Glenn Stowell ’13, Isaiah Sypher’13 and Jacob Eichengreen ’13 delivered “Senior Voices” speeches on May 25 in Memorial Chapel.
Glenn Stowell ’13
The prompt to which I originally responded for the purpose of putting together this reflection asked me to consider what about my experience here at Wesleyan was meaningful. And that left me to do some serious leg lifting prior to answering that question, as I tried to think about how an experience becomes imbued with meaning at all. When we want to make an experience seem meaningful, we often look backward to a moment by which we can illuminate our progress, how very far we’ve come. These are often dramatic and emotional moments that we turn to show us the true meaning inside an experience.
For that same reason, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of all poems written in our introductory poetry class—Techniques of Poetry—are about someone’s funeral, or are about putting down your family dog… or are about finally putting down your high school boyfriend. The moral of the story is that we think the drama which all of these moments share ought to feel especially illuminating and profound. And so we turn to them.
At a time like graduation, we look to sum things up because of a similar impulse: we want to find out what it has all truly meant to us and put it in a nice little package, with maybe a frilly bow. To do this, many people might look to a moment—maybe freshman year sometime—when they were very weak. And then compare that weakness to how sturdy and transformed they’ve become now. I think this is a natural sort of story to tell, a very popular one. Everybody wants, on some level, to be the underdog—to be Rocky, to be Rudy, to be the loveably indie Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
Likewise, when I started thinking about what my Wesleyan experience has truly meant to me, I searched for a moment that I came back from. But I realized in searching for something that’d make my story into one of these comeback stories…that what’s far more incredible and far more unlikely than a come back is having everything come together better than you’d ever planned.
For me, I was able to major in Economics, play hockey, join a fraternity, give poetry readings, work as an editor, visit China…and a host of other things that I once only wished I could do in my life. [If you really want hear more self-promotion, feel free to check me out on Linked-in.com.] But at any rate, the main bullet point I’m trying to get across here is that I can say with confidence that I earnestly tried all of the things I set out to be a part of coming into college. And these past few years, quite honestly, they’ve been gorgeous. And nearly seamless.
That realization—to me—was more compelling and meaningful than transforming this whole experience into a comeback movie would have been.
And I think most importantly, without any doubt in my mind whatsoever, this all has happened as a result of the wonderful, awe-inspiring people around me—the friends, teammates, and professors that wouldn’t let me waste a precious minute feeling sorry for myself when there was so much for us to accomplish together.
Now that I’m fully looking backward at my career here, there was a near miss that I almost had my junior year. The opportunity of a lifetime happened to fall into my lap and I almost lost out on it, if not for my mentors and the urging and support of my friends. Essentially, Mike Sciola, former director of the CRC, had managed to secure me a great internship in New York that would bludgeon me for about 90 hours a week. And through an incredible stroke of luck and the generosity of Professor Ao Wang, I was asked to take over as Head Translator of a book of contemporary Chinese poetry. The next week after receiving those offers was a tough one for me. I spent a lot of that week deciding which one position I would take, and so I sought the advice of my mentors.
I remember sitting down with Wang Dage in the Daniel Family Commons (that upstairs part of Usdan) and you know, he’s usually a pretty calming presence. He’s a real old-school Daoist-type ideology Chinese guy. Very laid back, with long hair, a pony tail, and with a boundless sea of empathy inside him for absolutely everyone and probably also inanimate objects. But like I said I was nervous this week, despite his qi, about choosing between two different lives for myself, essentially.
So we chatted there for a bit and then I laid out my decision before him on the table. And it just sat for a while, somewhere on tablecloth, among our two plates, the utensils, my ice coffee, sweating, and his hot tea upon its saucer. Then I looked at him, pulling my eyes from the table. “What’s the decision?” he asked, incredulously, his palms upturned, “I don’t see much room for debate here. You’re going to do both. And we both know it.” He stood up, pushed out his chair, and left in search of another cup of tea. And when he sat back down, we didn’t bother talking more about it.
From this distance, from this lectern, that decision was probably the defining moment of my Wesleyan career. I came back into my senior year with a job and a book due out. But more importantly, I realized that without my mentors, I would have squandered at least one of those opportunities for no reason other than my own apprehension. And without my friends and classmates in the city and elsewhere, I would have flirted (for sure) with literal insanity. But my Wesleyan safety net came through for me—and I couldn’t be more thankful that it did.
In colloquial Chinese one relatively polite—and wicked etymologically interesting—way to refer to people is as if they are your family members. For example, there’s a cute little Chinese kid that runs around Japanica II (my favorite restaurant in town) that I call Xiao Didi—little brother. And his lovely and patient mother, a waitress there, eats up our cuteness, and sometimes gives me free drinks for it. So there’s that. But at any rate, I refer to Professor Wang as “Wang Dage”—which just means big brother Wang. And I bring this up because he said, ‘we both knew’ that I was gonna take on both projects. The implication being: he knew (without plotting out the particulars and logistics of my summer, without sifting through my petty, pedestrian apprehensions) what I would decide because he understood me and how I operate. He understands me, my brother does.
The most remarkable thing is that he’s not my only brother here. I have fraternity brothers, and brothers on the hockey team, and guys that I’ve met through poetry workshops that I’m proud to tell that I love them. Likewise, I have women that I care immensely about, with whom I’ve built elaborate friendships that are complicated and challenging and ever-changing. And maybe this whole brother-sister shtick is a bit too Cornel West and Prophetic Pragmatists, but man, I’m so excited to see these next few years and how they weigh on our growth and feed our tender ties to each other.
Sitting here now, in the Chapel, in late May, as much as we like to acknowledge our own agency and our own ability to make fine choices…and as much we all did manage to find each other in way one or another, the indisputable fact of the matter is that Wesleyan assembled us here together. And, regardless of how you feel about hot-button issues around here—whether that’s need-blind, or tuition hikes, or divestment, or whatever—I think we can all be appreciative of our relationships, and of Wesleyan’s undeniable role in connecting us. Without the brand name of Wesleyan and all its hash-tags and sometimes-nauseating trimmings, we would not be here together.
When I began to think about difficult moments for the sake of this reflection, about tough things I’ve had to overcome… I also realized that probably the most difficult moment I’ll have here is what happens next for us tomorrow: and that is saying “goodbye” to all these people I love and have loved. I think about all of the proud handshakes that I’ll have to disengage and survive afterward. The knowing hugs that I’ll have to walk away from. This whole festival of premature farewells that we’ve all got to force our way through, entirely unsure if this separation is for real and for how long.
So here, friends, is to hoping that it won’t be long at all. Thank you.
Rashawn Brazell is a name intimately linked to the manner in which I have come to conceptualize what these past four years at Wesleyan have meant to me; any attempt to convey the intensely personal nature of my Wesleyan experience would incomplete if I made no mention of the impact of his life on my personal trajectory. Rashawn was not your classic inspiring high school teacher or tireless social activist; in actuality, I cannot recount much of his life except for the fact that, like myself,he was a young man from New York with high aspirations for the future and a loving and supportive family. Tragically, Rashawn was the victim of a heinous hate crime that took his life from him at the age of 19, and many of his aspirations were left forever unfulfilled. By the time he came into my Iife , four years had already past since this heart-wrenchingly sad event occurred. In an effort to commemorate Rashawn’s life, a scholarship was established in his name and I was selected as the 2009 recipient. From this moment on, I felt a dual sense of responsibility to seek out a space where I could continue to grow and realize my intellectual and humanistic potential; I owed it not only to myself but to the memory of this dear young man in whose shoes I could have easily found myself.
And as I stand here today, I cannot be any more certain of the fact that I have found such a space in Wesleyan. We often use the word privilege to evoke experiences that are tied to a reality that- for many -is simply unattainable; my experience at Wesleyan has taught me that when privilege is not acknowledged, it not only produces a false narrative of selfhood in those who possess it but it trivializes and subjugates the narratives of those who do not. I do not use the word lightly, but as I think of all the knowledge imparted from professors, supervisors and fellow students, the happy commiserating of finals week, the laughter, the frustration, the confusion, the awkwardness, and the gradual discovery and acceptance of my own voice, I cannot help but feel extremely privileged. More than anything, Wesleyan has been a rigorous exercise in the arduous process of self-actualization. One of my most vivid memories of my freshman orientation was an activity in which I and other members of 200 church were given pipe cleaners and asked to mold them into something that represented who we were.
As I diligently bended and twisted my pipe cleaners, I reached two major revelations: one, that I would probably never have a career as a pipe cleaner artist; and secondly, that I was entering into a space where the formation and solidification of my identity would be entirely in my hands. I also recall having during this time a workshop entitled BiLeGaTas, which focused on matters of sexual and gender identity. I quickly found myself swirling in a sea of vocabulary and declarations that seemed to belong to world far removed from any that I had inhabited up until that point.
Deconstructing the gender binary and choosing ones preferred gender pronoun were concepts that simply had not existed in the public and private spaces of South Queens that had shaped me. I can’t pretend that I walked away from that workshop that day with any sense of enlightenment or that I even fully understood the content. But gradually, as I pondered what these concepts meant for me and those around me, I came to understand them as part of the radical notion of exercising autonomy over one’s selfhood.Never before coming to Wesleyan had I felt so empowered to explore all parts of my being without being beholden to any invisible restrictions put on me by social categories. I have conversed with my peers about topics ranging from 19th and 20th century French literature to the latest episode of Bad Girls Club.
I helped fellow students in introductory courses to two languages and spent an entire year discovering a new part of the world with Wesleyan’s support. I’ve awakened a passion for scientific research and rediscovered a passion for singing classical music. As I look back over these past 4 years and try to think of the moment that best represents what Wesleyan has meant to me, one of the first things to come in mind is last semester’s West African Dance performance. Though I usually try to steer clear of being the center of attention, I was chosen as one of the soloists. When the time came for me to go forward and do my improvised piece, I went forth, limbs flailing, head bobbing, bending and kicking as my heart raced to the beat of the drum. And as I gave this interpretation of the form, as I boldly put before the audience this articulation of myself, I felt a confidence that a few years prior would have seemed foreign to me. In short, I have found in Wesleyan the sort of safe and affirming space that Rashawn would have relished.
And I owe so much of this to you, my fellow classmates. Whether or not you have been aware of your presence in my life, each and every one of you have helped to shape 4 of the most formative and enjoyable years that I have had in the 22 years I’ve been on this earth. I have learned and grown from you in ways that go well beyond the scope of this speech. You have taught me to stand tall, to take pride in the accomplishments of others and to never be content
merely scratching the surface. As we prepare to begin this new and exciting chapter in our lives, I only have two wishes for you; one, that you all remember that, as my mother used to say when mediocrity seemed all too tempting, that of those to whom much has been given, much is expected in return; and finally, that you all be as proud of yourselves as I am of you this evening. Thank you.
Going to college is supposed to prepare you – the singular “you” – for success. “You” – again, singular – will be more successful if “you” go to college because “you” will gain the skills necessary to provide for “your” own success. Going to college seems like the epitome of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” individualism that America cherishes so dearly. Such was my mindset when I arrived at Wesleyan, at least.
Refusing most of the help offered to me by orientation staff on move-in day, I carried all of my stuff up the stairs into my third floor Butts single by myself – well, my mom helped a little too. At Wesleyan, though, I quickly learned that college is not about developing the singular, but the plural. It’s about building our collective ability to achieve, through our own individual actions as made possible by our community. Over the past four years, our community of professors, mentors, mail room employees and WeShop cashiers have equipped each of us to the best of their ability with what we need to grow personally and academically. The degrees we’re getting this weekend are each a testament to our own individual experiences, accomplishments and knowledge in our field of choice, but the knowledge and experience of each of us is eclipsed by the collective knowledge and experience of all of our class.
Over the past four years together, we’ve built things and solved problems in ways individuals cannot. We’ve weathered natural disasters – hurricanes, snowpocalypses, a multi-day blackout, and food lines at Usdan – and endured tragedies and controversies. We’ve also conducted groundbreaking original research, travelled to the far side of the world, transformed the Westco courtyard, occupied Wall Street, and told the world “I have sex.” But the most remarkable achievement of them all is that when I think of my classmates, I can distinguish the remarkable accomplishments and capacities of every individual, but I cannot separate any individual from the supportive community we constitute.
Last summer, I picked up a flesh-eating parasite while I was conducting thesis research in Uganda. The parasite – which I named Hugo – was a nasty little amoeba that lived in my intestinal wall, digesting its way into my bloodstream and other organs, but it took awhile after I got back to the states before the doctors figured out what I had. In the interim, I was pretty effectively isolated from social life at Wes. I was in too much pain to go out much on weekends and on a strict diet that kept me from going to campus dining establishments with friends…Hugo more or less kept me in my house on Fountain, only leaving the house for class or short-lived attempts at socializing outside Fort 40.
I never actually spent much time alone, though. On weekends, I’d typically plan to stay in my room and read or watch a movie by myself. I never asked anyone to stay in with me. But every single weekend friends would come visit me in my room, foregoing all the other opportunities of Fountain Ave on a weekend night to hang out and watch me sit in my chair. Never once, though, were people there only because I was sick. These weren’t ceremonial visits, or visits conducted just because it was something that’s “supposed” to be done. They were normal visits, just groups of friends getting together simply because of how much they enjoy each other’s company. In the five months I was sick with Hugo on campus, I spent perhaps two weekend nights without getting a text from a friend asking if it was cool for them to come hang out for a bit.
Had those visits been any different, had they not happened or been artificially promoted by my illness, this year would have been so decisively diminished. When people ask, I say this year has been incredible, parasite or no. The interactions with people and things we have accomplished through our genuine interest and concern for each other are what have defined this year, and the other three. The community we constitute keeps us running and achieving. We’ve worked together. Lived together. Studied together. Eaten together. Relaxed together. Laughed and cried together. We’ve even now regrown intestines together… We enable each other to do what we love most and do best.
Commencement marks the end of our time at Wesleyan together. The community that we’ve built, the complimentary support structure we constitute, will change once we leave Wesleyan. But we won’t stop growing. We won’t stop doing and achieving. And we won’t lose our appreciation for what community is. Wherever we end up, we will build communities just as strong, supportive, and permanent as the one that we have built together here at Wes.