Sa'ed Atshan '06 - Last Collection
Last Collection 2018 Sa'ed Atshan '06, Assistant Professor of Peace & Conflict Studies
Friends, thank you for selecting me and providing this opportunity to address you. I am deeply honored.
Four years ago, you sat in this very place for the First Collection. The candles that each of you lit then, and that you are lighting tonight, represent the Quaker notion that the Light of the Divine lives in every human being. I love that Swarthmore welcomes its students with this tradition grounded in egalitarianism. For many Quakers, the understanding of Light is connected to the Christian underpinnings of the Religious Society of Friends. And yet, for other Friends, who consider themselves non-theists, the Quaker conception of Light is not necessarily a reflection of God, but rather the transcendent power of seeking truth, and of doing so in community.
And so we are here for your Last Collection. In this setting, we celebrate a milestone in your pursuit of the light of knowledge. This liminal space provides time for reflection, for you to look back and forth at the same time, in anticipation of the next transition that awaits you.
As a Quaker myself, I believe that the light you carry within will continue to radiate, connecting with others for the rest of your lives. I felt that Light often as a student here and now feel it every day as a member of the faculty.
Today I am thinking about my own Quaker history and how Swarthmore fit into it and furthered it. I have found that our search for the Light is intimately connected with the discernment of where home is. Over time, the search for home will continue, and in many ways, it never ends. Often, we don’t really know if we got there or if we ever will. And yet the pangs of homesickness persist even when we seem to have arrived.
Swarthmore has always been a haven for me. I know firsthand the profound role that educational institutions, especially ones grounded in Quaker values, can play in serving as sanctuaries for their students.
While growing up, I was incredibly fortunate to have gone to the Ramallah Friends School [RFS], established by Quakers in Palestine in the 1800s. The school helped save my life. With political violence seemingly everywhere around me, the campus was a beautiful oasis. I found solace sitting in Quaker silence among my peers, the teachers, and the staff in the school’s chapel. With the cacophony of bombings, gunfire, Apache helicopters, missiles, bulldozers, funeral processions, and demonstrations all around us, our collective silence and reflection enabled me to feel what Quakers refer to as Spirit. Wherever I go, it is from the depths of silence with others that the presence of Spirit is most palpable.
Ramallah Friends was my refuge not only from living under Israeli military occupation but also from the heightened masculinity in my society. As a boy who was not very macho, I would have been bullied at other schools, but there, in a Quaker setting, I was embraced. I would kick the ball to the opposing team during soccer so they would leave me alone, and everyone would laugh alongside me with love and support. I would place last in track and meet competitions, and yet I received thunderous applause and cheers from my peers as I crossed the finish line. The person who placed first would receive much less attention and then stand there at the end quite dumbfounded.
I was able not only to succeed, but to thrive, due in large part to the theater program. The stage was another refuge from the harsh realities around me. Roles such as King Arthur and Tiresias in Antigone furthered my exploration of masculinity and increased my confidence. Theater cultivated my imagination and reminded me that we are always shaping the world around us.
At the age of 15, as I walked in to the college counseling office at RFS the maroon cover of the printed viewbook for Swarthmore caught my eye. It was love at first sight. As I turned each page, looked at the images of the campus, and read the captions, I could feel my heart racing. By the end, I recognized that I had found the perfect college for me. I learned that Philadelphia is close, that there is a train station on campus, that the entire grounds are a breathtaking arboretum, that academics are among the most rigorous and challenging in the country, that diversity is cherished, and that there is a rich history of social and global consciousness.
I asked the counselor for permission to take that viewbook home, and for most of my sophomore year of high school, I slept with it under my pillow, dreaming that I would one day make it to Swarthmore.
And in the Fall of 2002, almost unbelievably, the day when I first stepped on campus arrived. It was not easy as a Middle Eastern male in the immediate aftermath of a post-9-11 United States, but I grew so much, and Swarthmore soon became my second home.
A mentor recently reminded me of how far I have come—having arrived at Swarthmore not only ashamed of my accent in English but also embarrassed of the apostrophe in my first name. I was weary of having such a symbol that people were not used to seeing and having to explain that it was a legal part of my name in English and that it represented the Arabic letter, hamzah, like the glottal stop when we say “uh-oh.” Some of you can relate to the patience that it requires to not only explain but to own our non-European names. It took time but I eventually embraced my name, no longer hiding my apostrophe but re-claiming it with pride. Feeling accepted by so many community members at Swarthmore helped make that possible.
Learning to navigate the campus after the first snowfall was quite an adventure. One day I picked up hot chocolate in a to-go cup from the library, and then attempted to walk down the slope from McCabe toward Willets, or perhaps what is now referred to as ‘Thrillets.’ It was so slippery that I fell not once, not twice, but three times before reaching the bottom of the hill, after which I was covered in hot chocolate and blood and scrapes. The students at the bottom who witnessed my slide could not stop laughing with me, and after fully realizing what had happened, neither could I. Let’s just say I learned my lesson.
I have to admit that learning to live with my freshman year roommates took some time as well. In my Wharton quad, I was joined by a half-Italian, half-Japanese Quaker, a Jewish-American, and an Indian-American who started his own spiritual practice. One of them walked around barefoot on campus most of the time and another was always a nudist in our room, refusing to wear any clothes indoors. Yes, you heard that correctly. I would smell incense burning and hear the harmonica being played at 6 a.m. and much, much more. To be fair, though, in retrospect, my blasting of Enrique Iglesias’s pop songs may have been somewhat annoying. My roommates were also tired of hearing me talk about the Enrique concert that I attended downtown with Abena Mainoo, our hallmate and classmate, and my running buddy.
I was assigned to the double in the common room. My survival strategy was to bunk the beds, (which inspired my roommate to purchase a new bed), and then I draped my bunk bed on all sides so that I had my own tent. I had a fan and reading light—and didn’t emerge for hours at a time.
Swarthmore was generous to me as I explored my interests throughout my undergraduate years, and for this I am thankful. The Lang Opportunity Scholarship funded my work as an Arabic translator and interpreter for the American Civil Liberties Union in their lawsuit on behalf of Iraqi torture victims held in U.S. custody in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship prepared me for graduate school and encouraged me to believe in my academic potential while deepening my commitment to diversifying the academy.
Professors here, including Farha Ghannam, James Kurth, Keith Reeves, and Lee Smithey, were role models, the type of teacher and engaged scholar that I aspired to become. Witnessing them pouring their hearts and souls into mentoring students, while balancing their very high expectations with deep dedication to their own individual work. This solidified my conviction that the quality of undergraduate education at Swarthmore is unparalleled.
I dreamed of returning here as a professor, but I had no idea that the stars would align for that to become a reality and for me to find my way home.
In 1888, Swarthmore was the first institution in the nation to offer a peace studies course, and so this year we celebrate 130 years. It is a privilege for me to teach in such a historic program. In recent years, we have experienced rapid growth, with about 10 percent of this year’s sophomore class declaring majors and minors in peace and conflict studies. And my position is the first tenure-track hire solely devoted to peace studies in the history of the College.
One of the most significant ways that I found myself at Swarthmore was by accepting my gay identity. I am grateful to Swat for dragging me out of the closet years ago, which clinched its second home status for me. The queer folks among you can attest to the fact that, for many of us, you can run, but you cannot hide here; inevitably someone or something will catalyze the coming out process.
For me, it was going to see the British film Bend it Like Beckham in Philly with classmates from Swat. It depicts a daughter of Indian immigrants who aspires to play soccer, only to be met with disapproval from her traditional parents. Her best friend is also Indian-British, and he plays soccer as well, and everyone around them thinks they’re in love. In one scene, he turns to her and confides that he really likes Beckham. She says nonchalantly that everyone likes Beckham, without getting what he is actually trying to say; he then emphasizes that he really likes Beckham. She finally registers that he’s coming out, and replies in some confusion, “But you’re Indian?!” At that moment, my own confusion subsided, and I realized that it was possible to be both brown and gay. I had been missing representations of queer people of color my whole life. The protagonist in the film stood up to her family to follow her passion for soccer, and her friend championed his queerness. Their characters inspired me to take control of my own life. When I eventually came out to my family years later, I was met with love, acceptance, and support.
In my sophomore year, shortly after I had seen Bend it Like Beckham, the director of the Intercultural Center here informed me that there was a conference in New York City for LGBTQ Middle Easterners and that the IC would be willing to pay for me to attend. I wasn’t yet out, and hadn’t yet come to terms with how most comfortably to identify. Yet the IC Director, Rafael Zapata, was wonderful. He had known deep down inside that I was ready. That exchange piqued my interest in the conference, which I hadn’t been aware of, and so I looked into it and quickly became excited. I could not believe that there were other people like me in the world. The very next week, I went back to Rafael to tell him that I would like to take him up on his kind offer. The conference ended up being a transformative experience. As the IC celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, I want to name the invaluable presence of this space and its enthusiasts on our campus.
At the beginning of my senior year, the first student with whom I shared my gay identity was one of my freshman roommates as we sat across from one other in a booth in Essie Mae’s. He actually fell on to the floor laughing with joy, telling me how relieved he was that I had made it to this point of self-acceptance. He was genuinely and deeply happy for me. After peeling himself off the floor, he gave me a huge hug that I will never forget.
During senior spring, while jogging with my close friend, running partner, and former Enrique-admirer, Abena, we celebrated her acceptance to Harvard Law School and my acceptance to the Harvard Kennedy School. I could not have completed the master’s in public policy there, as well as an MA and PhD at Harvard, without the preparation I received at Swarthmore. I am grateful for this intellectual foundation as well as the friendships and relationships formed here that I know will last a lifetime.
In the summer between college and first starting graduate school, I served as a counselor at Seeds of Peace, a camp in the woods of Maine that brings together hundreds of teenagers from conflict zones around the world each summer, including Arabs and Israelis. One of the simple ways I tried to make a difference was by swimming every day. Each day at camp, all of the campers had to get in the lake for an activity called General Swim. Some of the Palestinian and Afghan campers in particular had never gone swimming, and were extremely hesitant to get in the water. The counselors who doubled as lifeguards were focused on guarding, and it fell upon the remaining staff to encourage these campers. I myself was not a strong swimmer. But, day after day, I got into the water and tried to improve. The campers who did not know how to swim followed by example. I cannot overstate the difficulty of convincing teenage boys who do not know how to swim to get into a dark lake, particularly when their peers are competent swimmers. So yes, it was embarrassing for me to don the bright orange life vest, then get in the water and thrash about the shallow end when many of the campers could swim effortlessly - but I recognized the importance of my efforts to swim and their ultimate impact. By the end of that summer, we all passed the swim test! This meant that we could shed our life vests and join everyone else in the deeper part of the lake.
The world since then has felt, at times, as if it were essentially a vast, scary, lake. When searching for home, or thinking about how to reconcile the various aspects of my identity, or making mental notes of all that I hope to accomplish, I have to remind myself that I must continue to get in the water. It is through embracing vulnerability and taking thoughtful risks that my creativity reaches its apex. It is in challenging my weaknesses and improving my strengths that I accomplish my goals and make things better. My family and the institutions that have shaped me have equipped me with a life jacket to keep my head above water. And, in many ways, as Swatties, we have the freedom to swim in this apparently endless lake.
At the end of camp, I experienced the Seeds of Peace tradition of Color Games. The campers and counselors were divided into two teams, one blue, the other green, and for several days, the two teams competed intensely in sports, the arts, outdoor activities, and other challenging exercises. When color games were over, we met at the edge of the lake for the announcement of the final score. The winning team got its prize: the privilege of jumping into the lake first. As they cheered, they inevitably realized how silly it was to focus on winning, and they quickly invited the other team to join them in the water. Everyone was exhausted and emotional - most were in tears, embracing each other in tighter hugs than anyone had previously imagined. Part of the emotional intensity was in the realization that one’s so-called “enemy” is now a friend just as we were about to say goodbye to one other; with the looming return to home and to less structured conflict on the horizon.
In that moment, drenched, surrounded by our campers and fellow counselors, we listened to the camp director’s passionate message: “You did not choose to be blue or green. Similarly, you did not choose to be Israeli or Palestinian. Remember, it is not that kid’s fault.” These words will forever resonate.
We did not choose the homes into which we were born or the families to which we were assigned or the bodies that we have inherited or the narratives, struggles, and resilience that animated our upbringing. But in choosing Swarthmore, all of you joined me, and a world of Swatties, in choosing to have shared spaces and memories.
Swarthmore is, for many of us, the first home that we ourselves chose.
And the home or homes that preceded college are largely always with us. As Terry Pratchett writes, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
For many of you, your original home was a place of love, and for others it was a source of both pain and comfort, and for others still, it was never truly a home.
And also Swarthmore has not always been the home it could be for all of you. Thanks to many of you here, and many others, our community continues to grow and improve.
We proceed along the trajectory established by the Quakers who founded this institution. Among them were abolitionists and women’s rights activists. One of our founders, Lucretia Mott, once said, “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” Were she here today Mott would be delighted to see Swarthmore led by President Valerie Smith and incoming Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton.
Mott would also be pleased to learn that what was Swarthmore's stop on the Underground Railroad is now the foundation of our Black Cultural Center. The BCC was purchased from the Robinson family who were Quaker abolitionists. In their basement, the Robinsons sheltered slaves on their way toward freedom. Today, the BCC community, through its vibrancy, and under the leadership of Dean Dion Lewis, honors the spirits of those former slaves.
Even before our founding figures made Swarthmore their home, this land was home to the Lenni Lenape people. The spirits of these Native Americans remain all around us. We can feel them in the silence if we listen deeply.
These ancestors would have been proud to see Julia Hayden Wakeford among your peers, one of the most passionate Native students Swarthmore has seen, who has successfully designed a special major in ‘Indigenous Politics and Social Studies.’
As we’ve watched you carve out places for yourselves and others over the past four years, you have enriched this community, and pushed even your mentors to become better versions of ourselves. Swatties speak poignantly about the profound impact that their professors have on their lives but please do not underestimate the inspiration that all of you are to us. In a world filled with so much anguish, and on a planet whose future is uncertain due to climate change, Swatties restore my faith in humanity.
You also teach us words like ‘woke,’ ‘bae,’ ‘lit,’ ‘on fleek,’ and ‘ratchet.’
The hours you have spent volunteering with Serenity Soular in North Philadelphia, winning debate championships, mastering the Chinese language, ninja’ing for the Computer Science department, making it to the NCAA volleyball tournaments, giving a peer a helping hand as a SAM, WA, DPA, or RA, choreographing a piece for Rhythm and Motion or Terpsichore, crafting a letter alongside your DU brothers in Voices, educating the community about the Rohingya genocide as part of the Muslim Students Association, performing spoken word poetry with OASIS, speaking openly about structures of oppression such as class and ableism, organizing Shabbat services, investing more hours than you could have imagined in your professor’s lab or on your thesis, or even stalking your peers on the ‘Cygnet’ to identify a perfect ‘screw your roommate’ match - each of you has helped make Swarthmore the magical place it is. You demonstrate the power of the human spirit when you are there for one other and what you can achieve when you push yourselves to the max.
Seeing the Light in each other along the way makes this journey even more rewarding. We do so both in spite of and because of our differences. Sometimes it is easier to see a light that shines slightly differently than our own because we’re not habituated to it, which in turn helps us see our own for the recognition of difference.
Swarthmore can be simultaneously so challenging and so nurturing because we work together—we collaborate. We give one other the benefit of the doubt, trust that allies and resources can always be found, and recognize that the pie can be expanded to accommodate everyone. We remain open to other perspectives and experiences. And we root for classmates as they complete a paper, problem set, or an extracurricular activity on or off campus. Many of you have become like family to one another. For the Matchbox couples that have or will soon coalesce, good luck! And for those who are off to the Green Bottle party tonight, have fun!
Many of you have courageously used your voices to empower others, such as your classmate Maria Castaneda Soria, who has put so much on the line to serve as a public advocate for other undocumented individuals at Swarthmore and within the Philadelphia area and beyond. As families, including children, across the country are being ripped apart as we speak, may we all do what we can to recognize their human rights in the search for safety, and in the search for home.
It becomes clear over time that home is not a building, but rather an assemblage of rooms—metaphorically understood—that we bring together as we find spaces of belonging in our lives.
As I prepare to close, I want to emphasize that the most progressive outward political stances are worth very little if peace and justice are not practiced on an individual level, in our interpersonal relations, and with the people closest to us. We must think about not only the end—but also the means—of our movements and struggles.
I know that the weight of the world can feel heavy. Some of you are still finding your voices and grounding. That. Is. Okay. How do we sustain our spirits at each step along the way? Self-care and self-compassion are essential.
Please know that we need you for the long haul. Give yourself permission to not always be cerebral. Believe it or not, even your professors indulge in the occasional—or perhaps more than occasional—temptations of junk food, Netflix binges, and dance parties. We, too, take walks in the Crum, marvel at blooming flowers in the Rose Garden, and people watch in the Science Center Café. As Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
You will build your own families over time, and in your own ways, and each of those paths is legitimate. It is important to find home in our own bodies and in our own skins, starting with our names. The names we inhabit parallel the bodies we inhabit. Love your name, own your name, deepen your relationship with your name, whether it’s one you received or the one you chose, with its apostrophes, hyphens, accents, unique spellings, and beautiful pronunciation. All of our names form the recognition of our collective humanity.
The Light is all around us. It is within us too. Learn to love your features, each and every part of yourself. They make you who you are. Don’t ever internalize someone else’s imposed definition of your personhood. Your voice is deep enough. Your posture is straight enough. The grip of your handshake is strong enough. You are beautiful. And as the wise Rihanna once said, we should all “shine bright like a diamond.”
As you shine, whether through ease or hardship, Swarthmore will always be here waiting for you, eager to welcome you back home with open arms.
Thank you, again, Class of 2018, and congratulations!