Elizabeth Shackney ’17 delivered the following remarks during Wesleyan’s 185th commencement ceremony on May 28.
Good morning. My name is Lizzie Shackney, and today I will graduate with the Class of 2017.
I realized what Wesleyan meant to me as I packed up my room yesterday and noticed three similar titles on my single shelf of books: How Should a Person Be?, On Becoming a Person, and How to Be a Person in the World, all acquired in the past four years. My time at Wesleyan, it seems, has been about learning how to be and become a person. Of course, I’ve always been a person. But it was just me, alone. Being here meant understanding, adjusting, and navigating my personhood in a sea of other identities. Like molecules in a heated state, we bounced around and sometimes crashed into one another, creating energy and pressure that could be both productive and exhausting.
A lot can change, a lot can happen, when it’s no longer just you. Wesleyan is a place where, after an hours-long conversation with an unexpected friend, a cloudy part of your world becomes clearer. It is where you can accomplish that thing that you didn’t think was for people like you, where you find a home with others telling stories or flying drones or opening up about grief. Despite the abundance of closeness and connection, sometimes Wesleyan can be paradoxically lonely. Sometimes it is a breeding ground for frustration or uncertainty. Sometimes, we worry that we are too much for the people around us.
In the messiness of our time here, we are forced to ask ourselves: What does it mean to exist as a human being among others? How do I do it? And how do I do it well?
Those books I mentioned haven’t given me comprehensive answers. Wesleyan hasn’t either. but it has helped to move me forward. What I do know now is this: The key to being a person within a community lies at the intersection of accountability and belonging. Accountability means taking responsibility for the fact that what you do and what you say has an impact. I felt this most as a student government leader, as I realized that my work wasn’t just about doing what I believed was best; instead, I engaged with members of my community and learned through trial and error to speak with, and not for or over, my peers.
At the same time, becoming a person is facilitated by feeling that you belong somewhere, by believing that you will be loved even if you make a mistake. When you drove ten hours to my dad’s funeral in the middle of the summer; when you watched me dance, play tennis, or tell a joke and still let me hang around—many big and tiny memories remind me that here, I have been loved. Those moments when I felt most that I belonged were also when I felt most committed to the betterment of this community. A sense of belonging is sustained by accountability, and accountability relies upon a foundation of care.
Today, we celebrate where we have been, where we will go next, and the lives that we will lead there. But I hope that beyond all of our accomplishments, we find new places where we can belong, and where we can create a sense of belonging for others, too.
Today, I am grateful for the many ways in which you have taught me to live well within a community. It’s been a pleasure to be, belong, and become alongside all of you.