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Distributed May 31, 2004
Contact Dionne Montgomery

The 236th Commencement Senior Orations
Marian Ahn Thorpe: “Full of Heart”

Russell A. Baruffi Jr. of Vineland, N.J., and Marian Thorpe of Spokane, Wash., delivered the Class of 2004 senior orations during Brown’s 236th Commencement, Monday, May 31, 2004, at 10:30 a.m. in the First Baptist Church in America. The text of Thorpe’s oration follows here.

Thorpe My dad always gave his fatherly talks about sex while driving in the car. It was a really great strategy: He never had to look the victim (my brother or me) in the eye because he was driving, and there was no way for us to escape save diving out of the moving vehicle.

In the summer of 2000, just as I was about to head off to Brown as a freshman, my dad must have been thinking about the new world of college boys I was about to enter, because he cornered me in the car.

“Honey,” he said, “you have to be careful with sex.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. He looked straight at the road ahead, and I thought about jumping from the car.

He continued, “Do you remember what happened to Sandy from church? She got pregnant her junior year of high school.” Poor Sandy. She always had a starring role in my dad’s little talks.

Dad,” I groaned. “I know.”

Conversations, and the broader theme of communication, mark the landscape of my time here at Brown. Now, I’m not just talking about talking. I’m referring to the whole communication package: talking, listening and understanding. That car chat between my father and me four years ago is an example of my communication starting point when I entered the University. I’m sure that just about all of us here today can recall a conversation like this with a parent or some other adult. Maybe it wasn’t a conversation about sex, but it probably featured a heavy dose of “Dad, I know,” or “Whatever, mom.” We wanted to be treated like adults, but we perceived that we were being treated like children. The way I talked in high school reflected those vestiges of childhood – I could spit out lots of big words and sound very grown-up, but I hadn’t yet learned to listen and understand. Here at Brown, I’ve gone from big words to substance, from talking like an adult to communicating with empathy and maturity.

I recognize that I have myself to thank for this transformation, but I owe thanks to this University as well. The experiences and interactions that it encourages have taught me how to listen with an open mind, and understand with an open heart. I think in particular about a conversation that taught me that we sometimes become communicators in ways we don’t foresee. It was the fall of my junior year abroad in Ecuador, and I was talking with my host mother, Fabiola, a woman who had grown very dear to me. I was nearing the end of my stay at her house, and we were both awaiting my departure with sorrow.

“Mariana,” she began, “I like you a lot. You’re different from the other foreign exchange students I’ve had... You wash your own clothes, you do your own dishes... You’re a very mature and intelligent young woman.”

My eyes began to tear up, and I murmured a grateful “Oh, Fabiola, thank you so much.”

And then she continued, “It’s because you’re Asian. Of all the exchange students I’ve had, I always like the ones from Asia best.”

I smiled at her. I was overwhelmed by the dual import of her words. On the one hand, I understood that she was giving me an amazing compliment: She was telling me that she didn’t just like me, she liked what she perceived to be my entire race and culture. It was kind of like when a friend tells you that they think your parents are cool: Having cool parents means you’re cool too. It gives you a warm feeling in your stomach. Except, in my case, the warmth I felt quickly gave way to a sense of hollowness. This woman I loved was telling me how mature and intelligent I was, and then nullifying the value of those qualities in me as an individual by ascribing them not to me, but to my race. And so, I just smiled. I hadn’t asked to be the ambassador to Ecuador for all of Asia, but like it or not, I was.

This conversation taught me that we are all, at one time or another, called to be communicators in ways that we don’t expect, or even desire. And perhaps it is those times when we don’t seek that responsibility that it is most important to speak not with our lips and hear not with our ears, but communicate with our hearts. I know this sounds very warm, fuzzy, and, well, Brown. But it isn’t just about politically correct fluff. No, communicating with our hearts spawns action. This year, I watched a group of students from many different concentrations research issues of hunger and food security in Rhode Island, develop an idea for a business that would address some of these issues, and now they’re founding a cooperative grocery store on the south side of Providence that will help connect struggling local farmers with urban consumers. Their work is just one example of what can happen when we honestly take stock of who we are, the messages – intentional and unintentional – we communicate, and who is at the receiving end of those messages. And then we act on the whole information picture that we get from listening with our whole selves.

My mom visited me here at Brown this spring, and during her stay I came to realize the extent of my transformation from talking like an adult to communicating as an adult. She had directed my friends and me in making a Korean-style dinner, and we sat down to eat the delicious meal. Somehow or other, probably aided by the beers we were tossing back, we all started getting a little silly, and my mother – my mother – started telling “your momma” jokes with my friends. She was hilarious, and I wasn’t fazed by it in the least. There was no, “Mom, you’re embarrassing me.” I was just in love with this woman who could chat and hang out with me and my friends.

During our time at Brown, we’ve come a long way in how we communicate with people. I know that I try to listen more, talk with more substance, and understand more fully who I’m interacting with, and the messages we’re trying to share with each other. I know that I’m not a communications expert; this is a skill that will continue to develop throughout my lifetime as I grow and change. Brown has merely helped lay the foundation for who I, and all of us, are going to become. But that foundation is strong, and full of heart.

A double concentrator in environmental studies and ethnic studies, Marian Ahn Thorpe plans to remain in the Providence area, starting a grocery co-op called “Urban Greens,” among other projects. She is the daughter of Norman Thorpe and Hyunki Ahn of Spokane, Wash.

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