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Class of 2018 Heads Off to Make Art, Change

Emerson College graduates were encouraged to slow down, pay attention, embrace life, ask tough questions, and listen to the answers. 

Here are some excerpts from Commencement 2018 speeches. 


Undergraduate Commencement Address: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins

“Happiness does not lie in the achievement of a goal. Winning prizes and attaining success, financial or otherwise, may bring momentary glee, but lasting happiness is connected to what you do in life. Happiness is found in the work you do now, not in any award that comes later. Take your eyes off the prize, keep your head down and focus on your work, whatever it is you choose to do in the world…The prize is not the goal. The work is the prize.”

“The first thing that poetry asks us is to slow down. Even it's shape on the page, prevents the reader from speeding… We live in a high velocity culture we have become addicted to the news feed of information.”

“Our daily lives are driven by a technology that combines volume and speed, to the point where there is no time to pause to determine what is valuable and what is not… As you slow down, you have more time to pay attention to what is around you. I don’t mean paying attention to what you are supposed to be looking at, but paying attention to the periphery, what is taking place on the sidelines.” 

“Living with an awareness of our mortality can heighten our experience, italicize the world before us, and make each day more vivid. …  The older you grow the more you realize that time is more important than success or money. Think about it, if you run out of money you're broke; if you run out of time, you’re dead.”

Read: Billy Collins Offers Lessons from Poetry to the Class of 2018

Watch: Billy Collins's Speech


Graduate Commencement Speaker: Filmmaker Deeyah Khan

“I think that for people to be exposed to the 'other' is really important. And the entire purpose of the work that I do is to try and create tiny possibilities, tiny windows where we may be able to see ourselves in each other. Where maybe we can recognize ourselves in the other, whoever the other is, and maybe in that moment something different can become possible.” 

“For me, saying the things that need to be said and asking the questions that need to be asked and telling the stories that I feel deeply, passionately about is far more important than some sort of a career ladder. I would rather eat every other day than compromise, than try to fit into the boxes that people have defined for us.

I would like for you … to understand the power that you have. You might feel afraid, you might feel worried and stressed about what's next and how your life is going to pan out, and what I can tell you is don't worry too [much], don't be so hard on yourself. Whatever best-laid plans you might put in front of yourself, it's not going to happen like that, it really isn't, and that's O.K. Allow yourself to be you, allow yourself the space to make mistakes. Allow yourself to fail, because you will. Allow yourself disappointment. 

“I want you to know that your voice matters. I want you to know that your creativity matters, and not only matters, but is desperately needed in the times that we're living in right now. We need creative resistance, we need you to deploy your imaginations. 

As artists, we operate within the realm of imagination, within the realm of being able to think out and envision something that may not exist today, but might tomorrow. And that skill set doesn't just apply to our creative work, it also applies to life, it applies to our world, it applies to our communities and our future. So you have the skill set to imagine a different future, and you also have the creative tools to be able to manifest that imagination into something that's different. You are so important.”

Watch: Deeyah Khan's speech


Undergraduate Student Speaker: Elizabeth Deonarain '18

“We live in a world that is constantly changing. This change is not just happening around us, we are making that change: Extending the time for the intersection crosswalk, fighting for gender-inclusive bathrooms, organizing buses to D.C. for the Women's March, speaking out against sexual assault, and protesting for cultural competency — these are all things that we've accomplished during our time here at Emerson. We've secured internships at some of the top companies, not just in our fields, but in the country. Some of us have even gone viral. If we can do all this while balancing classes, jobs, personal lives, creative projects, just imagine what you'll see from us in the future.

Class of 2018, our hard work is not over. We fought to make Emerson a better place, and Emerson still has some major changes to make. … But now we leave this place, leave the changes we continue to make by upcoming generations, and we take this momentum .. we take it out into the world at large, making it better not just for ourselves, but for everyone. We cannot stand idly by as injustice happens, just as we cannot stand by and let this energy and momentum we share dissipate. 

We have the power to use what we've learned and who we've become to make this place safer for everyone, regardless of religion, ability, race, gender, sexuality, or immigration status. We can make a meaningful impact on the world through our films, our writing, our performances, our articles, our campaigns, and our work to help those who struggle to speak for themselves. Some of us may not see our full potential yet, but I encourage you not to doubt yourselves. Don't hold yourself back from doing what you are truly passionate about. Don't worry about what others are doing and what could have been. Focus on the future. Focus on the change we can make if we believe in ourselves and put our ideas into action.”

Watch: Elizabeth Deonarain's speech


Graduate Student Speaker: Cheng Jin, MFA '18

“Another thing I've noticed since starting school in the U.S. is that the American education system is entirely different from China's. During undergraduate, I studied broadcast journalism, and my previous professors would point me in a direction and all I had to do was figure out a way to get to the destination. But at Emerson, I received encouragement and suggestions, which means I was the one who had to decide which direction I wanted to go. I'm not saying one method is better than the other, because they both have benefited me and failed me at times. But the different approaches, different cultural perspectives did provide me with multiple ways of thinking. The first way turned me into a professional employee, while the second helped me to develop the belief that I am an artist. 

I believe this new way of thinking is the most important thing we receive from Emerson. With the technology we have today, knowledge is something you can learn anytime, anywhere. But the way of thinking is a vital habit that we'll develop and will be with us and [leave] such a strong impact on us for a long time. It is a privilege to be able to study and work in a place with such diversity. And I believe this diversity we have at Emerson is working in a mutual way. Everybody benefits from being able to understand people from different backgrounds and cultures.

While earning my degree, I traveled and tried to see as much of the U.S. as I could. I saw a lot of amazing sights, but also was faced with many broken illusions. When I found out that New York City is not as clean, beautiful, and perfect as it is depicted in movies, I realized there are endless problems and social issues we are drawn to address. Poverty, unfairness, discrimination do exist. The world is much bigger than what you and [I] are seeing on the screens we are staring at every day.”

Watch: Cheng Jin's speech


Valedictory Address: President Lee Pelton

“Exercise, when you can, and especially when it seems most difficult, your sympathetic imagination, knowing that sometimes it's important to stand in another person's shoes before you pass judgment on them. Or, put another way, resist the temptation to put people in boxes until you have opened up those boxes and peered inside. Increasingly, we tend to shout at each other through these boxes rather than taking the time to see what's there.

I say this even as I know that it is vitally important to call out and root out racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, sexual assault, and all of the other behaviors and structures that harm people and corrupt and undermine our national values. 

Learn, as a very smart person reminded me, that discourse is a form of action. Listening and talking are twin virtues, but of the two, listening is the most important for, “there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Hamlet to Horatio.

If possible, be humble in the face of conflict without sacrificing your core values. Be patient and resist the urge to act, especially when your understanding is incomplete. Be skepticial, but avoid cynicism. Hold on to your idealism as long as you can — before experience begins to chip away at it. 

Is it possible that, as a nation committed to equality and social justice, we may still hope that, out of the rich diversity of human experience, we can create communities of learning, communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism, communities of learning that will turn the tide of want into a sea of joy and light? Is it possible that, though we may or may not all come to love one another, that we may understand that to be the best part of this place, we must have the moral courage to respect one another?

Is any of this still possible? I'm an idealist, and I have to believe that it is so.”

Watch: Lee Pelton's speech

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