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Iris Chan '17


Thank you, President Smith, for your kind introduction. Many thanks also to the staff from Grounds & the Arboretum, Facilities, LPAC, EVS, the translators, tech wizards, and anyone else who helped make this commencement come alive.

To parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends, welcome, good morning, and congratulations. I especially want to thank my mom and dad for always giving me the love I don’t always deserve – and Calvin, of course – yes that’s my awesome brother over there, Class of 2020 – professors, take note. He’ll wreck the curve.

To the professors, faculty, deans, grasses, and mosses, thank you for supporting us when we fall and for giving us fresh breaths of wisdom even when we may not have appreciated it at the time.

To my fellow Swarthmore students and the Class of 2017, I am so honored and excited to be here. As many of you know, I’m not a talker. I’m a thinker, a listener, and on good days, a writer. Generally, I avoid talking in front of people, not to mention LARGE groups of people. My poetry workshop often described me as “a cup of tea.” Interpret that as you like. My mom always tells a story about me when I was six, and how I came running into the house panting “MOM MOM MOM MOM” and she would go “What’s wrong? What? What are you trying to say?” Meanwhile, I would go “MOM MOM MOM gasp MOM” and finally little Calvin would come running up behind me and shout “We found a rabbit!” And then I would nod, uh-huh.

Long story short, or in the very tech-slang way of saying it, tldr, I was no good with using my words. Swarthmore may have taught me a thing or two about writing and talking, but this is still me trying to do something quite impossible. Getting up and speaking to a large gathering of people is one type of impossible. Summing up our collective Swarthmore experiences is another kind of impossible. We’re all different, and some of us are excited to graduate, some of us are squirming, others are yawning, and well, trying to pinpoint all of our thoughts is the same as saying nothing. But when we look back at our time at Swarthmore, like looking from Parrish out to the train station, and, if we squeeze our eyes really tightly, we each come into view, our dusty, blurry, beautiful selves with our own distinctly self-made stories strolling toward the familiar. So even though each of our journeys at Swarthmore meandered through some version of impossible, we are possible. We are possible because we are here.

Some moons ago, we were in this place, in the Amphitheater, in the coziness of night, lighting candles till all the trees and Arboretum bunnies rubbed the sleep from their eyes and peered at us, strange, warm and glowing blob of light at our very first collection. We planted baby trees in the Crum and ate meals with our hallmates, every day. You know who you are. We learned the Swat swivel and the Swat seven, except those few times we bent the norms, lining up extra early for R&M shows and Toni Morrison, wondering – maybe these are the special Swarthmore moments I’ll remember forever.

Fast forward.

My story is different from your story, but this is what I remember. Construction everywhere. Across campus, and in our heads – because I know, and you know, that society is a construct, that gender and race and class and the new parking lots they’re building are all constructs. Waking up in PPR at 5 a.m. to scraping, screeching sounds of construction, knowing that Swatties in Dana and Hallowell woke up because of different bulldozers making the same screechy sounds. In some strange way, that’s the thread of Swarthmore stringing us together. Giving us noisy, impossibly busy days, but exceptionally supportive Swatties going through the same things. Friends who understand without speaking and those who you just barely know – and yet – they still give their everything to help you.

Fast forward.

Remember how some of us wanted to save those candles to light again at Last Collection?

Remember the night you had 261 pages of reading and tried to understand every sentence?

Remember the sounds: the chime of the bell tower when it was finally functional, the insistent and sometimes dissonant fire horn, the comical swish of the “carwash” – I mean – the Crum Creek Meander?

Remember the first pasta bar, then realizing that every day was pasta bar?

Remember the last rush to use up swipes at Essie’s? The last closing time? Well, I don’t, because I’ve never been to pub night.

We’ll say some, or all, of these things to ourselves, to each other – fragments of what we remember ­– in a new place with fewer labeled trees, in a time not too far after we’ve graduated.

And wait, remember the email from Dining Services, at the end of our freshman year? *Ahem*

“We started this semester with 620 mugs. We currently have 24. PLEASE, please, pleeeeeease RETURN the mugs to Sharples. No questions asked!”

But, as Swatties we have been trained to ask all of the questions.

Who took the mugs?

And sometimes we ask questions to follow up on our questions.

Should I steal one too?

And sometimes we push it really far:

What do you mean by a mug? Is that a metaphor for something?

Ah Swarthmore, you infinite bubble of philosophizing, you… you’ve taught us well. Sometimes, a mug is just a mug and a pipe is just a pipe. But at heart, we’ll be Swatties forever, asking the hard questions, even when we start forgetting all the details of the story.

Rewind. To today.

I walked along my usual path through the Amphitheater, cooled my tea, and sat in Underhill. As many of you know, that’s where I’ve made my home these past four years. I stared at all these books, at all these wonderfully special people around me, and I thought of all the things I did and didn’t do.

I didn’t finish everything on my bucket list. I imagine you probably didn’t either. Our goals were big and small: Lay in the warmth of the sun-soaked Parrish grass, get to know the EVS and Dining Services staff who greet us with big warm smiles, have class outside, be an avid advocate of something be it composting or the underrated works of Chopin, climb up the cherry blossom tree, look out at the stars on the roof of Papazian, apply for Honors, drop Honors, choose not to be Honors in the first place because no matter what there is something to celebrate for each one of our accomplishments, academic or otherwise. We meditate on who we are and who we aren’t, maybe we sank a boat in the Crum Regatta, and probably a lot of us came in thinking we would find a way to save the world. As Swatties we are ambitious. But we can still save the world. Even if it’s only one person. Even if that person is you. We came in with big ideas, but we’ll exhale the stale ones. We’ll learn to keep the list shorter next time, but dreams? We’ll keep working for them, and while we’re at it, we’ll keep changing, thinking, and creating, too.

So, Swarthmore, it’s time to say goodbye.

As we look back, our memories will rearrange our ever-shifting mirage-like past. When we are old, we will reach back into the crevices of our dusty collection, and pull out the book from 2017, flipping past conversations from Screw Your Roommate, reenacting the mannerisms of a professor who must have been a Swattie in a past life. And we won’t remember them all at once, but that’s okay, because each day I have been here has its own page, its own memory, overlapping with your pages, and your memories. Thinking back on our stories lets us move forward, shoulder to shoulder, like that first day we shuffled into Lang for Orientation and learned to embrace each other, and to have hope in the face of an infinite impossible, because of what we have been through, here, together. After all, what is life but a collection of fond memories we can look back and smile upon?

And it’s because of our collective Swarthmore experiences that we pick ourselves up from the dust to do what’s possible. The reflecting and the discovering and the feeling of a variety of different emotions give us hope in being human, in taking care of ourselves and each other, in the middle of days that stretch forever, in the good ways and the bad. Days that leave us excited, days that leave us squirming, days that leave us yawning, and laughing, and comfortable saying nothing.

We can still smile knowing that each colorful day of the last four years will someday float into our dusty, blurry memories. Knowing that when we reminisce, stepping out by the train tracks, we can squeeze our eyes really tightly, and pieces of ourselves will come into view from the distance. Our distinct and beautiful selves remembering our distinctly self-made stories. Stories of coming together to celebrate differences, picking ourselves up from challenges, learning about the world and about each other, crying on one another’s shoulders, together marching onward, our extraordinary resistance overarching our existence. So even though each of our journeys will continue to meander through some version of impossible, we are possible. We are possible because we are here. Thank you.

Watch: Iris Chan '17