Before I started this address, I asked people to pull out their phones and to tweet using the hashtag #bccgraduates.
The night before graduation, I was looking at the draft of what I had written before, and I ended up fiddling with it until 1 in the morning, which was crazy. Despite the late night in the middle of finals week, I’m happy I was asked to speak and that I did it. Isn’t that always how it is with things that are worthwhile? Some ambivalence along the way, but payoff later.
On behalf of Berkeley City College’s faculty and staff, I would like to congratulate all of the graduates, and I would like to also welcome the families, friends, and community here to celebrate with you.
As a composition instructor, I have the privilege to meet many students on their very first day of college. I walk in that door, and no matter if they have just graduated from high school or spent the past twenty, thirty, or even forty years away from formal education, each student, no matter whether they show it or not, brings a tremendous amount of hope, and this hope that they, that you have brought, is an incredible gift. Each semester it is, as one my colleagues described it, like a rebirth, as each new set of students gives us the opportunity to try again and again to perfect our craft as teachers.
In particular, I would like to thank students from the Public and Human Services program because you have been gracious enough to share your dreams of serving your communities and families. You, and my colleagues in this program, Stephanie Sanders-Badt, Carol Collins, Stephanie Green, and others, have inspired me to see service to others as not only a social good, but something that nourishes a part of our spirit.
But let’s get back to to that first day of class. On the one hand there’s this hope, this tremendous expectation in our classrooms. Hope for the future, for success, for all of these positive things, but it is a fragile emotion that can be wiped away in an instant, and in my classes, it usually only takes one word to banish all of this hope from the room: essay.
When I say essay, all of this hope is quickly replaced by the other emotion often present on the first day of class: fear.
This, I know, is a vast simplification of a complicated emotional process, but let’s be honest. Fear is a normal part of the first days of school, the first days of anything really, and even I find myself fearful or at least worried that students may not like me, or may find out that I’m fraud, or that I’m just plain boring. And for students, this fear of essays and writing is probably complicated by a fear of math, a fear of mistakes, of failure, or even of success. We even read a book this semester called, The College Fear Factor, which discusses how this fear impacts students beyond academics. There is the fear of not making friends, of not being smart, the fear of not being good enough. The fear of giving up. The fear of the unknown. There is the fear of disappointing your community, your family, and even yourself.
Each semester, I am fortunate to observe these two emotions, hope and fear, co-existing like two live wires inside each of my students, and these emotions, I believe, are a crucial part of learning and growing. Fear lets you know that something new, perhaps something dangerous is before you, and hope helps you to see past that fear, to imagine a life beyond it.
So, now, in your robes and mortar boards, now approaching another first day, the first day after graduation, I am optimistic that you will feel these emotions again, hope and fear, but that you will do so with a new sense of purpose and confidence.
And I believe that my colleagues share this sentiment with me: that as teachers, as counselors, as those who have served you, we are privileged. We are privileged because from that first day of class until this day, you have entrusted us with the task of not only teaching and serving you, but of observing your struggles and sharing your accomplishments. By allowing us into your life in this way, by permitting us to bear witness to these precious moments, we are reminded of our own struggles and accomplishments, of our own journey, of our own hopes and fears.
As you cross this stage, I will watch and observe and witness with great pride and heartfelt emotion. Thank you for this great gift and congratulations!