 1999, that she “felt there had been some mistake,” and that, despite how much she had achieved over her high-school years, she still worried she “wasn’t smart enough to be in this company.” She wanted to prove to everyone on campus, she said, that she “wasn’t just a dumb actress.” She spoke quite bluntly about her insecurities on campus, reflecting, “When I got to Harvard just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, I feared people would assume I had gotten in just for being famous, and not worthy of the intellectual rigor here.”

+ Yale’s President urged students to focus on something larger than themselves and commit to trying to “repair the world.”

“Improving the world is a difficult project to take on because–unlike so many aspects of your education at Yale or of life itself–there really is no beginning, middle, or end here. There is no ‘bottom line.’ What may be most challenging is that even after a lifetime of work, further repair may be necessary. Maybe even more than when you started. My predecessor, President Richard Levin … often quoted Rabbi Tarfon, ‘It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’”

+ And Michele Obama gave Oberlin grads a stern yet stirring talk about moral responsibility: “‘you don’t get to have no hands.'”

” … as the political scientist Joseph Nye once said that “the absolutist may avoid the problem of dirty hands but often at the cost of having no hands at all”,’ she continued.

‘And graduates, with a degree from this amazing school and all the status that the degree confers, you don’t get to have no hands. No, you don’t get to be precious or cautious or cynical.

‘No, not when the earth is warming and the oceans are rising, you don’t get to be cynical.

‘Not when too many young people still languish in communities ripped apart by violence and despair.

‘Not when women still make less than men for the same work, not when millions of girls across the globe never stepped foot inside a school.

‘No, not when many young people just like you, the men and women we honor this Memorial Day, have sacrificed their lives for your freedom to make your voice heard. You don’t get to have no hands.'”

There is of course more, much more.

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