Student Speaker

Ali Student Speaker Commencement 2019

Address on Behalf of the Graduates by Ashna Ali

Ph.D. Program in Comparative Literature
May 31, 2019

Fellow graduates, thank you and congratulations! Thank you, President Joy Connolly, Provost Julia Wrigley, trustees, distinguished guests, and members of the Platform Party. Thank you to our faculty, our mentors, our colleagues, our comrades, our students, our staff, and our loved ones. Without you, none of this would be possible. Today we come together to celebrate the efforts and achievements of our graduates, and of the entire CUNY community. I feel humbled and privileged to stand here with you.

Loved ones, look at your graduates. Look at the people sitting with them. What you are looking at is a community of scholars, teachers, mentors, leaders, and creators who represent the strength and quality of a public education system that routinely produces excellence. We do so against great odds. We do so through multiple forms of alienation, the threat of poverty, and ongoing assaults on our freedoms in this country and around the globe. We do so through rising tuition costs, budget cuts, crumbling infrastructure, emaciated salaries, and state neglect. We do so as contingent labor, juggling two, three, sometimes five jobs while in school full time, teaching students who are doing the same. Loved ones, when we were not with you, we were reading books, doing fieldwork, lesson planning, teaching, grading, drafting policy, and serving on committees. We were working to challenge and reshape our institution and our city. We were agitating. We were doing so because that is who we are. We may take our experiences into new institutions and cities, but we will always be marked by a distinct spirit that sets us apart as CUNY. In a world where the elite set up systems that are skewed for their benefit and then use their power to admit their children to universities they did not do the work to get into, we are a student body of working-class people, people of color, queer folk of every stripe, and immigrants, whose belonging to CUNY allows us to pave a meaningful future with honesty and decency—a future in which we have the opportunity to give back across five boroughs, and well beyond. In a moment where public education is an increasingly radical notion, our standing here is no small feat. We are the mark of both excellence and defiance.

In my years teaching at City College and Queens College, I was given the gift of watching young people discover the wealth of their own minds and learn to trust themselves as intellectuals. There, and at the Graduate Center, I worked amidst the kind of cultural, linguistic, religious, political, ethnic, racial, sexual, and economic diversity that the powers of neoliberal privatization tell us is not sustainable; that they insist cannot live and work as beloved community. And yet, here we are.

My parents moved from Bangladesh to the U.S., and then again to Italy, giving up their home so that they could provide opportunities for their children. They sent my brother first, and then me to the United States, alone. He and I had faith that we would make it simply because our parents believed we could. Many of our students are like me and my brother. Many of them are like my parents. Many are the first to graduate with B.A.s, M.A.s, and Ph.D.s in their families. This is a manifestation of hard work, but also of what happens when we dare to imagine, despite all the forces that tell us what is not possible, and what is not for us. It is our daring —and our imagination—that makes us remarkable. We deserve to receive support equivalent to our quality. We deserve 7k per course.

My fellow graduates, as of this day, we are no longer defined only by our potential. With support of our communities, and the grit and spine particular to our spirit, we will now also be defined by what we have done, and, standing here today, what we have become. We should and must celebrate ourselves and each other. May we carry what we have lived and earned into a daily commitment to change the world into one in which we can not only live but thrive— a world in which access to education is synonymous with the right to be free. Thank you. Congratulations.