commencement /kuh-mens-muhnt/, n.

Several weeks ago, I received an email from my honors thesis professor, encouraging me to apply to be a student speaker at the English Department commencement ceremony. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind before then, but I couldn’t think of a good reason why not to apply.

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t the commencement speaker, and I’m okay with that. It would have been an overwhelming privilege, and I’ve never really been one to stand center stage.

But — since today does finally mark the completion of my undergraduate career, I felt it would be very fitting to share my speech here to commemorate this day.

I’m not sure what I’m doing here.

Honestly — I’m not sure what I’m doing here, standing in front of all of you. Of all the students graduating from the English department this year, I know — with certainty — that I am in no way representative of this department. If you, as English majors, need the evidence and close reading analysis as proof of my claim, here you go:

I have never read Catch-22 or Catcher in the Rye. I wrote (and still write) terrible fan fiction. I consume more trashy, pop culture news articles than I do articles in The New Yorker, and for as long as I can remember, English has always been my worst subject in school. I always performed much better in my math and science classes, and I was one of about 15 people in my high school who woke up at 6:30 every morning senior year to go our AP Calculus BC class.

I did not need that class.

That year, in May, after everyone had finished their AP tests, one of my classmates started asking: “What are you going to major in?” Everyone around me was going into pre-med or math or engineering; I was in a room full of STEM majors. And then my friend turned to me: “What about you?”

“I’m going to major in English.”

“Then what are you even doing here?”

…I still don’t know what I’m doing here.

Photo by Courtney Cheng

Over the past four years, I’ve been asked a lot, by a variety of people, “Oh, if you’re an English major, do you want to be a teacher then?”

Every time I was asked this question, I’d always said no. I had no interest in teaching. All I wanted to was hole myself in a room, bury my nose into stacks on stacks of library books, and write.

The irony — because as English majors, we just love our irony — is, of course, that I have somehow found myself in the past, at least, two years of my life, teaching. Teaching, mentoring, supporting, being there for people in so many different capacities ranging from formal tutoring sessions to completely informal 2 am conversations. And okay, maybe the tutoring sessions were intentional, but everything else was simply a matter of circumstance.

I don’t like being pedantic. Those of you who know me or have taken a class with me in this department probably know me as the really studious girl in the front corner of the room who is always obsessively taking notes and not speaking in class until she has to do it for the participation grade because she literally forgets how to enunciate, put words in a sentence, and flushes anytime anyone even looks at her. It’s a very good thing that I could write this speech beforehand.

But of everything that’s happened in these past four years — the classes I’ve taken, the people I’ve met, the things I’ve learned, the essays I’ve written — they’ve made me realize: maybe they were meant to teach us English majors how to be teachers.

As English majors, we’re taught to look at the details, at the nuance in people’s language, their diction, their syntax, their tone. I mean, yeah, even I think I’m a little crazy for counting how many times the pronouns “she” or “her” were used in a particular paragraph of Pride and Prejudice, but it is this precise skill that trains us English majors to become such good teachers. All the reading we’ve completed over the past four years has allowed us to be privy to some of the world’s most intimate of problems. Problems that, oftentimes, the people we know in real life, would never dare to reveal.

When we communicate with those around us then, be it through writing or speech, we pick up on the subtleties of their language. We’re able to realize, without having to be explicitly told, the reasons behind another person’s unusual turn of phrase or their stilted language. And when we’re asked to respond, even if we personally haven’t faced this challenge before, we are armed with the knowledge and the ability to figure out what to say because we have been afforded the opportunity, invited even, to share and learn from the perspectives and experiences of so many others.

Photo by Courtney Cheng

As English majors, we have gone through the nine circles of Dante’s hell (literally); we have sat and read among the company of officers and ladies in Austen’s parlors; we have watched our grades “falling softly, softly falling” while reading about tragic lives; and we have wondered why anyone, much less ourselves, would try to capture love more perfectly than Shakespeare. Over the past four years, we have lived out our own lives among the company of blesséd friends and classmates, but we have also lived the lives of so many characters, people, and authors from all over the world, across so many centuries of time.

Without having to leave our dorms rooms and apartments, or those coveted seats in Main Stacks during dead week, we have already learned from others, how to tackle — or how not to tackle — some of life’s most universal problems. The thesis statements of our papers may have been about an author’s choice of diction or some other formal, aesthetic element — but the conclusion of it is always something bigger than that, and that’s not because we were using our conclusion to argue about “all of mankind.”

We’re not just here to argue about how much ink has been used on a page of a book. We’re here to talk about people; we’re here to engage with each other in discussions about these people and their lives, be they real or fictional; we’re here to read stories and to learn from them; and we’re here to write our own stories, and to share them with others so they can learn from us and us from them when, inevitably, disagreements and discussions ensue.

Photo by Courtney Cheng

We have learned, not just about close reading and writing, but about communication and interactions and relationships. Whether we came to the UC Berkeley English Department wanting to become teachers or writers, or something else entirely, we are all leaving with the experiences, skills, and abilities that inevitably allow all of us to be the best of teachers for our peers, our friends, and ourselves.

So, now, you might be thinking, “Are you here to be a teacher then?”

I’ve had so many people tell me they hate it when I answer questions this way, but honestly: I don’t know.

I do, however, know that I’m just a girl, standing in front of all of you, my classmates, as we figure out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives. I know, that, of Berkeley’s graduating class, we definitely do not have the highest starting pay rate — but this isn’t the be-all and end-all. Because I also know that we’ll always be able to support others, teach them, mentor them, be there for them. And that, is not something everyone can do.

I know — this still doesn’t really sound like a career.

But these skills that we’ve learned as English majors — we can also apply them to ourselves. Just as we have been there for each other over these past four years, my dear friends, we are also our own best supporters in everything that we have ever wanted to do in our lives. I know with certainty and I can say with confidence, that all of us here, the 2016 graduating class of UC Berkeley’s English Department, are here to do anything. It’s just as Jane Austen said: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

A never-ending thank you to everyone who has helped me — in any way, shape, or form — get through the past four years and are continuing to help me get through the next forty-something. As a writer, I’ve always preferred sharing my thoughts and emotions through writing, but even I know that words only go so far sometimes. If I learned only one thing from my time at Berkeley, I hope that it’s to show my emotions through my actions, just as much as I express them through my words. 

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