Graduation Speech – 2020

UWC-USA students organized a quick graduation ceremony even as they were packing to leave campus early during the coronavirus pandemic. They asked Melinda Russial, who directs the arts and culture programs at UWC-USA, to share some thoughts.

So, I’ve been thinking about ceremony. The word traces back through Old French, Medieval Latin, Old Latin, and probably Etruscan, to convey “sacredness,” “awe,” and “reverent rites,” with a sense of the ancient. Solemn, ancient rites require preparation…usually… We’re rushing this one a bit, but isn’t that one of our defining skills at UWC-USA? Wait until three days, three hours, or three minutes before something is due, cry a little (or a lot), throw up our hands and say, “this will never work, I’m quitting, I can’t even,” and then pull out one of the most magical and compelling pieces of creation that humanity has ever seen? I’ve seen you do this, over and over again. And so, our Last Minute Graduation Ceremony follows suit, in all of the glory and splendor of the UWC-USA way: exceptional, at the last minute, because we didn’t have any other choice. 

I want to honor the fact that we are rushing this, that we are losing ceremonies this year, so many ceremonies, ceremonies that you were all anticipating pouring your life and love and spirit into. Nothing about this is easy. (I mean, Ben probably doesn’t mind that nobody had a chance to steal a chicken, but I can’t think of a single other silver lining here. So it goes. … … And don’t steal a chicken tonight, now that I’ve said it. I will have to do some trauma counseling for that chicken, and I really don’t need chicken poop on my red chair, on top of everything else.)  

This graduation, albeit a little rushed, is the bookend to your arrival, one or two summers ago. Each year, you roll in on those white-and-blue buses, boasting complicated, nuanced relationships with your home cultures that maybe you only began to know in that moment, hoping to transcend stereotypes, with all of the unbridled passion for a better world that we encourage and celebrate … until you direct it towards curfew violations. When you get off the bus, your new roommate almost knocks you down while smothering you with enthusiastic hugs (hopefully after asking for consent!), you’re not sure if it’s ok to flush toilet paper (and if you’re from Japan, you’re really, really disappointed that the toilets don’t have any of the right buttons, either), you can’t pronounce anyone’s names, and all of a sudden, you’re eating dehydrated legumes or superoats that a second-year leader showed you how to cook on some rickety camp stove contraption, sleeping in a tent in the woods, which definitely confuses some of your families. If English isn’t your first language, and maybe even if it is, you have a headache at the end of the day for at least three months. Eventually, it all starts to feel, confusingly, normal, and sometimes even annoying. You’re offended that the town bus got cancelled for that event you weren’t even going to, you’re not sure if you’ve managed to accidentally insult all the cultures on campus yet, but you’re pretty close and you don’t even know how it happened; you can’t believe you didn’t get that sick day, you’re so tired, you’ve been trying to live up to the standards of world-shaking perfection that you brought with you, and then you discovered that, somehow, even your perfectionism isn’t good enough! (For the record, you are good enough. You are more than good enough. When I grow up, I want to be like you.)

Idealism and despair surface at intervals, as you grapple with those same self-improving and world-improving standards within yourselves and for your community. Sometimes it feels too hard. But last week at the Cultural Showcase I watched students from five continents dance Macedonian and Bulgarian traditional dances together; you drew parallels across distant mythologies, you mingled past, present, and future, time, and place across multiple art forms, you honored your cultures and challenged them simultaneously. You called for a better world. For a brief two-and-a-half hours last weekend, I watched as you merged your discrete phenomena of life with each other, in our little microcosm, as you do every day here in your classrooms, your hiking trails, your dorm bathrooms; it is anything but normal. You all come trooping out of your individual histories, collide into each other, and create new worlds inside your friendships and your shared experiences. 

We are changed by these collaborations and occasional collisions, and the world will be transformed in tandem as we carry those interactions within us and through us. As I was struggling for the right words last night while considering how to best to summarize this indefinable, and indefatigable, community, I thought I might borrow a bit from Rumi:

Think of how phenomena come trooping / out of the desert of non-existence / into this materiality. … 

This place of phenomena is a wide exchange / of highways, with everything going all sorts / of different ways // We seem to be sitting still, / but we are actually moving, and the fantasies / of phenomena are sliding through us / like ideas through curtains. // They go to the well / of deep love inside each of us. They fill their jars there, and they leave. /// There is a source they come from, / and a fountain inside here. // Be generous. / Be grateful. Confess when you’re not. /// ……./ Who am I, standing in the midst of this thought-traffic? [from “The Long String,” Coleman Barks translation]

For me, this question of “Who am I?” in this miasma of cultural collision has been forced wide open, shattered and pieced back together again, repeatedly, by all of you. Last summer, and a bit this winter, I had the honor of visiting several of your home countries, and I was surprised by how quickly the teacher-student role was reversed. İrem saved me from oncoming traffic in İstanbul once. Raneem spent an hour cajoling and directing a cranky taxi driver over the phone, trying to get me from Madaba to Amman without maps or GPS, since I somehow managed to get a ride with the only taxi driver in Jordan who doesn’t believe in either of those things. Keita and Hiyona showed me how to navigate the Tokyo subway. During these trips, students became my caretakers, an interesting and instantaneous shift in role that reminded me how important our practices of seeking student insight and leadership really are as we craft the specifics of this vision together. I saw the other side of the independence, risk, courage, and hope that you all carry within you as you take the plunge into this beautiful and impossible vision that we share. This work belongs to you, and you have been, from the beginning, my teachers; learning from you has been an honor and a privilege that is so overpowering as to seem unreal at times. 

In the weeks and months ahead, as you begin to define this experience for yourselves, and what it means as you move beyond this little bubble, you might also find the memory of these experiences overpowering. Rilke, another of my favorite poets, has some suggestions for you, in his poem, “Turning Point”:

For there is a boundary to looking. / And the world that is looked at so deeply / wants to flourish in love. // Work of the eyes is done, now / go and do heart-work / on all the images imprisoned within you; for you / overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.

The time we’ve had together here is overpowering. You’ve raised protests, small and large, from agora articles to vagina monologues to climate strikes. You’ve offended and you’ve been offended. You’ve pushed against every boundary placed around you, and even many that you had defined for yourselves. You’ve loved each other more deeply than you ever thought possible. You’ve been frustrated that, as a generation taught to be everything, you can’t do more, and you have to do too much. 

This movement, the United World College movement, was created during the Cold War, when the white knight was talking backwards and the doomsday clock was two minutes to midnight, and teenagers were maybe the last best hope for a peaceful future. The global landscape, whether in the immediacy of this novel coronavirus, or in the more permanent possibility of climate catastrophe, is seeking your wisdom and your courage once again.

As you go forward to do that work in whatever ways you find meaning and possibility and hope, please remember that this is always your community, and it is what it is because of you. We are here to support you, and to share in your challenges and your successes, wherever you are. We know that you will show us what it means to live in this world with integrity, conviction, compassion, empathy, and care; we know you will, because you already have.

Work of the eyes is done, now / go and do heart-work / on all the images imprisoned within you. 

Stay Connected