In her May 19 Baccalaureate address, civil rights activist and award-winning filmmaker Valarie Kaur offers the Class of 2021 the wisdom of three practices she yearned for as a college student.
The students in the Class of 2021 experienced an entire academic year in the midst of a pandemic. They reckoned with a global uprising for Black lives, confronted climate catastrophes, witnessed an unprecedented election season and bloodshed in the U.S. Capitol building.
“You’ve been watching the world, wondering about your relationship to all of it,” said Valarie Kaur, a seasoned civil rights activist, award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, interfaith leader and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, in her Baccalaureate address to the seniors sitting six-feet apart in Alumni Gym. Kaur wasn’t present. She delivered her poignant message in a pre-recorded video. “I will not speak to you as if I am standing up on a stage. I will speak to you as if it’s just you and me sitting in a room of the heart,” she said.
Kaur was in college when she started her quest to investigate hate violence against Sikhs, Muslims and Arabs. Fueled by the grief she felt in the aftermath of her uncle’s death – a fellow Sikh and victim of a hate crime following 9/11 – she searched for answers that took her years to understand.
“Maybe in these last months, you have really found your voice. Maybe you are still finding it,” she said. “Maybe you have overcome grief and rage. Maybe you’re still inside the fire of these emotions. Maybe the catastrophes around us have given you clarity about the role that you want to play in the world. Maybe you are still searching. No matter where you are, honor where you are. Your journey so far has brought you to this day. You made it. You made it to your graduation week.”
As a result of her journey, Kaur shared three practices with the Class of 2021 that she wished she knew when she received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University.
Practice No. 1: See no stranger. “Seeing no stranger has always disrupted the status quo,” she said. “If you choose to see no stranger throughout your life, it will give you the wisdom to show up with courage to remake this world, to reorder this world in such a way that leaves no one behind.”
Practice No. 2: Tend the wound. “When it’s hard to love our opponents, I invite you to remember to tend the wound you see,” she said. “There is no such thing as monsters in this world. There are only human beings who are wounded, who act out of their own insecurity or greed or blindness.”
Practice No. 3: Breathe and push. “There is a rhythm, a cadence to sustaining longevity and resilience to all of your labors in life, so I invite you to breathe, to weave breath throughout your day, to breathe before you push,” she said. ”I invite you to measure your life, not by what you produce or how quickly you produce it. I invite you to measure your life by your faithfulness to the labor.”
Kaur wasn’t the only one with deep lessons to share. Seniors Mackenzie Martinez, Caroline McGimsey and Megan Noor shared reflections of their own explorations with faith. For Martinez, a Mexican woman who is also Jewish, her journey allowed her to forge “a new tapestry of my identity.”
“From services at Hillel to café con leche at El Centro to spontaneous trips to Steak and Shake, I built for myself the sense of belonging that I so desperately craved in order to embody all the pieces of myself,” Martinez said. “I rejected the messages around me that I was too much, not enough or didn’t fit, and instead embraced myself exactly as I am, even if I’m not perfect.”
McGimsey strengthened her Christian beliefs by discovering the value of being there for others through both challenging and joyous times. “God used other people to help me see the things I find meaning in that I had not yet discovered,” she said with a pledge to do the same for others. “Out of gratitude for what has been done for me, I commit myself, wherever I am, to perceive in others what they cannot yet see in themselves.”
Noor, who stood at the podium wearing a hijab, learned to live openly as a Muslim woman. “It took me nearly three years to realize that the real reason was that I was afraid – afraid of being seen, of being visibly Muslim, and of the harassment that might come of that,” she said, referencing the uncomfortableness she felt the first time she wore a headscarf. “But look how far I’ve come! Wearing a hijab is an act of self love, of pride in my religion and my identity, and defiance of anyone who would try to stop me.”
University Chaplain Jan Fuller, who presided over her last Baccalaureate at Elon before she retires at the end of the month, reminded seniors that they have already faced challenges and encouraged them soak in both the frightening and exhilarating days ahead.
“I hope you will expect and embrace all aspects of this huge and honorable transition – the excitement, the sense of accomplishment, and also the grief, tension, joy and trepidation of moving into a brand new chapter, territory and way of living,” she said. “All of these emotions and experiences are normal and appropriate.”