Sabrina Imbler: “How Do We Want to Become?”

Sabrina Imbler, one of two graduating seniors chosen as orators for the 248th Commencement, delivered an address titled “How Do We Want to Become?" on the College Green on Sunday, May 29.

In her book "The Argonauts," Maggie Nelson writes, “Evolution strikes me as infinitely more spiritually profound than Genesis.” That is, how the process of becoming is far more important than any simple act of creation. This strikes me as especially relevant to our time at Brown. Right now, none of us has quite grown up, but we’re also not kids anymore. We’re drifting somewhere in-between — unsure yet overconfident, always sleepy yet somehow limitless. So if you were to ask me now that eternal question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wouldn’t quite know what to say.

In Greek mythology a ship called the Argo was rebuilt each year until all of its parts had been replaced. This resulted in an entirely new ship sailing under the same name. In this way, Brown reminds me of the Argo. How even though the students cycle through every four years we can still come back to feel instantly and immeasurably at home.

My four years at Brown have taught me to think critically —to interrogate, to unpack and to deconstruct — but they haven’t necessarily taught me to be anything. So instead of asking ourselves who we want to be, I wonder what answers we might get if we asked instead “How do we want to become?”

At Brown, we learn how to become. We learn that no one comes here fully formed, that we all have our baggage and memories of that time someone shamed us for doing something we loved. At Brown, we learn to become ourselves and more than ourselves.

This becoming, I’ve realized, can’t happen without the love we feel as a Brown community. This love means not only watching out for each other, but holding each other accountable. It’s because of this fierce and profound love we all have for Brown that, these past four years, we’ve asked Brown to become better.

These have been four years of us trying to have our voices heard. Of people calling us hypersensitive when we ask for trigger warnings and safe spaces. They say our dreams are the fruit of a naïve idealism that is loud and reckless and unfamiliar with how the world works.

WATCH VIDEO: Senior Oration by Sabrina Imbler

But these have been four years in a world that, again and again, tells us that some people matter and that others do not. They look at our skin and our bodies, how we move and think and fall in love, and they tell us who is valuable and who is not. They send some of us to college and some of us to prison. This is no one person’s fault; this is the world. And Brown is not impervious to the world.

But we have spent these past four years proving that we, Class of 2016, are a force to be reckoned with.

These have been four years of remarkable resistance on campus. We spoke out when we read troubling articles in student publications. This was not, as some argued, to infringe on anyone’s right to freedom of speech, but to defend our humanity. We saw patterns of oppression as we stood in solidarity with other colleges across the nation. We saw many things that were wrong, but mostly we saw how we could become better.

These have also been four years of dreams. We entered heated discussions about the protests on campus that shook some of our friendships to the core, then we built them back up again stronger. Months of demands, protests and solidarity resulted in the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Last fall, I heard first-year students speak at a protest at the Van Wickle Gates and I felt a surge of both pride and shame. I was stunned by how much they already cared and I was ashamed of my memory of myself as a first-year. I was someone who spent most of her time eating onion rings at Jo’s instead of reading about systems of hierarchy and oppression. Now as a senior, I’ve realized you can and should do both.

Like many other first-years, I came to Brown with little conception of how the world works. But I got better. I stopped talking and started listening. I listened to my professors. To Kate Schapira, who taught me that there must be an ethics and accountability to all that we write, from petitions to poetry. To Françoise Hamlin, who showed me how social change can be untidy, disappointing and triumphant all at once. And to Ralph Rodriguez, who taught me that we are all beautiful for the simple and profound reason that we are born to make the world better.

I listened to student activists and minority peer counselors and slam poets who poured their entire selves into helping us understand and care for each other so much more. There are always limits to what we know right now, but no limits to what we can learn, or unlearn. I am the person I am today because Brown believed that I could become her.

No one ever said becoming was easy. It’s hard, so hard, to look at someone or something you love so much and see how it could be different, how it could be better. But it’s precisely because of this love that we continue to protest, to hold sit-ins and teach-ins, to engage with people over coffee, in office hours or even over Facebook. Because we can imagine everything Brown could become.

This is a place drenched in infinity, where we can become not only what we never dreamed possible, but also what we were always meant to be. Where my peers can create an organization to empower first-generation students at schools like Brown. Where we can travel to the United Nations' climate talks in Paris and advocate for countries hardest hit by global warming. Where I longed for a boyfriend for three years until, suddenly and incandescently, I fell in love with a girl. And just as we become our own selves within these gates, Brown too becomes something more because of us.

Sometimes I wonder what I might have become if I hadn’t come to Brown. It makes me almost want to cry, to think how different and small my life might have been without these four years together. It scares me how fiercely I love Brown, how even when the campus was ablaze I never wanted to be anyplace else.

It has been an unfathomable honor to learn, work and become alongside all of you. Looking around right now, at some of the best friends we’ve ever had, the orientation friends we never saw again after the ice cream social and every beautiful soul we never got the chance to meet — when I look at all of you, I’ve never felt more in love. And to Brown — thank you for teaching us never simply to be, but rather showing us how to become. Congratulations, Class of 2016.