UW Honors Graduation Address

by Emily Nitz-Ritter, Honors class of 2014

Emily Nitz-Ritter addresses the graduating Honors class of 2014. Video credit: Honors Staff.
Emily Nitz-Ritter, '13
Emily Nitz-Ritter, '14

Thank you, Justin. Now you all can see why I was so thrilled to find out that I was going to have the privilege of co-speaking with this young man. Not only does he speak thoughtfully to the anxieties many of us have felt, he also demonstrates how to find value in those experiences. He also has some pretty killer puns.

So, for my portion of the program today, I wanted to echo much of what Justin described earlier. I want you all to take a moment to think about why you’re here today. What mistakes or surprises led you down the path that you took? Who helped you get here? Your family? Your friends? Mentors or colleagues? How many challenges did you encounter along the way? What stories do you have about mishaps, adventures, wrong turns, or getting lost? But, before I go any further I want to provide a disclaimer that this is not actually a speech about overcoming obstacles to achieve success. I will not be using the metaphor of roads (traveled more or less, depending on who you ask) or describe your time here as a journey with detours and a destination. Instead, I will be relying on my training as an English major, to describe our time here as a narrative, to which I will return later. But for now, know that your ultimate accomplishment on this day is NOT actually graduating, though that is nice and it is a part of it.

Now, I can tell by your faces that some of you thought this moment couldn’t come soon enough and some of you hoped this moment would never come. The moment you thought would end all other moments: graduation. The tipping point that marks what we’ve done and what we’re capable of in the future. The entry point into “real life,” which is a phrase that I’ve never particularly liked. “Real life” only happens after college. Though I’ve heard this said repeatedly, I’ve always been unconvinced of its truth. Because, if you know the people I know and have seen the incredible things that students on this campus and in this program are capable of, then you know that these individuals do not treat this time as if it exists in a vacuum. You would know that students here seek to maximize the opportunities and resources they have as a college student to impact the communities around them in complex ways, ways that extend beyond the conventional boundaries of the University of Washington. In fact, it is directly because of these experiences that students are able to problematize the perceived institutional distinction between our time here and our time after this moment, out in the world that we apparently lay no claim to yet. Here, we learn by trying. We try better because we’ve learned. In many ways, those students who have had the biggest impact on those around them (and look around you, because those students are here today) have held themselves open to being radically changed by their experiences. And that is a skill that will prove invaluable to those students, and all of us, far after our college years are over.

So, what’s the difference between those who use this time to grow and those who treat this time as a four year intermission before entering life? My answer would be “a story.” Those who have honestly and incredulously examined their own past decisions, identified the areas in which they could improve, and capitalized on the power of reflection to integrate their goals with their strengths - are certainly aware of the power of their own narrative.

Let me give you an example from my own time here, to explain what I mean. One of the most transformative experiences I have had at this university came in the form of a rather unpleasant surprise. At the end of my freshmen year, I applied to become an Honors 100 Peer Educator, which essentially meant that I would be the “instructor of record” for an introductory seminar and responsible for leading a cohort of incoming freshman. This turned out to be a classic example of misinterpreting one’s own strengths. I was eager to share my enthusiasm with the incoming class, to help them become as jazzed as I was, and I thought for sure I would flourish in a role at the front of a classroom. I immediately learned two things: 1) teaching is way harder than I anticipated 2) I had no idea what I was talking about. When I was teaching my students, who were barely a year younger than I was, about the Honors curriculum, I had a mere three Honors classes under my belt. When I reviewed Experiential Learning project options, I had not yet completed an Experiential Learning project. Study abroad? Nope, hadn’t done it yet. Research? Couldn’t tell you, hadn’t done it yet. Leadership opportunities? Uh, nope. Not that either. How to be successful at this university? I’ll let you know when I find out.

Fast forward two years. I am now a senior, returning for my third year as a Peer Educator. I had learned a lot, and had gained a lot of confidence through this process because of intense personal reflection (and the course evaluation sheets I received at the end of the quarter helped too). I also had had the chance to implement the suggested changes in my pedagogical approach for three whole years, honing and nuancing my techniques. I was by no means an expert, but I was learning how to do a little better each year. Third time’s the charm, they say.

But, this confidence wasn’t just the result of having actually done the things I was talking about, but from being able to communicate the significance of these experiences. I could finally begin to articulate my narrative. I could explain why being shaken and small in the humid heat of a Moroccan medina that was thousands of years old was important to my philosophy on change and my definition of “home.” I could explain how radically the process of writing a thesis and conducting interviews had been in developing my thoughts on systems-level thinking in education. I could explain how leadership is both a simultaneously political and personal process, that, if it is to be carried out effectively, must be a project based on reciprocity, respect, and revision. I could explain that being successful at this university, or at any point in your life, is deciding for yourself what to do with the only two currencies you control: your time and your energy.

And while I can’t pretend that these stories had a huge impact on my students, I can absolutely attest to the impact this shift had on me. I realized all the ways in which I had taken ownership of my education, and could explain why that mattered. I’m sure many of you have had that moment where you realize you’re not on a path, but a trajectory that disappears somewhere beyond your line of sight. For some of you, that came after a success, for some of you that came after a failure. But that’s okay, because in the end we learn a lot more when we are disoriented and have to trust ourselves to navigate. Thrilling, isn’t it? Don’t forget that feeling, and don’t forget that you’re already on your way somewhere, even if that somewhere is out of sight. Like Justin said, you don’t have to have a plan. Just make a series of good decisions, one after the other.

In closing, I want to turn to that iconic question I’m sure you’ve all been asked an absurd number of times: “What are you doing after graduation?” When faced with that question I’ve normally blushed and shrugged. I dead-ended and occasionally would launch into a full-fledged existential crisis. You can ask my parents and roommates, they heard a lot about that. So, I’m not going to ask you that question. Because it’s an easy question. And I’m actually not terribly interested in the answer. I’m going to ask you, “how did you get here and why does your story matter?”

And that, fellow graduates, is a question you can be answering for a very long time.

Thank you and congratulations!

Emily Nitz-Ritter
Bachelor of Arts in Comparative History of Ideas with College Honors
Class of 2014