Student Speaker

Student speaker Secil Yilmaz

Address on Behalf of the Graduates by Se├žil Yilmaz

Ph.D. Program in History
June 2, 2017

It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here today.
One of the most popular Facebook statuses I’ve ever posted was over five years ago after a written exam, an oral exam, prospectus defense, and everything in between. It said, “Please let me be a Ph.D., I can’t take this anymore!” Over 200 friends agreed that the situation was surely unbearable! The second most popular one, which received over 300 hundred likes and reactions — to be Facebook proper — was once I defended my dissertation. So, according to Facebook, this is quantitatively a very important day. With fellow graduates, we are celebrating a precious moment in our lives. It’s a closure, a closure to a long and often challenging intellectual journey at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And this day also marks new beginnings for us, inside or outside of academia, as the educators and intellectuals of tomorrow. Congratulations to all graduating fellows and future colleagues!
It is also a great honor to be here to thank the faculty, our mentors, and the administrative staff of the Gradate Center. They contributed immensely at every stage of this journey. On behalf of my fellow graduating colleagues, I would like to extend our gratitude to all who have inspired us with their passionate commitment to intellectual integrity. It has been a great pleasure — and an honorable challenge — to work with such esteemed scholars.
The Graduate Center has become a school within a school for almost all the graduating fellows in this hall. It has been a source of pride to be members of and contributors to public education at this moment in the history of this country when public education public education has come under assault from every direction. The Graduate Center and the City University of New York (CUNY) colleges — primarily thanks to all the dedicated faculty and the administrative staff — have proven that public education is the path to social equality. A recent analysis of the Equality of Opportunity Project, which appeared in The New York Times on January 17, showed that CUNY ranked third among national public universities in enabling students who were coming from the bottom fifth to reach the top fifth of income distribution. This is not about becoming rich. This is about the power of public education to overcome social inequalities and facilitate social mobility. Today, we take a moment to recognize that each and every graduating student at Lincoln Center has been a significant component of this success. We have worked as graduate teaching fellows and adjunct faculty despite low wages and under significant pressures of graduate study. Today, we are celebrating the excellent and dedicated teachers.
And beyond a school within a school, the Graduate Center has become a home, especially for many immigrant and international students like myself, who are surviving the challenges of graduate school away from home, family, friends, and all the social and emotional support elements that one relies on. Under the same roof at 365 Fifth Avenue, we found the most unique family in an unconventional sense where we connected to each other with respect and intellectual solidarity as well as desire and commitment to social equality and justice.
Today, having a home like the Graduate Center is a blessing and defending a home like the Graduate Center is vital. We live in a world where home is no longer a permanent place for many of us. Home is no longer necessarily safe. Home is no more what you own, what can be guaranteed. In the age of massive discrimination and violence against the other — immigrants, people of color, against Muslim immigrants — home is a place that we make and defend together. Home is the community we built with mutual respect and responsibility. Home is our intellectual masterpiece. Home is our conscience. Today, I would like to take this opportunity to thank, from bottom of my heart, my mentors, Beth Baron and Samira Haj, and many others who provided a safe and respectable space for my intellectual and personal integrity since the day I arrived from Istanbul, Turkey, almost a decade ago to pursue my degree in the history of the Middle East and Islamic world. And specifically, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Anny Bakalian, who — during her 15-year career at the Graduate Center — made the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center a warm, intellectual, and collegial space for students and faculty. It is thanks to her endless efforts and enthusiasm that students like myself could feel rooted in a broader community.
In conclusion, today, we, the graduating fellows and new alumni, are stepping into a new phase of our lives. And given the current global and domestic political climate we are surrounded by, this is a more challenging one at the intellectual and professional levels. More cuts in public education and tenured positions, less job security, and erosion in the budgets allocated to humanities and social sciences are probably awaiting us. In many different parts of the world our colleagues have been struggling against significant violations of freedom. As a community of dedicated scholars, we need to remember that their struggle is our struggle. As of today, our home is beyond the Graduate Center. Our responsibilities as educators and intellectuals for intellectual freedom, social justice, and equality go beyond the borders and all the barriers that confine us in our day to day life. At the Graduate Center, we are perfectly equipped to take up these responsibilities, and I am proud of the opportunity to share this crucial mission with you.
Congratulations and thank you!