This piece was originally submitted as a speech for the Class of 2021’s Commencement.
I did not first move into Brown during a pandemic, but I might as well have. As most of us have found ourselves during the past 14 months, in that moment in September 2017, taking my very first steps on College Hill, I was completely alone. I left Beirut at 2:00 AM and alone I remained for 5,000 miles, clutching my suitcases and backpack through the car ride, the flight, the layover interrogation, the second flight, the second interrogation – Boston’s airport security is no joke, y’all! – the subway ride, train ticket to the wrong station, two-hour walk, second train, and finally, one last stumble up College Hill. But here, laying eyes on the stone arches and perfect grass of the Main Green for the first time, the aloneness did not matter anymore. Like many of us today after a year of restrictions and distress, I was ready then to leave the lonely trek behind and begin a newer, better time.
I’ll save you my naïve shock that time waits for nobody. However long your journey at Brown has been, Class of 2021, it is safe to say that the world in which we entered the Van Wickle Gates is unrecognizable from the one in which we will exit them. But in so many ways, that is a false comfort. I invite you to look at the pandemic of discontent, of isolation, and marginalization that has existed long before March 2020 – from protests during our own Convocation, and long before that too. The question of who gets to declare one crisis a pandemic and another irrelevant remains.
We have grappled with this before. These have been four years of remembrance. We went from witnessing our first candle-lit protest on Wriston Quad against sexual harassment to watching the survivor’s platform Voices of Brown take off four years later with a national audience. We cried with our friends after the Tree of Life shooting and walked out of class in a March for Our Lives. We prayed in moments of silence as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other African-Americans were slain, the same way we did six and seven years ago, and countless times before that. We saw these pandemics of discontent boil over and were caught between the realities beyond the Brown bubble and the safety of an elite academic degree.
The first thing I learned in my history classes was that, actually, history never repeats itself. So long as we are agents of change, we can avoid predestination. The Class of 2021 is distinct because, in our time here, we have come to embody change. Our very purpose is a journey toward a more equitable world.
As a senior, I now understand that to expect an institution to give us the tools to thrive in and change a world that turns itself on its head in a span shorter than an undergraduate career is almost laughably unrealistic. But Brown gave us something much more valuable. At risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, it gave us our peers and our professors, who taught us the power of walking through an institution that was built upon gatekeeping and realizing that we can dismantle that system. That we can honor our heritages collectively in the face of a structure that seeks to reduce it to cheap talk. That sometimes doing so isn’t steeped in late nights, fancy words, and bombast, but rather in self-care, community care, and most of all, forgiveness. That we can take the fruits of the ivory tower and smuggle them to the places they are kept from. Like the many trips I ended up taking between Beirut and Providence, each time on the heels of a crisis, this is life as transit. We have embraced the art of life as journey. The only thing constant on College Hill has been change.
It has taken me time to understand what this means. In large part, it means our families, chosen or otherwise, whom I want to extend my loudest thanks to. To my mom, la emme, bhebbik, and to all the mixed-status families here who dared to dream of a better life for their children, even though you may not be here to see your child graduate, I see you. We promise to continue the transit to a better life. To whichever places you find solace in, in my case as a Lebanese-American to the South West Asian Northern African Heritage Series and the first-generation community in particular, thank you for passing the baton so courageously. The fact that, when I first stepped onto campus, both of these communities were still fighting for recognition shows how far we’ve come. Family like this, like the one I found at Brown, was why I no longer felt alone after my mammoth trip across the world.
If you take nothing else away from this, let it be that we shouldn’t wait for a virus to combat the isolation and injustice that goes on in our communities.
This is also not an oration on the pandemic, but if you take nothing else away from this, let it be that we shouldn’t wait for a virus to combat the isolation and injustice that goes on in our communities. Racism, systemic oppression, disinformation – we should not wait for these issues to boil over to care about them. We are tutors and mentors, laborers and academics, artists and activists, and most of all, future forebearers of the baton, and we are uniquely positioned to make a difference. So speak out about knowledge, its distribution, and its implications, even if your audience starts out as just your best friend at Jo’s over late-night mozzarella sticks. Practice radical compassion, especially when you least want to. Hold each other responsible to create the same spaces we yearn for so deeply, and search for what Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez called the “means to render our lives believable,” to matter to the other through your work.
It has been an indescribable honor and privilege to have learned alongside you. Unfortunately, we've become so good at living our lives in transit that our detour here must end. You are all the reason I will remember my time at Brown with a lump in my throat for years to come, and I am thankful beyond words. Now, let us transform our degrees from illegible pieces of paper into agents of change, humbly and wisely.
Congratulations to the Class of 2021!