Washington DC Reflection Piece from American University Graduation 2016

Three weeks ago, I graduated from the School of International Service at American University. At the commencement ceremony, I had the honor of being one of the flag bearers on stage. Out of the options to carry the US flag, the DC flag, the AU flag, the SIS flag, or the alumni flag, I chose to carry the DC flag because that is where I am “local”: https://www.ted.com/…/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m….

As an ATCK, I have always identified where I am local. Not where I am “from.” I was given the flag bearer opportunity because I was the Master candidate finalist to give the commencement speech. I first received the invitation from SIS to apply to be a commencement speaker when I was about to leave for Amsterdam in March. I was so busy with the conference I was attending and with travelling that I decided not to follow up with the offer. But then I got a personalized email that I had been selected to be a commencement speaker finalist so there I was on the train from Leiden to Utrecht, and then Utrecht to Rotterdam, and then from Rotterdam to The Hague writing and rewriting my commencement speech….I have a photo of doing that somewhere….because I found it so random.

Ultimately, SIS decided to only have one student commencement speaker (the undergraduate speaker) because we are the largest school at AU and there wasn’t enough time to have 2 student speakers. (Every other school at AU had two student commencement speakers).A few days ago, the official AU photography team emailed a photo of me carrying the DC flag. I look proud to be local here. But I have a feeling I’m not going to be local here for much longer….

Per the request of many who were curious about my speech, here it is:

School of International Service
American University
Commencement Speech 2016
Megan Norton; MA International Communication Candidate

Good evening President Kerwin, deans, members of the faculty, proud parents and families, and above all: graduates.

I have spent my life packing and unpacking boxes. I have lived in nine countries and five U.S. States. I have moved over 25 times. So you can imagine the boxes I’ve accumulated along the way; boxes from South Africa, Germany, Japan, Israel, Greece, Hungary….a lot of places. When I moved to DC, it was the first time that I had all of these boxes in one space and I started unpacking. I saw all the things I had identified with or that identified me. I was looking at not only tangible objects but also intangible ones. I was unpacking the values and beliefs and thought patterns that had shaped my worldview. In doing this I had feelings of displacement and I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt the urge to pack up my boxes and to move again. Moving would be easier to do than confront the accompanying unease of trying to figure out what my identity was and who I wanted to become.

But I stayed. And I observed. And I learned that I wasn’t the only one unpacking my identity in the School of International Service. My classmates and I were reorganizing our ways of knowing and of being. We were recognizing our assumptions of not only each other but also of the world we operate in. I remember a moment in one of my classes when I shared that I was one of the students in the first integrated schools in post-apartheid South Africa. This ignited conversations immediately about race, power, and privilege. It was in moments like this that I saw my in between identity manifested in concrete new ways of belonging.

I became part of this multi-cultural community bound together by the shared commitment to accept that identity is fluid and complex. And I learned that SIS celebrates the power of seeing beyond identity boxes that so often imperfectly define us.

SIS integrates this message into its orientation toward service. As a form of service here at AU, I volunteered to be an intercultural dialogue facilitator. In facilitating cross-cultural communication between groups of both undergraduate and graduate students, I experienced the complexity of culture in new ways. One dialogue session stands out vividly. I had just landed at DCA from visiting family in another State and was headed to AU when I received a text message from a participant that said: “Can we talk about what just happened on campus?” What just happened on campus, I thought? And should I be going there? She was referring to Anti-Muslim fliers had been put around campus, but immediately reported and taken down. In our intergroup dialogue, we discussed how religion and faith are integral parts of our identity and we must be aware that sometimes people are forced to box it up and keep it hidden. I realized that I had never had to hide my faith for fear of physical safety. In our session we made space for stillness and for reflection. We were vulnerable and authentic with one another. In that moment we chose to understand rather than to simplify; and to acknowledge our agency to foster respect and tolerance.

When President Obama visited our campus last year, he spoke to this as well. He said: “Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth. It’s a matter of faith, of shared fidelity to the ideas and values that we hold so dear. That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes us strong. Anybody can help us write the next great chapter in our history.”

President Obama’s reference to “anybody can help us” resonates with us graduates as we see the invisible boundaries that usually divide our world and have been trained to lean into the discomfort of stretching our comfort zones to understand how the interplay of culture, politics, race, and gender frame our behavior.

As SIS graduates, we are committed to celebrate cultural complexities and we are equipped to engage global challenges in our professional careers and future scholarship.

For all of us here today, we need to remember that as we move in and out and between social groups, we are making a difference in the world. It is our decision as to whether we are building boxes of fear and resistance or breaking down boxes with generosity and empathy.

Class of 2016: this is our commencement, our beginning. The beginning of new interactions, collaborations and intersectionalities of what constitutes shared identity. Perhaps you’re about to pack up your own boxes to move out of DC. Remember to take our culture of service, tolerance, and curiosity to navigate this increasingly interdependent world.

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