During an average Thursday night dinner at the Ratty, Michelle Liu ’22 received an unexpected email that left her in shock. She had been chosen as one of the senior orators for the class of 2022, inviting her to join in a 254-year-old University tradition that allows select students to deliver speeches at Commencement.
Being selected is “such an honor,” Liu said. “This is a beautiful moment to thank (the Brown community) for making me who I am and allowing me to grow alongside all these different, diverse, thoughtful, incredible (and) intelligent people.”
Liu will be joined by fellow orators Alexandra Ali Martinez ’22 and Kaitlan Bui ’22, who will be delivering their speech jointly, in speaking on behalf of the class of 2022 at Commencement. Sydney Lo ’20 and Dhruv Singh ’19.5 will also deliver their speeches this year, representing the nearly one thousand members of the class of 2020 that the University will welcome back for an in-person graduation.
Lo knew immediately that she wanted to return to College Hill for Commencement. “There’s something so special about seeing people who have gone through so much with you,” she said. “When we all went away (in March), there wasn’t a chance to say goodbye and tie up all of our experiences.”
When Lo was first nominated to speak at Commencement in fall 2019, she was drawn to the topic of grief, after her brother’s passing during her sophomore year, and how Brown’s on-campus community helped her heal.
“I am incredibly grateful for the support I found at Brown,” Lo said. “It teaches you a lot to go through grief on a college campus, where there’s a level of anonymity. … I could have grieved alone, but that would have done a disservice to my brother and myself.”
Instead, Lo joined the on-campus Bereavement Group — run by the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life — which offers students who have suffered the loss of a loved one a place to gather. She also found support through the Swearer Center’s Bonner Community Fellowship program.
“I reached out and found support systems in my extracurriculars, and I was able to make a lot of those connections stronger,” Lo said. She learned how “to be vulnerable with other people and take the space (to grieve) when (she) needed it.”
Lo believes that the devastating loss associated with the pandemic over the past two years has only made her speech about grief more broadly applicable. Coming back to the speech nearly two years after it was originally drafted, Lo refocused her theme on healing, specifically “what it means to be alumni of Brown University in this changing world and what responsibilities we have to heal one another.”
“I hope that this speech is a chance for people to heal, feel love and be intentional about that,” Lo said. Healing “takes time and it takes practice, and that’s why we have communities: to learn how we can heal … (and) support the people that you want to support.”
Singh’s speech echoes Lo’s community angle, focusing on the difficulties he faced as a first-year at Brown before finding a welcoming community with the Brown Outdoor Leadership Training program.
“My first year at Brown was very hard, very isolating,” Singh said. “I thought I was going to transfer.”
It wasn’t until he joined BOLT that Singh was able to recognize and appreciate the self-motivation of Brown students.
Singh wrote his original speech in 2019 as a senior at Brown. Now, returning to writing as a professional speechwriter two years out of college, Singh has had to rediscover his voice.
The pandemic, paired with the “racial justice reckonings” of summer 2020, make the community element of Singh’s speech all the more resonant, he said, pointing to how Brown students took action to support Providence throughout COVID-19 by donating street outreach supplies.
“Seeing the ways that people sprung into action, not just for the people they knew, but the people they shared Brown with, that they shared Providence with,” was really important, Singh said.
“If nothing else, that year gave my speech a little more teeth. This isn’t just a kumbaya thing,” he added. “There’s a responsibility to the community. You have an obligation to the people you share your community with.”
Martinez and Bui were informed by their own involvement in community work when drafting their speech, which focuses on the concepts of holding and letting, according to Martinez.
Martinez was first nominated as an orator last fall. After reflecting on the message she wanted to express through her speech, Martinez decided to ask Bui, whose community work she had deeply admired, to join her in potentially sharing a co-written speech at Commencement.
Months after writing the initial draft, “our friendship has grown, and we have also grown as people,” Bui said. So Martinez and Bui decided to recenter their speech “to reflect that growth.”
“We're talking about holding as a practice of care,” Martinez added. “And then we paint this vision of transformation to a practice of letting so that (everyone) can experience a world of joy and love.”
“When we think about holding each other, it's only in times when we really need it … because we're in the midst of danger,” Bui said. “But what would it look like if we do that in times of goodness and joy?”
As Martinez and Bui continue to serve their communities and grow as advocates, the theme of their speech continues to directly inform their day-to-day life, Martinez said. “We’re trying to continue to hold our communities beyond our time at Brown.”
Liu similarly wanted to craft a speech that addresses day-to-day living, aiming for resonance by focusing on the “universal emotions” that the entire class of 2022 could relate to.
Liu’s speech will focus on the importance of pausing and “why it's really important to take time in your life to assess what you want to do and to make meaning out of your purpose,” she said. Coming out of the pandemic, and more generally living in “our go go go culture,” Liu said she wanted to remind people to live life for themselves and not just follow others.
“For me personally, pausing was super important because I came into Brown focused on statistics (and) computer science, really thinking I would pursue a degree in that field because of financial stability,” she said. “Throughout my time at Brown, I was able to be exposed to writing and sociology, and I realized what I want to do with the rest of my life is write.”
COVID-19 put everyone’s lives on pause, Liu said, forcing them to reflect on the lived experiences of those around them. She was particularly inspired by movements for racial equity that gained traction during the pandemic such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate.
“It’s easy to go blindly through life and to follow others and to conform to what we think we should do,” Liu said. But “nothing in life that is worth having is easy.”
As she finishes up her speech, Liu said she has been reflecting on how “bittersweet” it will be to graduate and leave behind the comfort she has found “with the community at Brown and the classes and even the geography of Providence.”
For Lo, coming back for Commencement and honoring her class’s experiences is a form of healing in itself. “I know that, personally, it would be really helpful and a good opportunity to reunite and put a close on this time in my life,” she said.
The class of 2020 “didn’t get to celebrate together as an enormous group,” Singh said. “I’m just excited to be back in Providence and be around people who I love and never really got a chance to say goodbye to.”
“When we are up on that stage, and we share this love letter together, I just really hope that my family, my mother and my community can feel proud,” Martinez said. “Proud of me, but also themselves, and the Brown community, who are all doing amazing things in their own endeavors.”
Alex Nadirashvili is a University News section editor covering faculty and higher education, international students and undergraduate student life. He is a junior from New Jersey studying English and American studies.