First-generation scholars will address Graduate School degree recipients

Graduates Alberto Morales and Matthew J. Lyddon will address their peers in separate master’s and doctoral ceremonies, respectively, at Commencement on Sunday, May 29.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In keeping with Brown’s distinctive tradition of featuring graduates, rather than outside dignitaries, as Commencement speakers, Matthew J. Lyddon, who will receive his doctorate in political science, and Alberto Morales, who will receive his master’s in public affairs, will address their Graduate School peers at Brown’s 248th Commencement.

Both Lyddon and Morales, who were selected as speakers by the Graduate Student Council, are the first members of their families to earn undergraduate — and now graduate — degrees.

“We are both extremely proud to be first-generation college graduates,” Morales said. “We often pinch ourselves about this tremendous honor, given our similar backgrounds. Being first-generation is crucial to my identity; it has shaped my understanding of the world and provided me with a sense of urgency.”

“There are some deep ways that forging on into education changes you,” Lyddon said. “You travel in different circles, and develop different ways of thinking to those predominant in your home community.”

While Lyddon and Morales know each other through the graduate student and first-generation student communities at Brown, as well as through the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, they will not speak at the same venue. For the first time, master’s and doctoral candidates at Brown will receive their degrees in separate Commencement ceremonies: master’s students will process to Pembroke Field, while doctoral students will gather at the Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle.

Each audience, however, will hear from a scholar whose presentation is informed by a thoughtful engagement with issues of privilege, traditional power structures and the building of community. And befitting a ceremony that marks the end of the scholarly apprenticeship, Lyddon and Morales will each present a vision and charge for the future.

Lyddon will present “On Making It, and What to Make of It,” a speech that asks his peers to reflect on the process of earning doctorates in their fields, consider how that journey has reconfigured them as individuals and confront their future work with the sense that they can guide and raise up others.

For Lyddon, who grew up in Wales and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Cardiff University, pursuing advanced degrees was unusual in his family and to some extent in his hometown, which he said was largely working class and had close historical ties to a nearby steel plant. Beyond facing homesickness when he came to Brown in 2009, he felt an unexpected vulnerability which he later identified when he came into contact with the University’s First-Generation College Student Initiative. He said the concerns expressed by those students “brought visibility” to the experiences that differentiated him from classmates and colleagues with an academic lineage.

Recognizing that being a white male with a British accent could be perceived as a “conveyor of authority, earned or otherwise,” Lyddon said he still struggled with a sense of displacement and self-doubt, but over time explored how his more and less privileged identities interact and developed a deeper appreciation for the struggles of those with greater barriers to access.

Later, as he served as secretary and then president of the Graduate Student Council, Lyddon found renewed purpose in advocating for the graduate student body at Brown. Having worked on behalf of students at Cardiff, at Brown he strived to counteract the notion that scholarly commitment and compassion were mutually exclusive, he said, particularly as he was discovering a vocation as an educator.

“It’s not a binary choice,” Lyddon said. “There’s this sense that it’s supposed to be really onerous, stressful, even miserable,” to earn a doctorate. “Getting a Ph.D. is a marathon, and whether you’re doing it for academic or other fields, it’s a benchmark of intellectual, scholarly quality. But one can be tough in different ways.” To insist on making earning a doctorate a test of endurance at the expense of self-care, Lyddon said, is to “risk a twofold trap. We put it upon ourselves and then are in the position to replicate it.”

Lyddon will ask his peers at Commencement to consider what kind of leaders they will be going forward while remembering with gratitude both the people and the institution that helped them become graduates.

“As we remake ourselves, we acknowledge that Brown is itself a long-enduring institution and a dynamic place,” Lyddon said. “Brown is changing with us, as student activism has surfaced important challenges and questions. Just as our Ph.D.s will find their way through their next set of challenges, I hope that Brown will continue to develop in that spirit.”

Morales is intent on embracing the challenges that come with spurring needed social and educational change. His speech, titled “Bridging America’s Racial Divide: Our Privilege in Writing the Next Chapter,” encourages his peers to continue to engage with race and social justice as they move into their professional lives beyond Brown.

A first-generation American and the son of Mexican immigrants, Morales said he has, through good and bad experiences, become comfortable taking about race, ethnicity and origins. His experiences of growing up on the south side of Chicago and, later, confronting classmates’ assumptions as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, led him to choose to meet racial injustice head-on. Over time, he said, confident in his identity, he began organizing social justice events ranging from panels to marches.

Morales’ range of experiences influenced his decision to focus on education policy, he said, noting that “race intersects all spheres of our lives, and it is only through intentional and supportive educational experiences that we can fully break the invisible barriers that separate our society.”

Looking ahead to a near future in which the U.S. will become a “majority-minority” country, Morales views prioritizing discussions of race as critical, both in defining his generation and in reforming oppressive power structures. He chose Brown’s MPA program “because of its supportive staff, brilliant faculty and accelerated approach,” he said, and values Brown because it “not only welcomed my interest in amplifying race discussions, but also encouraged it. As a community, we value pluralism and don't shy away from difficult conversations — we enter the seemingly awkward and make it comfortable.”

Morales is focused on reducing barriers for first-generation, low-income students.

“After living away from Chicago for eight years, I am excited to return to my community and activate my MPA training to provide innovative policy solutions to help reduce gun violence on the South Side, increase college completion rates for first-generation students and ensure that immigrant voices are effectively represented in policy,” he said. “I know firsthand what it is like to survive a fractured system.” 

While he knows that his peers receiving their diplomas on May 29 will enter challenging fields, Morales said he has confidence in Brown graduates’ ability to meet the demands of service. Although in moments of isolation, “we may forget about the community that is also fighting with us,” he said, “as Brown graduates, we are never truly alone in fighting for a just world.”