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Zara Williams-Nicholas '19

To the graduating Class of 2019, family, friends, faculty and staff, welcome. I would like to begin this address by reminiscing with you about one of my lower points at Swarthmore. One night in what must have been my junior year, I called my mom in the Kohlberg 2nd hallway to complain about how everything in my life was constantly going downhill. My mom probably doesn’t even remember this specific conversation, but I’m sure she can attest to how many times she’s gotten fed up with my rapid-fire incoherent blubbering whenever Swarthmore proved too much to handle. This time, she stopped me mid-sniff to tell me how proud she was of me. She told me how her mother, Merlin Grace, wanted desperately to attend Howard University. She had completed her application, had been accepted and had her student visa all ready to go. Instead, she gave the money to her brother Dandy, who had wanted to migrate from Jamaica to England in search of a better life. Dandy passed away a few years ago, and grandma unfortunately never made it to Howard. I am the first in my family line to attend college in the United States. I am carrying on the work that my grandmother started.

Of course, hearing how much pressure was on my shoulders didn’t do much to stop my tears, so my mom tried a different approach. She spoke about her experience as a medical student at the University of the West Indies Mona campus, where students would routinely survive on bread sandwiches and prayer. What kept my mom going was a combination of my grandma’s love, support from her closest friends, and an acute sense of duty and optimism that helped her to appreciate what she had already accomplished.

To the Class of 2019, I would like you all to take a moment to think about what you have accomplished here today. Disregard, for a moment, the already daunting academic obstacles you have faced. I have seen some of us overcome physical and mental illness, generational trauma, interpersonal struggles and financial obligations on top of everything else. I have seen some amazing students act as the glue holding their families together, all while defending their good standing at the College. I’ve also seen students fight to do well at Swarthmore despite feeling grossly unsupported by those in power. Now, add onto that all the problem sets, papers, videos, group projects and theses that we were required to complete. As some of my best friends back home would say, mi really feel like seh wi can bruk out and gwaan bad.

In the weeks following the senior speak off, a big challenge for me was deciding how to present my thoughts today. I wanted to structure this speech in a way that felt authentic to me. In the spirit of honoring my family and their commitment to education, I have decided to make this speech into a lesson that you can all hopefully draw from in your future endeavors. In planning this lesson, I draw from the pedagogy of the legendary Professor Ralph Gomez, whose dedication to and love for mathematics was and is infectious.

Professor Gomez often starts off lessons with Part 0, a review of what has happened before. For this section, I return to my life before Swarthmore College. For those who do not know, my grandmother was a teaching legend in her own right.  From an early age, the combination of her love and her pedagogy instilled in me a fondness for learning. My first memories as a child were pink and golden stars carefully cut and plastered around my room whenever I gained some new knowledge about the world around me. My grandma made it her mission to teach me everything she knew about the power of the spoken word. If I had to guess at her lesson plan, I lost her somewhere between A Basket of Flowers by Christoph Von Schmid and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. She may have left this Earth before she taught me everything she knew, but she gave me the foundation I needed to learn these lessons on my own.

The next part of every lesson Professor Gomez gives is Part 1, an intellectual appetizer before the main course. Now, if you know my reputation on this campus at all, you may know that I’ve taken some of the biggest Ls known to man. I’m sure there are students here who have kept better track of some of my faux pas than I have over the years, so I’ll leave it to them to tell the individual tales. What I want to express here today is the importance of turning these awkward or embarrassing times into teachable moments. The problem thus becomes, what should we learn from this? What is important to hold on to, and which teachings should we internalize? When a blush rises to your cheek, consider whether the reaction stems from mere self-consciousness or true soul-eating guilt. We see examples of this dilemma when insecure individuals and groups attempt to make others feel guilty for unusual yet harmless conduct, or when those in power try to silence the brave humans among us. It is so easy to internalize negativity that is directed towards us that we can drown in other people’s insecurities. On the other hand, we have many cases of guilty individuals not knowing when to hold themselves accountable for their guilt. We spout excuse after excuse without sitting with the harm caused. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my life cannot be neatly characterized as completely innocent or completely culpable. Learning from both those unfortunate experiences where we are at fault and those where we are not at fault is a difficult yet fundamentally important task.

This brings me to the so-called meat and potatoes of this lesson. How do we find a healthy balance, where we are neither too lazy nor too critical in our self-examination?  How do we love ourselves enough to have pride in ourselves? How do we love ourselves enough to sit with our shame? I don’t have exact minute-by-minute answers to this question in my own life, much less the lives of everyone else here. I do know that what has helped me is cultivating a greater level of discernment. To cultivate discernment, we must start by becoming more self-aware. We cannot truly expect to understand our impact on the world around us without first committing to the emotional work of discovering our values, goals, intentions, and deepest desires. We then have the shared responsibility to use our newfound knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses to minimize the harm we inflict on others. Once we have built this foundation, we will hopefully be better able to respond to both those we have harmed and to those who seek to harm us. In return for holding ourselves to a higher standard, we are granted a radical mastery of our character.

My grandmother was one such master, and probably the wisest person I have ever known. As a child, I didn’t appreciate just how awe-inspiring she was until after she was gone. There are many people on this campus and in this world whose wisdom also often goes unnoticed or underappreciated. I would like to read some words of wisdom to you that were gifted to me by an anonymous member of our dedicated Environmental Services team.

And I quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Don’t just get involved, fight for a seat at the table. Be willing to embrace the wonders of this world and live your life. Do the ambitious things. Travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes. Don’t ever underestimate the importance you have. And so adventure begins. Live, love, laugh and have fun. This is a new chapter in your life and I know you’re scared, because the world is a scary place. So go out into the world with both guns blazing and remember, this is your life and you only get one. And last but not least, let’s not forget those who helped you get here. Google, Wikipedia, Coffee and Copy paste.” End quote.

I leave you also with two quotes from my childhood that have served me well. The first is from A Basket of Flowers by Christoph Von Schmid:
“Our heart is a garden, which the good God has given us to cultivate, and we must always be aware of the weeds that grow without observation. It is necessary that we should unceasingly apply ourselves to the cultivation of the good and the extraction of the evil which might take root.”

The second is a popular Jamaican proverb: “Speak the truth and speak it ever, cost it what it will. For he who hides the wrong he did, does the wrong thing still.”

In graduating, we are all carrying on the work of someone in our lives who set the stage as powerfully as my mother and grandmother did. Make them proud. Thank you, and once again, congratulations.