Astrid Henry's 2010 Baccalaureate Remarks
Good morning. I want to thank the class of 2010 for inviting me to speak here today. I am truly honored and humbled by the invitation. I also want to thank the wonderful Becca Bernstein for her warm introduction. And also wish welcome to everyone in the audience, including all the parents, siblings, grandparents, and other family and friends, who have joined us here today to celebrate this important milestone in your lives.
Two months ago, when I was first asked to speak to you today, I began to think about what I might say in this brief talk. I wanted my words to be wise, of course, but I also hoped they would be funny and would avoid the clichés that can often accompany graduation addresses of this sort. As someone who studies generations and generational change, I considered discussing how your class, born in the late 1980s, represents the largest demographic generation in US history, and what some of the unique challenges facing the millennial generation might be as you move into adulthood. I contemplated discussing the experience of entering the work force in the midst of an economic recession, something that was also the case when I graduated from college. And perhaps I would stress a lesson I wish I had learned when I was your age: watch out for credit card debt.
Whatever my original plans for this address, however, they were suddenly and sharply altered by the recent events that we have experienced as a campus: a series of bias-motivated incidents, and the death of one of our students, Robert Yin. During these last two weeks of the semester, I have had many private conversations with students about their anger, their sadness, their pain, and their shock. A woman, who described her feelings of betrayal after finding out that a man whom she’d considered a good friend had participated in a degrading and sexist party in which she had been singled out by name. A man who struggled to take responsibility for his role in this party, and who now faces tremendous emotional anguish as he mourns the death of a fellow track teammate. A student whose car has been repeatedly vandalized with homophobic slurs over the last week, consuming the time and energy she had reserved for working on her final papers. Graduating campus activists, who are both angry and burnt out over the fact that they have to deal with yet another hate speech-related incident at the college they have trusted to protect and support them. These conversations, and the events that led to them, have made it difficult to see this moment today in exclusively celebratory terms. Many of you feel denied the joyful celebration which you deserve as you finish this stage of your education, while also feeling frustrated by not being able to publicly respond to the most recent incidents of anti-gay and lesbian hate speech on campus.
How shall I praise your accomplishments while also acknowledging your anger, your fear, and your desire for justice? Here is my answer: your desire for justice is an accomplishment. Your anger at seeing people treated unfairly, your sadness at the loss of a member of your community, these emotions weren’t created at Grinnell, but your Grinnell education gave you the ability to understand these emotions with complexity and self-awareness. I praise you for learning how to critically analyze the roots of inequality and discrimination, and for exploring the histories of injustice and oppression, as well as movements for social change. I celebrate your hard work in pursuing a more socially just world, throughout all the various academic disciplines that make up the liberal arts education. I admire you for how carefully you have listened to the stories told by your peers, and for embracing the many different voices and experiences that make up Grinnell.
Your accomplishment is that you didn’t turn anger into insult, or fear into withdrawal. But rather that you turned both into learning, and into a renewed commitment to the value of community. So, if you feel that you haven’t been able to express your most recent, rawest emotions, let me assure you that you will have the chance to do so, since the issues that lie behind these emotions will not end with your graduation tomorrow. The questions of power, privilege, oppression, and personal loss are probably the most important questions that can ever be asked. And their answers come not from four years’ work, but from the work of a lifetime. Figuring out how people can live together and get along is not just the task of a college community; it is the task of the global community. Self-governance, with its promise and its problems, goes beyond dorm life, and is the center of all civic life in a democratic society. So let all of us celebrate the work you have done that has led to this moment – this strange, wonderful, exciting, depressing moment, a moment that demands your engagement. And to those of you who feel that your voices haven’t been heard, the world is listening. Thank you.