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The Graduation Speech I Wrote But Didn't Want to Say

05/26/2015 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
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*Note: I originally wrote and submitted a different graduation speech for Harvard Commencement. In retrospect, I probably should have submitted this one.
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"Do not be grateful for your Harvard education yet. It is your burden to use it."

These are the words spoken to me by my host father in Ecuador, as we sat on their back porch on my last night in the city, my host parents chain-smoking cigarettes in the humid breeze. I responded in silence, speechless at the words that no one had ever before dared to say to me. Looking back I think I just blinked at him for a minute. I had been going on about how lucky I felt to attend Harvard, how great a place it was, when all of a sudden he dropped this piece of advice at my feet. And while I still maintain that gratitude I felt back then, from the moment he spoke them I took my host father's words to heart, as a reminder of what my diploma might mean. A constant promise to use my education.

For me, the last four years have not resembled your "typical Harvard experience," if such a thing even exists. Instead of working in a lab or joining an a capella group or being the president of a student organization (although those are all very impressive), I have spent a good chunk of my time learning about languages and cultures, broadening my horizons both in and outside of the classroom. In four years I have worked on six languages on four continents. I have learned about natural resource management in the Ecuadorean Amazon, the glories of art and food in Paris, patriarchy in Tanzania, and urban inequities in Brazil. In short, I have spent a lot of time learning about the world outside of Harvard, but ironically enough it has taught me a great deal about the value of this place.

Our Harvard degrees matter, yes, but for reasons I feel are under-emphasized. It is true that some employers, neighbors, and people sitting next to us on airplanes react strongly to "the H-bomb," as it has so affectionately been called. We've all experienced the discomfort of skirting around our "small liberal arts college in Boston" even while it is nice at times that our school has immediate name recognition. Yet the blunt truth is that few people in the developing world care very much about your brand-name education. Even if they have heard of Harvard, they care more about what kind of person you are than where you went to school. The real significance of this place lies instead in what these educations have given us: the ability to think critically about things that matter.

We are socks on a clothesline, pulled taught in two directions. On the one hand, the mantras with which we have all grown up, the idea that we ought to pursue our dreams because we are unique and special and our artwork ought to be hung up on the fridge like a masterpiece even though it was scribbled with crayon. This self-importance became validated in part when we received our acceptance letters. "Yes, you must be special if you got into Harvard!" And, once we got over the initial shock (and thinking the admissions office had made a mistake), we began to believe it, too. We had a crimson-colored, embossed version of self-importance, and let everyone else eat cake -- or go to Yale.

But on the other end of the clothesline is the economy, the worried looks from our grandparents, story after story of artists who didn't make it, of baristas with advanced degrees, of businesses that fail. Gone are the leaflets of our parents' generation, the psyched-out communes that offered places for both individualism and community, collective outrage against The Man in brooding, Vietnam-fueled anger. Our generation's protests have largely moved from the streets to the Internet and, rather than finding community exactly, we are instead constantly reminded of just how many voices there are out there, how many hundreds of thousands of millenials there are trying to selfie their way into the public consciousness. It is a shouting match to prove "I, too, am here!" It may be our burden to use our education, but how?

Yet this isn't exactly fair. Social movements that were started at Harvard, many fostered by social media, show that, while the "me generation" may be hyper aware of our individuality, we also care about our mark on the world in a constructive sense. They show that students from this university care about implicit racism, about violence against women worldwide, and about how the university spends its endowment. There may be roots in white, male privilege at this school, but my peers have shown me that Harvard is so much more than the stereotype. We know it is our burden to use our education, and we are trying.

Let's face it: there have been some mixed messages coming out of Harvard in recent years. Cheating scandals, bomb threats, email searches, not knowing the capital of Canada... If all our parents listened to were the headlines, they might think twice about sending their kids here. But even with all of this clouding our perception, we know better. We know what we are capable of. I know what you all are capable of. I may not know all of you, despite my best attempts in Annenberg freshman year, but those of you I do know are not merely brainy, successful people, although you are that, too. You are also compassionate, curious, and thoughtful people, with no want of a brain. In today's society, this mixture is both a blessing and a curse. It is, without a doubt, our burden to use our education.

Yes, I am an anthropologist, so part of this comes with the territory, but I still maintain that our worlds are nothing if not fostered by human connection. We may pretend to be independent, and some of us really are, but in this messy washing machine of a fishpond that is college, there is nothing to cling to if not the wonderful creatures we are blessed to call friends. Working towards solving climate change and inequality are important, yes, but they are collective goals only to be reached through collective action. It may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, but only by leaning on the shoulders of others can we even try to support it. Proofs and stanzas may provide cerebral solutions, but it is the dynamism of incredible communities like Harvard that make things happen, that put our educations to good use.

So to those in the Class of 2015: Do not try to do good. Do not dream about doing good. Instead, surround yourself with people who make doing good a natural byproduct of doing well. Put yourself in an environment that lends itself to character growth, rather than detracting from it. Seek to learn even once we have left these walls, as that is the surest way to fall into empathy. This is what you all have taught me. Merely by being in your very presence, absorbing your wisdom through conversational osmosis, I have been compelled to be a more active citizen of the world. You have inspired me to use my education in the most unconventional ways possible -- by talking about urban planning over beers with friends, taking photos of the Black Lives Matter protests for The Crimson, choosing to swim with piranhas in the Amazon rather than take midterms, and, most of all, listening to your amazing stories so that I might make them part of mine. You have made putting my education to use not a burden, but a joy.

So while I, too, feel a sense of obligation to make the world a better place, to carry on the words of my Ecuadorean host father, for this -- for your inspiration -- I am grateful. Class of 2015, thank you. We did it.