Ayse Kaya - Last Collection
Class of 2014,
I am honored that you selected me to give this year's Last Collection faculty speech. Upon learning that I was going to be your speaker, my first thought exercise was to imagine what advice I would tell my 21-year-old self if I could somehow go back in time, tap myself on the shoulder, and impart some advice.*
Certainly I would tell my graduating self to chill out a little bit and just enjoy the moment, and that although having a "grand strategy" for life is never a bad idea, life will throw both opportunities and obstacles in her way that she cannot even fathom yet. I would also tell her that, unlike what it felt at the time, 21 is not an old age, and that there is plenty of time to start devising and actualizing life plans. I would advise her to take a gap year and go to Senegal like she always wanted to do. I would comfort her letting her know that while one may never get over the home that one has left behind, one learns to craft that feeling of home in other places. I would tell her to spend more time with her one remaining grandparent, for that grandparent will be gone soon, too. All in all, I would emphasize to her - paraphrasing a famous work in my field of International Relations - that uncertainty is what you make of it.[i] As humans, we have to always cope with uncertainty of varying degrees. There is a way to see uncertainty as stifling, and then there is a way to see it as Billy Collins the poet does in his poem, The Blue. I read from him:
I will scrutinize all the surprises of the future and watch the brainstorms gathering darkly, ready to hit the heads of inventors ...
....I am at home with this heaven of the unforeseen, waiting for the next whoosh of sudden departure when, with no advance warning, to tiny augery, the unpredictable plummets into our lives from somewhere that looks like sky.
Just as I found a need to impart some advice on the past me when I learned I would be your speaker, I knew I had to better understand what you would like me to speak about. So, I went ahead and sent a survey to all members of the Class of 2014, asking that very question.
I received such a diverse list of responses to my survey that I will inevitably fail to honor all of your requests, but I found four themes emerged from your responses. I will speak on those four themes today. Only one person suggested the very final theme, namely the fourth one presented today, and I will touch upon this one last because I think it is the most important. For now, I will keep that fourth theme a mystery. Here are the first three: 1) the transition from Swarthmore to the "real world"; 2) community; 3) and how to be happy. Interestingly, many of you wanted to hear about my relevant experiences, so it is entirely the fault of some of your classmates that I am going to keep talking about myself later in this talk.
Transition from Swarthmore to the "Real World"
Let me begin with the first theme of transitioning from Swarthmore to the "real world."
Many of you in your survey responses seemed concerned about your preparedness for the real world. I admire the humility that comes out in your self-reflections about the future. As we know, hubris is the downfall of not just heroes and villains in stories, but it can also take down entire nations. But when thinking about beyond Swarthmore, I challenge you to reconstruct your vocabulary and conceptualization about how you view the big step you are about to take.
You have been in the real world this entire time.
Here at Swarthmore many of you spent:
long nights of analyzing, explaining, solving, and coding complex issues
tough days of deciphering academic language
and wondering why the heck that academic language mattered,
fun days of partying with friends,
painful moments of feeling like you had too much on your shoulders because this is a rigorous school
days when you loved and days when you un-loved,
Here in your four years, you took:
bold action to do what you thought needed to be done - for some this may have been organizing bottom-up movements, for others this may have been personal/individual acts, such as reducing your carbon footprint.
In your four years, you had the courage:
to speak up, even when no one else was doing it
to write your opinions in your classes, or even share them with a broader audience
to fight for your as well as others' rights because you can place the needs of others above your own needs
I could continue the list, but I think you get my point: all of your experiences here were not only real, but they are also activities and feelings that you will repeat for the rest of your life. And these are all events that have prepared you for what comes next.
I understand your worries about entering the labor market in the post-Great Recession years, where many of you have loans to repay. But, I also hope you realize that you are much better equipped than many other people for that entity known as the "real world." Your critical thinking skills, your ability to come up with a thesis and substantiate it, as well as your work ethic will be indispensable skills in what ever endeavor you undertake. Your acquired skill of considering alternative viewpoints and being able to either integrate or address them will also be essential because finding common ground with others, even those that you find hard to comprehend, is critical to being successful.
Additionally, you are joining a world of successful Swarthmore alumni in different fields. I hope that your position as a Swarthmore graduate will not only give you the confidence you should have, but also propel you toward doing good in life, which I think many of you are already well-equipped to do.
All this said, you will have some novel experiences in the post-Swarthmore world. First, you will not be able to send a work assignment two weeks late and tell your boss that you apologize, but the last couple of weeks have been crazy busy for you. You will find that deadlines are inflexible beasts. Second, you will have to stop starting emails with "Hey!" Third, you might find people who do not know where Swarthmore is, or what it is, because it is just too far away from their lives and their realms of possibility. You will have to be patient in acquainting them with not only Swarthmore, but also your views on matters. While I hope that you will be proud of having attended this elite institution, I hope you will also remember that the privilege of attending this institution was for your education, not for a sense of status.
Finally, you will encounter many more Republicans...unless you are going on to attend grad school at UC Berkeley. If you are a Republican, the good news is that you will finally find evidence that there are more than five people who share your viewpoints. If you found yourself standing alone during your four years here far too often, I assure you that that experience made you more resilient. If you are a Democrat, the path ahead may be tougher - you may be pushed to think whether you can truly tolerate diversity of all sorts when you find yourself working with people who do not share your values.
Regardless of what your ideology is, remember what Plato said about his teacher: "Socrates, my master, is my friend but a greater friend is truth." I hope that you will put the truth above ideology, no matter where you stand.
Community or Co-centric Communities?
The second theme that I am going to address today is "community." All of the thoughts I offer here, despite my best efforts, are preliminary.
To begin with, I would like to invite you to think of community not in the singular but in the plural, as in communities. A number of scholars, among them the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen, encourage an understanding of "identity" not in the singular, but in the plural, as in identities. Sen argues that individuals tend to have multiple identities.[ii] Applied in my context, my relevant identities would be that I am a mother, an immigrant, a woman, an academic, an American, a Turk, and a minority in this country. I agree with Sen that we often pursue distinct identities, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes not, and that there is much to lose by reducing our identities to a singular form.
I understand that "community" in the singular is a comforting way to know you can count on the fact that you share with others the same values. I also accept and understand that communities, just like states, need to have boundaries - they are about defining the insiders and the outsiders. As scholar Benedict Anderson has famously said about the nation, "it is an imagined community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."[iii] Many of my students here have pointed out to me in my Globalization classes that it is important that our imaginings about the nation be limited - that we draw boundaries and do not extend those imaginings endlessly; otherwise we run the risk of morphing the nation into a meaningless entity. As in the case of the nation, I can see how a tightly knit-community where boundaries are drawn clearly can be comforting.
Nonetheless, I still think community in the singular may be outdated in the age of globalization. Whether in their endorsement of "globalization", or their resistance to it, people nowadays increasingly imagine their attachment to communities that are not demarcated by either literal or metaphorical borders. For instance, when the Turkish youth in Istanbul were protesting against their governments' authoritarian policies in the Summer of 2013, they were invoking communities across the world. Some of them had banners demonstrating their allegiance to LGBT movements around the world, yet others saw themselves as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, yet again others expressed a commitment to global environmentalism. The youth's attachment to Turkish culture, however defined, co-existed with these other more global allegiances.
As this example illustrates, we should perhaps understand people as not belonging to a community but to a number of communities at the same time. Let me call these concentric communities.
You might ask me the "so what?" question. In other words, how does the notion of concentric communities affect you? First, if you have felt more at odds with Swarthmore than in harmony with it during your time here, that does not mean that this place wasn't right for you. Rather, the problem might be with conceptualizing Swarthmore as a community in the singular. Besides, conflict and disagreement are everyday stuff of communities.[iv] Second, sometimes your multiple belongings might work in harmony, and other times they might come into conflict. Part of your responsibility to yourself and to your communities might be addressing the philosophical tensions that arise given your simultaneous, multiple belongings. Third, the notion of belonging to multiple communities, as complex or messy as it might sound, can be empowering. For instance, you might have allegiance to the "imagined community" of where you and/or your parents were born, while also developing an attachment to new places. As an immigrant, when I think of community in the singular, I have often found myself occupying a cold place that I can best describe as "neither here nor there." For similar or different reasons, you might have also found yourself in that same spot. Through multiple belongings, however, "neither here nor there" transforms into "here and there."
Simply put, I don't think there is a community that captures all of who we are, and we should welcome and work through conflict that arises from the different communities we bring with us to each new community.
The third theme that you asked me to address is:
How to be Happy
Since I am neither a therapist nor a happiness guru, I have to tell you things that have always stayed with me and that worked for me when I was unhappy. Three ingredients have allowed happiness for me.
Ingredient one. Rise above negative feelings and don't let them control you. Here, listen to two great people who suffered inordinate injustices.
When former U.S. President Bill Clinton asks Nelson Mandela, the former South African President, who led his people from apartheid to democracy, how come Mandela was not overcome by anger against his white oppressors after serving 27 years in prison, Mandela replies, "If I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go."[v]
Martin Luther King offers similar advice in his sermon entitled "Shattered Dreams".[vi] He emphasizes that often humans need to confront unfulfilled desires and face disappointment. In the face of "shattered dreams," Martin Luther King warns one cannot give into bitterness, or force one's self into seclusion, or let fatalism take control. For such reactions can only further undermine an individual. When "our reach exceeds our grasp," he advises, we must be honest about our disappointment but not let it demoralize us.
While being as great as Mandela and Martin Luther King may exceed many humans' grasps, how these leaders have managed to channel their lack of freedom into good for others should be a beacon to all of us. If people who were not free could overcome "bitterness and resentment," so too can you rise above negative feelings.
Ingredient two. Disassociate your assessment of yourself from your accomplishments. The moment I found peace with myself, after long years of trying and making inconsistent progress, was when I learned to detach my self-worth from my career performance as well as my performance in other aspects of life. Yes, work hard and push yourself to achieve excellence in your life's pursuits, but do not measure your self-worth by the results you achieve, or fail to achieve. One's self-worth cannot be based on one's accolades.
Ingredient three. Realize that it is not all about you, and it should not be all about you. If you haven't already done so, you need to let someone or something decenter your universe from being about you to being about others, at least to some extent. Once you open the gates of a life that includes others as a significant part of your orientation, you also make it much easier to be inclusive. That inclusion means you are able to look beyond yourself, your putative achievements, your supposed failures, your fulfilled dreams, and your unsatisfied desires. In that world lies responsibility for others, carrying for their happiness, and their satisfaction.
This last point brings me to the final, mystery ingredient to happiness, to life beyond Swarthmore, and to life in general. Only one person in the survey that I sent to you asked me to talk about this final theme, which is Love. I don't want to speculate too much about why more people didn't ask about Love. But, I also cannot refrain from some speculation. Is love something you think we academics are uniquely unqualified to talk about? Or is it something simply not on your minds right now? Perhaps love cannot be taught. But, it is what I most hope you all figure out a way to find as you depart this place if you haven't already discovered it, as I find that the single most transformative experience in my life has been "love."
I have always been amazed that the English language, which is so incredibly rich in vocabulary - think of how many different ways one can describe "rain" in English - has only one word for love. In Turkish, there are two different words for "love" - one is "ask" and the other one is "sevgi." Ask describes passionate love, and sevgi stands for the more serene kind of attachment. Ask is the closest to "being in love." Sevgi, I think, stands for what one author refers to in a novel as "what is left over when being in love has burned away."[vii] I hope you find both aşk and sevgi.
I don't think you find love only in a partner, or your or others' children. You might find love in the warmth of friendships that you have cultivated. You might find it in a cause you cherish. A lucky few might even love your job. Thanks to you, I did end up finding it in my work unexpectedly. I never thought that I would have such a good time teaching about topics such as the significance of Alexander Hamilton's advocacy of infant industry protection, the British Empire's repeal of Corn Laws in 1846, when the British removed tariffs on imported grain, or the Japanese manner of industrial organization, known as the kereitsu. While I had always believed in the mission of teaching in liberal arts colleges, I had not fathomed that teaching you would be such a rewarding experience. My 21-year-old self could imagine satisfaction in conducting research. I don't think my 21-year-old self thought for a second that there would be so much happiness in seeing others, including those of you in the Class of 2014, become stronger writers, better analytical minds, and clearer communicators.
You might not discover love easily. It might take you years, failures along the way, heart breaks, disappointments, and sleepless nights followed by a lot of caffeine. Even once you have that love, sustaining it might still take daily perseverance and hard work and include bouts of doubts.
Maybe the English language only has a single word for "love" because it knows no language could fully capture the range of emotions that it entails. Regardless of the form in which you embrace love, my parting wish for you is this:
May your life be surrounded by love.
Congratulations on your graduation. Thank you.
[i] Wendt, Alexander. 1992. "Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics." International Organization 46(2): 391-425.
[ii] Sen, Amartya. 2007. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. W. W. Norton & Company.
[iii] Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso.
[iv] See, e.g., Yack, Bernard. 1993. The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought. University of California Press.
[v] Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.