Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

Lexi Lerner: ‘The Bravery of Bridges’

Lexi Lerner, one of two graduating seniors selected as orators for the 250th Commencement at Brown, delivered an address titled "The Bravery of Bridges" on the College Green on Sunday, May 27.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Lexi Lerner, a biology concentrator who is halfway through Brown’s eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education, used immunology metaphors to illustrate that no one is well-served by taking an “us-vs-them” approach to life. Here is the text of Lerner's senior oration, delivered to the Class of 2018 at Commencement on Sunday, May 27, in full:

"Class of 2018, there are few things I love more than the thrills and joys of immunology. As a teaching assistant for Bio 53, I gave a lecture in the fall that framed the battle between our immune systems on the one hand, and viruses and bacteria on the other, as a righteous anatomical war. The lecture was modestly titled: “Your Immune System versus the World.”

It’s an exciting way to think about our bodies — imagining white blood cells coursing through our veins, wielding lightsabers against invading germs. But the less exciting (and frankly more terrifying) truth is that the immune system makes mistakes all the time: allergies, autoimmune disorders, even skipping over cancer cells. These lapses in the body’s cellular judgment endanger the very thing the immune system is trying to protect. These lapses also show us that sometimes it’s hard to tell right from wrong, or what’s “us” from what’s “not us.”

VIDEO: "The Bravery of Bridges"

I was recently thinking about this while sitting in a booth at East Side Pockets, eating falafel and watching CNN. Since our first year on campus, the events CNN broadcasts have changed, but the headlines keep breaking the same news: that we are more divided than ever. According to the news, it’s not only our political system that’s fractured, but our country — in fact, our whole world — and who is in the right depends on which channel we’re watching. The media reframes global struggles into “heroes versus villains” or “us versus them.”

As Brown graduates, we will soon be called upon to judge who or what is right or wrong. But today I challenge us to question how accurate or useful those judgments are. When we mythologize or demonize, what nuance do we erase? What harm do we cause? How can we do better?

One answer lies in building bridges. From the gap junctions that connect our neurons to the wormholes that connect points in spacetime, bridges are crucial to the architecture of our universe. What makes bridges so special is that they are brave. Brave enough to connect what is familiar and comfortable with what isn’t. Brave enough to search for common ground to build upon. Brave enough to acknowledge but not judge differences, and instead choose to transcend them.

When the immune system recognizes it’s made an error, it heals itself. It doesn’t stop to worry about shame, or pride, or that it can’t do it. Even when our body is most vulnerable, we open ourselves up to feedback and change. That’s where the immune system’s greatness lies: not in its germ-busting abilities, but rather in its bravery to self-reflect and learn how to keep us alive better.

Going beyond the scale of a single human body to the interactions between us — here’s where my family kicks in. My parents are two Long Island Jews who grew up in a world where radical gender expression was wearing a pantsuit in a courtroom rather than a skirt. So when my mom visited Brown my sophomore year and discovered I had cut my hair from my chest to my chin to my ear, it’s no wonder that her jaw dropped to her feet. I couldn’t understand why my parents were having a tough time validating the way I saw myself. My parents thought the millennials had infected me and they hoped my androgyny was just a phase.

As I came home month after month for family holidays and school breaks, gender started weaving itself into our dinner table conversations. I began explaining better, and they started asking better questions. We slowly earned each other’s trust. I still remember the first time my dad casually offered that I go through his closet and take all his oversized sweaters. While trying on a particular burgundy knit so long it reached mid-thigh, I was hit with this wave of gratitude to be physically enwrapped in my dad’s support. Soon after, my mom drove me to

Kohl’s and she helped me pick out chest binders. I am proud to say that over spring break, she stood by my side — selecting fabrics and cuts and giving all the requisite mom opinions — as I got my first real suit fitting.

As my parents transcended what they felt corporeally to help me feel empowered in my body, I was motivated to pay attention to my own personal blind spots, the bridges I had yet to build. For example, conversations at Brown taught me that being Jewish is complicated, for it involves intimately understanding both being oppressed and being oppressive. I think many of us have undergone similar tectonic shifts in how we navigate our identities. We’ve all received the advice that college is the place to “find yourself.” Through our time at Brown, we found ourselves not only through asserting our values, but more importantly through reconsidering them. While those moments sometimes knocked our confidence, they helped us grow into the people we are today: people who see the world with a little more clarity and a lot more empathy.

I cannot forget the day after the presidential election, when many of us were not just sad but scared for what the outcome meant for our rights. We gathered in the Leung Gallery and President Paxson reminded us to be resilient enough, brave enough to listen and engage with voices different from our own. Even in our most vulnerable moments, we cannot doom the world to “heroes versus villains” or “us versus them.” These narratives paint the foolish picture that we share no common ground. All of us ache for respect, connection, love. Each of us must be brave enough to dig deeply within ourselves and touch those nodes in each other.

When we now make the jump from Brown to whatever’s next, how will we challenge our communities to grow? How will we build bridges into the unknown that will pave the way for future generations? My mind keeps returning to this one scenario…

Consider that at dinner some night, you’ll sit across the table from someone with whom you don’t connect. After some small talk, it’ll be apparent they support the other candidate, they disavow your faith, they refute your research, or they try to devalue the core of your identity.

You probably won’t like this person sitting across from you. Even if the table isn’t very wide, your differences will seem as divisive as an ocean separating you. But here you face a choice: you can get up from the table or you can reach across it. It’s a decision you will have to make countless times at countless tables.

Few can fault you for getting up from the table. I myself have left many and returned to few. It can be exhausting, debilitating, or even impossible to sit at tables that constantly reject us. And sometimes we have to walk away from the table with the hope of trying again later. But for almost every table I got up from, every bridge I burned or neglected to build, I’ve been haunted with the unrealized possibilities that follow from these two words: “What if?”

What if I misread the other person? What if I could’ve changed their mind, or they could’ve changed mine? What if, like our supposedly infallible immune systems, I had made a mistake? If I had reached across the table, would the other person have held my hand?

Replacing judgment with transcendence is not easy and it doesn’t always work. But to abandon the table without even trying to engage, to give up on the person on the other side, means the “what if” and all the possibilities it holds die and the potential for a bridge hardens into a wall. Now is not the time to give up on each other. Instead, it’s time to build bridges.

Class of 2018, at this historic 250th Commencement, the opening of the Van Wickle Gates transformed what was once a wall separating us from the world into a bridge leading us to it. Now is the time to invite more people to the table, especially those who were denied a seat before, and including those with whom we don’t immediately connect. Now is the time to be so unabashedly and so bravely human that we reach across that table, look that difficult person in the eyes, and tell them: “Let’s make this world better. And let’s do it together.”