UW Honors Graduation Address

by Justin Brown, Honors class of 2014

Justin Brown addresses the graduating Honors class of 2014. Video credit: Honors Staff.
Justin Brown, '14
Justin Brown, '14

Good morning, faculty, Honors staff, graduating students, parents, siblings, grandparents, miscellaneous relatives, and dudes that got off the elevator on the wrong floor and decided to stick around for the free pastries. I am honored to have been selected as a keynote student speaker, representing a program I believe in at a University I love.

Conveniently, NPR recently compiled the best 300 commencement speeches of all time. After being asked to give this speech, I initially vomited from panic, and then I spent a considerable amount of time reading through these speeches looking for guidance. You see, I studied engineering, and my kind is not necessarily known for public speaking, or forming sentences for that matter. What I found in these speeches’ structures was an initial introduction that acknowledges all possible audience members, which you may recall I have already covered—followed by a short biography of the speaker listing a resume-esque list of personal accomplishments and associations so as to establish a sense of legitimacy with the audience. I would actually like to do just the opposite here. As you might infer from just looking at me, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I am 22 years old. So before we get started, I just want to establish an understanding that you should all immediately ignore what I say, and instead just talk to your loved ones for advice once this thing is over. Agreed? Okay.

This is an inherently exciting time. Graduating from a prestigious university such as this is a major accomplishment, one that all of you should feel deeply proud of. But I imagine that a small part of everyone in this room is absolutely terrified. And yet few talk about it. When people post their graduation photos on Facebook, all you’ll see is “#best4years” or “#neverforgetmygirls”... but where are all the “#ohmygodwhatdoIdonow?”s. It is not easy for our generation to be happy when comparing ourselves to others has been made so easy. Social media is a virtual game of “keeping up with the Joneses”—and now there are thousands of Joneses, and you’re seeing the best version of every single one...versions they want the rest of the world to see…with photo filters that hide any imperfections. No one is going to post a status about how their job is not what they thought it was going to be. And even the success stories—the statuses about getting into medical schools, law schools, business schools—still fail to mention the coinciding fear. I want to talk about it though, not to take away from the congratulations and hugs and balloons (because those are sincerely earned). No, I would like to talk about it because I think there is a peace in collective experience—in knowing that you are not alone in these fears, that you are not unique in uncertainty. Plus, if I learned anything from Star Wars, it’s that if we don’t deal with the fear right now it is going to fester and we’ll slowly betray the ones we love, join the dark side, be forced to live in a glossy black caped suit, and ultimately cut our own son’s hand off moments before shattering his understanding of his parental lineage…and, quite frankly, I think that we’re all better than that.

So I would like you to now look at your mentors, your guardians, your grandparents, and especially your parents in the room. These are your role models—people you love and respect. To you, they have their lives figured out. Yet, these human beings are who they are now due to decades of experiences, joys, heartbreaks, successes, failures, career changes, and constant uncertainty. They are amalgamations of all these events along the way—they did not simply arrive at their current adult state. Certainly, this holds true for us as well. Adulthood is a process, not an event. We do not have to have everything figured out the morning after graduation. If you wake up on Sunday, feeling like you do have it all figured out, I urge you to reconsider. In fact, I urge you to reconsider this for the rest of your life. You are all constantly changing individuals, who are growing even if your body stopped doing so. You are curious and multi-faceted. You have proven this by participating in a program that emphasizes well-roundedness while the world instead begs you to specialize. Think about what this program allowed you to do: you took classes in fields you had no business taking classes in. For me, it allowed me to spill my heart out through poetry and writing in the welcoming walls of Frances McCue’s class, just moments after using Bernoulli’s equation in my fluid mechanics class. It allowed me to learn about contemporary politics in the Middle East from the fascinating and charismatic Karam Dana, just before a class on 3D printing. It was a program that allowed me, in between math classes of 200 students, to sit among 30 peers as we had our brains blown apart by Jon Heron’s lectures on DNA and evolution. You have embraced an approach that utilizes all of who you are rather than picking just one small part of you. It’s an approach in which you expose yourself to new ways of thinking, new stories, new people, and new passions. You did not simply pick a major and close yourself off to the rest of the world. This strategy has and will continue to serve you well. So please: don’t feel like you have it all figured out yet. That would be disrespectful to your own curiosity, to your own personal growth.

Plus, you have all experienced this uncertainty before. Recall the moment you arrived at this University, perhaps your parents were dropping you off at Lander 8, or Haggett, or McCarty, or at the Greek System. You were bright-eyed, but terrif-eyed (I’m sorry). You were excited, but you also had doubts—like whether it was actually possible for three people to coexist in just 100 square feet. You were entering an unknown. For me, this moment was in Red Square, in front of Suzzallo Library, beside the Broken Obelisk sculpture, and my parents were there to see me off. I could not wait to begin college—I had wanted to live in this city for most of my teenage years, and here I was in this city I loved, on the verge of what I had been told would be the best 4 years of my life. Yet, I was scared too—I had lived in the same town for almost 15 years, and I knew its streets and its people, and they knew me. I went to a high school where I had a good reputation, where I knew the teachers and the students, where I had an identity. And entering this campus was the death of that identity—in a sea of 40,000 I, and everyone else, was anonymous. So there we were in Red Square, about to say our farewells, and my mother was crying. She was wearing sunglasses to hide it—but she wasn’t fooling anyone: we weren’t in California anymore. She hugged me and, without letting go, she said “I’m just going to hug you, because I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to say goodbye. I have been preparing for this moment since the day you were born, yet here we are and I still can’t do it.” And then she let go. And she walked away without turning around. As I walked back to McMahon through the quad, I wrote to her: “It doesn’t feel like it right now, but you’re still my mother. And you are going to be my mother for the rest of my life.” I saw my own fears and uncertainty reflected in my mother—and she was the strongest woman I had ever known. This was a transitional moment for both of us, one of the many that human beings face during their life.

Now, once again, I see this moment reflected here in this room. We too have been preparing for this moment since the day we were born, yet here we are and many of us are having serious doubts about whether we know how to do this. In a sense, this feels like the end of a role we’ve been playing our whole lives. And while these fears are understandable and common, they are simultaneously nothing short of foolish. When you wake up on Sunday, you are still you, and you are going to be you for the rest of your life. And thank God for that. Because look at what you have done so far. You made it this far by trusting yourself, making good decisions, and taking on the unknown. Maybe you had a plan, or maybe you made the best decision at each point along the way. Either way, it worked. What makes you think this is not going to work in the future?

I am nearing the end, and based on my research, this is the point at which graduation speeches offer profound advice wrapped in vague enough language to be applicable to a diverse audience. I am going to cop out of this obligation, and just steal someone else’s words. Ira Glass, creator and radio host of This American Life, during his own commencement speech to Goucher College in 2012, recalled his mentality on the eve of his graduation, saying: “I wish that someone had said to me that it's normal to feel lost for a little while.” Yes, it’s okay to be lost for a little while. You have been here before, and you have managed to find your way back. So, continue to be you, but more importantly continue to be all of you. It’s worked so far.

Thank you for listening-- there’s a lot of talent in this room…don’t mess it up, folks. Congratulations to you all!

Justin Brown
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering with College Honors
Class of 2014