2020 Commencement address

Published 24 Jun 2020, last modified 15 Sep 2020

I submitted the following with an application to participate in my university’s 2020 Commencement Exercises as a student speaker. I didn’t end up delivering the address as part of the ceremony, but I like how it turned out, so I wanted to keep it here on my blog.

The Merrimack River at dusk, viewed from University Avenue Bridge, Lowell, MA

I’m a computer science student born in 1991, so it might not surprise you that I have an enamel pin made to look like a Windows 95 dialog box. It says, “Task failed successfully,” and this is something of a personal motto for me.

Four years ago I was sitting in the Tsongas Center watching my younger brother receive his bachelor’s degree in Music Studies. I felt a mixture of pride—my brother is awesome, after all—and regret. I felt that I had closed the door on formal education in my own life when I dropped out of college in 2012.

I have a complete stranger to thank for giving me the push that finally convinced me to go back to school. I was working at a local wholesale store when someone came by looking for help choosing a camera in the electronics department. When I had told him all he wanted to know about cameras the conversation became a little more personal.

“You’re a smart guy,” he said. “Are you in school?”

“No, I haven’t been in school for a few years.”

“Why?”

“Well, I was in college for three years, and it didn’t work out.”

“Oh, are you going back?”

“I don’t know…”

“You’re a smart guy! You should be in school.”

What is this guy’s problem?, I thought. That’s none of his business! But it stuck with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was finally able to move on from ruminating on why I left school in the first place and focus on what I could do with a degree in computer science. What I could do for myself, for my family, and for my child. How I could harness my experience to get more out of school than I could have if I had finished my degree the first time.

And with a lot of help and patience from my family that’s what I did. I’m celebrating with all of you today, and I already have a job I could hardly have imagined when I was stocking shelves. Right now that seems a rare privilege, the kind of good fortune for which I can claim only part of the credit.

Sometimes my coworkers will say, “You learn fast. You could have learned everything you need to know for this job on your own, and your degree is just the proof.” And, you know, if they were just talking about the technical stuff, they’d be right. But the role of a school is more than dispensing technical knowledge. A school is a community, and when things go right a school helps you learn what there is to learn.

Communities are tested and shaped through shared adversity. Over the past semester I’ve seen faculty and students adapt to circumstances most of us never imagined. I don’t think any of my professors this semester had taught a class entirely online before. Some of us, myself included, had our children with us in the “classroom” for the first time. Times like these lay bare the challenges and the priorities we already had.

Education begins when we are united by a common demand. We are here because we want to know more and to do better. At UMass Lowell my professors demanded that I learn how to write microcode for the MIC-1 processor architecture, how Type Ia supernovæ can be used as standard candles for measuring intergalactic distances, and who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (It was Max Weber, by the way.) None of this is knowledge I will ever be asked to use at work. But it is knowledge I cherish because it tells me something about how we got here, why we do things the way we do. And knowing how we got here gives us a starting point from which to move forward.

I’ll leave you with another of my personal mottos, one that was found anonymously scrawled on walls throughout Paris in May 1968: Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible—Be realistic, demand the impossible. Demand it of your communities. Demand it of yourselves.


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