I applied to speak at commencement about two weeks before the due date. I didn’t think I had any kind of a chance to win, but I tried really hard to avoid repeating anything I’ve said in my columns at the Daily Cal. Just in case there’s someone out there taking notes.
I know that most of the time, commencement speeches are dull, repetitive collections of platitudes. I tried to avoid all of that, and say something different. I reached back to the day my best friend Diane Gray spoke at her high school graduation. I remembered that she said something true and incisive, and people talked about it afterwards. I wanted the same for my speech. And I got it.
.@MegElison killin though.
— Nam Le 📎 (@AGuyNamedNam) May 17, 2014
What follows is what I wanted to say, exactly and without any addendum or editing by the administration. I caught a few rapt faces in the audience, and wonderful feedback afterward including a woman who asked when my first book would be out. I told her with no small satisfaction that it debuts this summer.
Congratulations to all my fellow graduates. It was a pretty damned good day. Transcipt follows, since there was no sign interpreter at the event:
Since the day I got accepted to Berkeley, I’ve been saying goodbye. I knew from my first campus visit, while I was still waiting to be accepted, that this was too good to last very long. I came as a transfer student from Mt. San Jacinto College in a town you’ve never heard of in California’s Inland Empire. I drove up here over a weekend, still wearing my work clothes and sleeping in the car. I knew I would only get two years here, but I was determined to get more out of those two years than most people do in four. So when I said hello, I kept goodbye in mind.
I got here because of my family and my tribe working long hours in retail jobs so that we could do better than our parents did. Working retail is like panning for gold. It has its moments, but most of it is false hope and exhaustion and dirt. My life is now neatly divided into periods: before Berkeley and after Berkeley. Before Berkeley, I was a high school dropout with many dreams but few plans. After Berkeley, my dreams happen in bullet points and everything looks a lot closer.
Dreaming is easy. Talent is a gift. I had to learn how to work and how to work the system in order to make anything come together. I spent my teenage years waiting for something to happen and I wasn’t the only one.
My best friend graduated from high school a year or two before I dropped out. She spoke at her graduation, just like I’m doing now. She spoke to a crowd that had yet to experience 9/11 or the wars that followed, who had only begun to use the internet, and she admitted that our generation didn’t know what our challenge would look like, but that it didn’t matter because we weren’t ready for it anyway. She was right.
We walked out of the auditorium that day, joking that she had tempted fate—basically giving the universe the finger and taunting it for a real challenge. The universe answered.
When the universe came back with a challenge, I had to go back to school. I didn’t know enough to know how to fix it, or even who I was. Coming to Cal meant finding pieces of me I didn’t know would be here. I knew I was a writer, but I had no concept of the canon of those who went before me until the best English teachers in the world taught me Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. I had no idea about the evolving canon until those same teachers introduced me to Toni Morrison, Djuna Barnes, and Maxine Hong-Kingston. I had no exposure for my own work until I started writing for Caliber Magazine. I had no discipline for the written word until I joined the world-class team that runs The Daily Californian. I am walking away today with incredible gifts, some earned but many given. I cannot thank all of you enough for helping me to become so much more than I was.
I’ve been saying goodbye since I got here, but today’s the day to say hello. After all, commencement doesn’t mean ending. It means beginning. What begins here is not the blank slate my best friend called out from the podium at her high school graduation. What begins here is a series of challenges that if overcome will make us the greatest generation yet. If you are walking across this stage with me today and you don’t feel challenged by what lays before you, I encourage you to take off your cap and gown and stay. Stay here until you see the tasks before you. I know sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around; our future holds obstacles so large we can’t see over or around them anymore. Join the digging crew, or get with the people who are learning how to fly. I’ll see you on the other side.
I have one last thought before we commence, before we get started in our work.
We are living in the age of misattribution. Finding a quote these days means picking something that hasn’t been listed on Facebook as having been said by Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, or Bob Marley, but I found this one by Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl: “If it is to give light it must endure burning.” We are burning in the fires of our debt and obligations. We are burning in the fires of our causes, of clean water, of human trafficking, of education and access to health and wealth and music and art. We are burning in the fires of the task before us, the challenge my friend awaited when she spoke in 1999. We are burning, we have been burning all our lives. Now is our time to give light. Fiat lux.