UW Honors Graduation Address

by Stella Jones, Honors class of 2015-16

Stella Jones addresses the graduating Honors class of 2015-16. Video credit: Honors Staff.
Stella Jones, '16
Stella Jones, '16

Thank you, Vicky, for such a lovely introduction—the admiration is mutual. Good morning everyone. I am so happy to be here in celebration with you all today. I am going to start with a story. It is a story about separation and interconnection.

It happened one august day while I was at work. I work at the Urban Rest Stop, a hygiene center that provides free showers and laundry for homeless folks. I was sitting at the makeshift reception desk; it is a blue tin box pushed in the corner of our facility. Condensation dripped down the tiled walls, which is what happens when you run showers for nine hours a day during a heat wave. Basically, I work in a sauna. As I sat there, fanning myself with some housing brochures, a regular patron named Greg walked in. I hadn’t seen him in a while so we headed outside to the stoop find space and fresh air so we could chat.

Greg had been trying to find housing for some time, and so I was thrilled to hear that he had just spent the week touring apartments. His recent birthday qualified him for low income senior housing. He told me, jokingly, that at the last place he visited, some of the older ladies who lived in the complex wandered out into the hall and gave him the once-over. He said, “Yeah, I’m 65, fresh meat!”

After I finished laughing I said, Greg, all joking aside, I’m stoked. I am so excited for you. This might be the last time we see you here!

His smile dropped just slightly. He said, I’m excited too. But I don’t know if it’s gonna work out. It’s really far away from work.

I asked what he did for work and he replied: have I not told you? I’ve been the head chef at a UW fraternity for 25 years.

I don’t remember what I said next. I just remember thinking: woah.

This story has stuck with me ever since. I return to it often, trying to puzzle through the mixture of emotions I felt when Greg told me that.

I realize now that I had unintentionally constructed a wall between my life as a student on campus and my job in the community. Hearing Greg’s story shattered that wall. My two worlds were not separate, but intimately in relation.

I am proud to be graduating from the University of Washington. I am proud of each of one of us graduating here today.

Yet I am also ambivalent. The success of this University, and of each of us, is only possible because of the work of people like Greg1, who nourish our bodies, people who take care of this university and its students. I feel torn because this work and the people who do it are far too often undervalued and unrecognized. It shows up often for me. For instance, the custodians at our school, many of whom are people of color and immigrants to this country, work hard to make sure our classrooms are clean and safe spaces conducive to learning. Yet they are asked to clean an impossible number of rooms per hour, for little pay, and are subjected to frequent shift changes. People who support this university and its students, but are not supported in return.

I still feel very much torn. My time at the University of Washington has challenged me to grow and stretch in ways I could never have imagined. I have formed relationships that will last long after I leave this campus. And yet it occurs side by side with, it is sustained by, so much injustice. These are the kinds of interconnections that are obscured by the wall I had built to separate my school and work lives.

Here today, we celebrate a moment often said to mark a different kind of separation. That between “The Real World” and whatever apparently fictitious world we have lived in up until this point. Obviously, it is not a different world. This moment carries with it the diversity of our experiences and learnings from the past years, both the joyful and the unfortunate. It will be a transition for sure, for each of us in different ways.

And I tell this story about Greg and me because it reminds me of something I have learned during my time at UW that I hope to carry with me through this transition. And that is a posture of listening, and critical questioning. A disposition that seeks out interconnection, especially when it is obscured by ourselves and others. That asks: why is it so difficult for Greg to find an affordable place to live near where he works? Why is it that this undervalued, unrecognized work is disproportionately done by people of color and women? It is not a matter of knowing, there are no easy answers to these questions. It’s a matter of thinking. An exacting curiosity.

This way of thinking is something I believe the Honors Program in particular has emphasized. In fact, it was in connection with an Honors class, taught by Vicky, that I first started volunteering at the Urban Rest Stop. While we majored in different subjects, through our honors courses we were all asked to think about the world a little differently than we had before. It is one of the things I value most about my time at college. And I invite all of you in this room, graduates and friends, to also remember this posture, as you go on to do all the amazing things I know you are going to do.

And that note brings me to my closing thought. It is so perfect that we are here celebrating this moment with those we love and care about. Because it is not a moment we have reached on our own, by any means. Rather, it is made possible by our families, our peers, professors, advisors, other staff members whose support has been generous and endless. And by those like Greg, whose work I have not always seen, whose work I have not always appreciated. I am humbled by your care, I am inspired by it. Yes, let’s celebrate those of us exiting the university today, and let’s also celebrate all of those who have made this moment possible through everyday acts of care. So with that, a huge congratulations to all. Thank you for your kind attention, I am honored to be a part of your celebration. Thank you.

Stella Jones
Bachelor of Arts in Geography with College Honors
Class of 2015-16

The name and some other identifying information has been changed to protect Greg’s anonymity.