Commencement 2009: Student Speaker

Student speaker Kristen Case

Chancellor Goldstein, President Kelly, distinguished guests, members of the platform party and faculty, my fellow graduates and their family and friends, it is a tremendous honor to be speaking to you today. To my fellow graduates: as I contemplated what I wanted to say to all of you, it occurred to me that we have a lot in common. For one thing, we all chose a rather difficult time to graduate, and many of us, myself included, are struggling with the question of what comes next. But there are some other things that we share as well.

As a group, we are probably quite a bit different from the graduates attending similar ceremonies at other universities in the city and around the country this month. More of us were born outside the United States; more of us worked before we attended graduate school; more of us are people of color; more of us are raising families. Our lives as scholars have been shaped by the genuine diversity of our colleagues.

Most of us also share the experience of teaching within the CUNY system. During my time at the Graduate Center I have taught students with mental and physical disabilities, students for whom English is a second language, and many students who worked full-time in addition to attending college. I taught students who were preparing to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, and students returning from those wars. I taught a 55-year-old night nurse who attended class at 6 p.m. before her shift, and was often sleeping in the empty classroom before I arrived. I taught a 25-year-old single mom who brought her daughter to class when school was cancelled. I taught a student who was homeless. I’m sure most of you have similar stories. Finding ways to connect our scholarly work to the realities our students brought to class has been, for many of us, one of the greatest challenges of our time in graduate school.

As graduates of the CUNY Graduate Center, we share the experience of working with leading scholars in our respective fields. And because these scholars come from within the CUNY colleges, they too understand the way academic work must answer to the real world as reflected by the classrooms at Queens, or LaGuardia, or John Jay College. I am grateful to my own extraordinary mentor, Joan Richardson, for many things, but I am most grateful to her for helping me trace the significance of my studies back to the world outside the library.

Often, on my way from Brooklyn to the Graduate Center, I would spot another student on the train, reading an academic book and scribbling notes in the margins. Like me, she was on her way to a seminar, maybe from work. I would bet that we have all, at one time or another, done work on the subway, and this image—of a student, immersed in her reading and yet aware of the passengers around her, aware of the swaying of the car and the blocks flying by overhead—seems to me an appropriate emblem of what it is that we have to offer.

As we all know, this is a challenging moment for higher education. But such moments, while frightening, hold tremendous possibility. As graduates of a public university, we have a profound role to play in the transformations this moment makes possible. A society in which intellectual life is not a commodity reserved for a few, but a public good, available to all, and in which scholarship is informed by and responsible to, real-world experience, is possible. Budget cuts and hiring freezes notwithstanding, I believe it may be more possible—and it is certainly more necessary—now than at anytime in recent memory. Those of us who have done our work on the subway are particularly well-equipped to help make this possibility a reality. Thank you, and congratulations.

Submitted on: MAY 28, 2009

Category: Commencements