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Virtual Graduation Speech for the Class of 2020

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder. We all know this, but when you’re experiencing a traumatic loss it’s difficult not to place it on a pedestal or polish it into a gleaming fantasy. If you are a 2020 graduate, you have a right to mourn this rite of passage, this pinnacle of excellence, this moment of triumph, taken from you by a viral pandemic and a country that didn’t make much effort to avert it, but you should also know that the collective graduation ceremony is a symbolic event; as an actual experience it never quite lives up to the hype.

This is (clearly) not an official graduation speech. I am not writing this for any particular age group or grade level, a specific program or genre of study, although I am an academically trained artist and feel an affinity for art school and liberal arts graduates. Whether you are a newly minted chemical engineer, MBA, lawyer, or English major, this advice is uniformly applicable: 2020’s non-graduation is a symbol of what you have lost, but it should be the least of your worries.

After decades in education and teaching, I have acquired a respectable amount of graduation experience. I have taught college students, graduate students, art majors, non-art majors, and spent seven years teaching art to high school students in Maryland public schools. I have graduated at least four times myself that I can remember: high school, college, graduate school, and then graduate school again. I am not an expert on the subject, but I have learned through personal experience that graduation ceremonies are designed to be tolerated and photographed, but rarely enjoyed.

I have heard my share of rambling graduation speeches full of non-specific platitudes, but I also know when a speaker has nailed it. (Strange coincidence: Sam Gilliam was the keynote speaker at both my undergraduate and MFA ceremonies.) When there is cheering, unsolicited clapping, knowing smiles, and tears, a graduation speech has done its job. Or has it? Is a graduation speech (and ceremony) a mission-accomplished placeholder of a moment designed to make students and parents feel good about themselves in a generic and mass produced way, or can it actually teach us something valuable?

I graduated in a high school class of 433 students. That ceremony taught me that alphabetical order seldom produces close friendships and listening to names being read for three hours is boring as hell. In college, I recall winning some sort of award at graduation and the art department chair pronouncing my name incorrectly as I crossed the stage. So much for making an impression in those four years, huh? The main thing I remember is the nightmare-level terror of almost missing the ceremony—in a carpool with my fellow art majors, driving around cluelessly in circles in the neighborhood surrounding the college I had just attended for four years, completely lost before the driver admitted he was stoned. Learning opportunity: getting high before graduation might make the speeches more interesting, but wait until you have arrived safely at your destination.

Fast forward to graduate school. I was twenty-three the first time. I don’t remember much about this one, except it was a degree in education from my dad’s alma mater where he was a career professor. My greatest treasure from that experience is not my diploma, but a photo of me and my dad wearing funny hats and robes. It was a beautiful spring day and my dad’s smile is playful and proud.

As a high school art teacher, I was required to attend graduation in academic robes and sit on the end of a row of students to keep them quiet. I was in my twenties, barely older than my students, and I remembered one great lesson from my college graduation: I met up with several other teachers at a bar before the ceremony, and then we walked to graduation in a pleasant haze. This actually made the experience more interesting, and the keynote graduation speaker, typically a favorite teacher with decent oratory skills and good sense of humor, even more fantastic. I remember one beloved physics teacher making the entire senior class repeat two words of wisdom out loud as a group: “compound interest.” I wonder how that has resonated with this group, now in their mid-30s?

My last graduation ceremony was in 2005 for an MFA from MICA. I attended a low-residency program over four summers, so graduation occurred a year after I had completed my studies and felt like an afterthought. This was a comparatively sober, mature graduation, and I remember sitting in parking lot traffic and group photos on the hill in front of the Station Building and Sam Gilliam, yet again my graduation speaker. My main memory from that day is that it rained and my black graduation gown bled a weird purpley color on my cute white pants that never came out, my one souvenir besides a diploma.

Paul Shortt, Don’t Let Adulthood Corrupt You

Do these kinds of experiences seem like a huge loss? I know that everyone is sad right now that they didn’t have a commencement ceremony and, more importantly, a chance to celebrate with the friends and teachers they have come to love, but in truth, graduation is kind of a bust. It’s a milestone, but the event itself is rote and designed to accommodate hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people at once. It could benefit from a major overhaul and you, the class of 2020, have an opportunity to reinvent this milestone to honor your significant accomplishment with family, friends, and colleagues.

Rather than mourning for a perfect event that never happened, now is a time for deep reflection upon the past and future with those you care about, although wearing a silly hat, baking elaborate cakes, or displaying homemade yard signs are also good. Now is the time to decide which friends and teachers you want to keep in touch with and how you want these relationships, and your future, to evolve. This is what education is supposed to do: prepare us for our next steps out in the world.

For all the art students especially, I know you are missing the final few months of your education in an intensive, joyful, insane studio environment that culminates in the one experience that outshines graduation: the thesis exhibition. This cannot be replicated virtually, and this is a loss. However, if you’re building an art career, your thesis show is just the beginning of a long trajectory of exhibitions, a lifetime of moments where your creative efforts become vulnerable and valuable to the world.

An artist’s next exhibition should always be their best exhibition so consider what your subsequent goals are. If you don’t know, that is fine. To figure it out, look toward artists who are doing well early on in their careers and figure out how they are doing it, and especially how they are adjusting to this new virtual reality. If the point of every exhibition is to lead to the next one, how can you harness the energy invested in your thesis work to propel you forward without the context of a school?

In reality, the giant question mark left by an unrealized BFA or MFA thesis exhibit lays bare the inadequacies of such a construct: A school can only do so much for you. The artists who capitalize on thesis exhibits are the ones who have set goals for themselves beyond the school setting, ready to connect to curators, collectors, and potential collaborators. Most students are purposely clueless about everything except the work in their thesis show, and expect their artwork to magically propel them to fame and wealth with zero student loans, but it doesn’t work this way.

I remember planning for my MICA MFA thesis exhibit for close to a year, feeling tortured by a thesis committee that questioned my every move to the point where I finally gave up on pleasing them, and instead made an entirely new body of work that pleased me instead. That was my biggest lesson learned in graduate school–to listen to myself.

When it came time for my thesis show, I hung up big paintings and small, sold a few of the small ones, people said nice things about it, and then it came down. It was one great big meh, in comparison to my expectations. I had thought so much about this magical thesis show, that it would somehow change my life and career, that the whole world would be paying attention, that I barely thought at all about what would come after it.

I was not prepared, not even an inkling, to leverage my educational experience into a career as an exhibiting artist or as a college professor, then my professional goal. My teachers, especially my thesis committee, had been so opinionated about my work, but I don’t remember many of them showing up for my subsequent exhibits over the next decade. I’m not saying they didn’t authentically care about me or my work, but the academic power differential created a conditional sense of importance. Professors are mere humans and their interest in me was limited to the academic setting I had paid for.

I loved those years of education, the turpentine-scented studios and late-night chats, the reading assignments and the feisty critique. I loved being a student and don’t regret the experience. I grew and thrived and my work got much stronger, but the thesis and graduation part? That was a farewell, an extended going-away party. And farewells are always sad, no matter what.

For everyone who feels bitter and cheated out of this culminating educational experience, I don’t blame you. You have every right to mourn for a lost opportunity, but I would caution you not to idealize it into something bigger and better than it can ever be. You are a creative human being with a shiny, new education. It’s up to you to invent a more productive, meaningful, transformational, less institutional, less rote experience that serves your educational goals.

Ed Ruscha, The End

It is essential that you celebrate your accomplishments with your family and fellow students. How can you exchange gratitude with the professors who have given you so much—especially those who are adjunct and paid a pittance to do so? How can you experience the pride of accomplishment within your own consciousness? I suspect a funny hat and a cheap robe that bleeds in the rain is not the best answer to these questions.

It’s worth considering how much this milestone actually matters to you. Do you care enough about your own graduation to invest creative energy in its celebration? Are you willing to devote time and creative resources into new formats for communication, research, scholarship, and collective regard? Do you care enough to organize your friends, family, professors, and others into a new format to celebrate that you are now on the other side of the educational divide, now part of the degreed professional world? Is part of the pain right now realizing that the last few years, and the price tag attached, have now transformed into loans that our federal government currently does not allow anyone to erase, even in bankruptcy?

Part of our collective graduation-related mourning is also about the professional future of new graduates, especially in the liberal arts. You are entering a new world that was never kind or easy for creative professionals, and now with COVID-19 it’s savagely unforgiving. Your internship has evaporated. The art organization you planned to work for is on hiatus. The commission you had planned to paint has disappeared. The gallery has closed. The museum education department is not hiring. The art handlers and the bartenders are sitting idle. What is there to do in this new world, newly bereft of resources, and what are your options?

Although I have loved my educational experiences, they all neglected to tell me one central fact: The next step in your career is the only thing that matters, now that you have finished. How much class time did you spend talking about your career path and professional goals, your definition of success, and your strategies for living the life you envision? How much time did you spend discussing professional choices that can cover your bills, pay off student loans, save money for the future, and generate the maximum amount of time for your studio practice?

Here’s the good news: You are a creative problem solver. You know how to solve all kinds of problems, not just assignments formed by educators. You can see opportunities and possibilities that others can’t. You can comfortably take the road less travelled with little fear of turning back. You have nothing to lose! If you are prepared to trust your creative vision to see where your talents are needed in this world, you are uniquely poised to grow and thrive. What is it that other humans need right now? What skills have you acquired from your educational labor that you now have to offer others? This question is deceptively simple and the answers may be unexpected.

In most programs of study, especially the arts, we tend to gloss over the specifics of a career, with a few wildly famous success stories dominating the market and press, offering few options to follow in their footsteps. These stories are designed to make you feel powerless and you shouldn’t believe them. Instead, consider what your post-education life looks like and who you want to be. Is it possible to channel your anger, frustration, and sadness about a lost semester, thesis, and graduation into a radical and exciting plan for your future?

The future is scary. Education, by contrast, offers a secure path with a schedule and assignments and checklists of quantitative proof of success. It’s a comfortable, all-encompassing cocoon that makes it seem like you are accomplishing something important while you’re in it, but it is also an illusion that allows you to avoid making actual plans for the future.

Education is wonderful, and the experience of learning each day is the treasure—not the piece of paper certifying your successful completion of it, nor the collective institutional experience of moving a polyester tassel from one side of a cardboard hat to another.

All those movies where graduates joyfully toss those weird, sweatshop-manufactured hats in the air? They never show where those sharp, pointed edges land. Or what it’s like to fumble around on muddy grass, looking for the hat you came in with, or what you will do with this hat and robe after the one day where it is necessary.

Barbara Kruger, You Are A Very Special Person

By all counts, 2020 is a shit year. Your resume will always bear this badge of suffering and unite you with billions of other human beings, an unlikely fraternity of frustration and isolation that will lead to worse times and then, hopefully, better ones if we choose to learn from this experience. The relationships you choose to build and nurture will lead you forward into your uncertain future on the other side of the commencement ceremony.

If this were a real graduation speech, I would leave you with the most important lesson that I have learned outside of school. It is a simple, obvious thing, but typically not deemed academically significant or worthy of scholarly attention. It is rarely said inside of a classroom, for fear of sounding trite or sentimental, but here it is: Other people are the most important part of every successful creative endeavor. Talent and ideas are helpful, but the single-most important factor leading to eventual success is emotional intelligence, empathy, and your ability to build strong, honest, and trustworthy long-term relationships with others.

Don’t be a jerk, no matter how talented you are. Keep your narcissism under control and do not feed it with a focus on quick fame or publicity stunts. Refuse to believe that you need to manipulate others in order to get what you want because the world is unfair. Don’t selfishly hoard opportunities and information, believing the scarcity model that capitalism and the art market depends upon. People will see through this and it will not help you.

Instead, realize that you have power and learn to use it wisely. Be kind. Be generous. Believe in yourself and your goals for the future, but figure out how to craft a vision that benefits everyone around you.

The world is a mess right now, but you are not. You are living through an unprecedented tragedy that requires more creativity, more empathy, and more courage than past generations have required. You are bright-eyed, energetic, young, and smart, and no cancelled thesis, diploma, or graduation ceremony can take this away from you.

Celebrate your accomplishments by starting new traditions. Take commemorative photos. Wear a funny hat of your own design. Make party decorations. Write effusive thank you letters to everyone who has increased your brain capacity and intellectual prowess. Give a virtual speech. Hug your parents. Start a critique group with your newly minted colleagues. Look around at this broken world and pay attention because it needs you. Chart your course and build your future.

Jenny Holzer, All Things Are Delicately Interconnected

Header Image: John Baldessari, Graduation, 2017, 4c-Print

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