Date May 17, 2022
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Graduate School speakers to embrace vulnerability, the unexpected at Commencement

As Brown celebrates Commencement 2022, Jiuyang Bai and Amelia Spalter will address their peers in separate Ph.D. and master’s ceremonies on College Hill on Sunday, May 29.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —  On paper, Jiuyang Bai and Amelia Spalter could not be more different.

Bai, a Ph.D. student in cognitive science originally from China, came to Brown after his poster presentation at a conference impressed a University professor. Spalter, a Providence native, earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown in religious studies and loved the experience so much, she applied for a master’s. Bai is fascinated by the ways in which humans move and found community through swing dancing. Spalter is fascinated by cults and says there’s not a reality in which she won’t end up working as a television writer.

But for how disparate their lives and interests may seem, both know that the shared experience of earning graduate degrees as members of Brown’s Class of 2022 connects them in more ways than they can imagine — a theme they’ll each explore as they deliver addresses during the Graduate School’s doctoral and master’s degree Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 29.

In keeping with the University’s longstanding tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement, the Graduate Student Council voted for Bai and Spalter as this year’s speakers after hearing from several finalists selected by the GSC Nominations Committee. Both speakers will express the importance of embracing change and the vulnerability required to do so successfully. 

“I have to admit that it was a tough job trying to narrow it down,” said Teressa Chambers, a doctoral student who chairs the council’s nominations committee. “But one thing the committee really takes into account is the originality and distinctiveness of the speech. Amelia’s had the kind of spark and humor to it that you only run into once in a great while, and Jiuyang’s was so genuine — very relatable and very warm.

“They captivated us in completely different ways.”

Freedom to explore

Nowhere has Spalter learned more than at Brown, “but Google is a close second,” she said.

As such, her master’s ceremony address in Meehan Auditorium will examine three things she’s Googled during her time in graduate school — practical, useful things that everyone should know, but also metaphors for the broader themes that she says will be on everyone’s mind as they’re graduating.

“Graduation days are such an ephemeral concept in that it's so much about the individual while at the same time being such a wholly communal experience,” Spalter said. “I want everyone to be able to feel that as they look around and think, ‘These are my classmates and we're forever connected, even if I've never met them.’”

Spalter started her undergraduate career as a Brown-RISD dual degree student studying film and screenwriting. But after attending a premiere of the Paramount television miniseries “Waco” — which chronicles the 1993 standoff between the federal government and the religious movement the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas —  Spalter was struck by the show’s ability to impart religious literacy. She always wanted to be a television writer, but all of a sudden, she said, she knew why.
Within two days of the premiere, she had left the dual degree program and began work toward a bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Brown, eventually taking the Fifth-Year Master’s option to earn her graduate degree.  

I want to be sure that everyone leaving graduation day feels celebrated and seen, and that they recognize their journey as unique and important, whether they have the big, great job and all of their plans laid out or they have no idea what’s next.

Amelia Spalter Class of 2022 Graduate School master's speaker
Amelia Spalter

In her several years in the Department of Religious Studies, Spalter served as both a Departmental Undergraduate Group leader and a graduate liaison, organizing events and panel discussions on everything from the intersection of religion and entertainment to a series on religious studies and Ukraine. She also designed, implemented and taught a group independent study course on American new religious movements.

“That’s the politically correct term for cults,” she said. “’Cult’ is actually considered a profoundly derogatory term now.”

Although Spalter said all roads lead back to her religious studies concentration, that certainly wasn’t where she spent all her time.

Her “second home” is the nonprofit United Community Martial Arts Institute of Rhode Island, where Spalter — a black belt in Kenpo — works, competes and volunteers. She was a senior staff writer at the Brown Daily Herald for nearly four years and a board director at the Brown Political Review. She founded and served as editor-in-chief of Brown University Interviews — “my crowning jewel,” she said — and founded the Brown University Screenwriting Collective, which is now the largest pre-professional screenwriting group in the Ivy League.

“Every personal and professional decision that I have made since the age of 7 has been linked in one way or another to my goal of being a television writer,” Spalter said.

Spalter has applied to Harvard Business School and hopes to earn a master’s in business administration with the ultimate goal of founding her own production company — not only so she can see her own projects made, but to provide support to those who would otherwise face insurmountable barriers into the industry.

“I’ve realized that my entire undergraduate education was almost like being in graduate school, because I was given so much freedom to explore my interests and really take the reins of my own education,” Spalter said. “The religious studies department trained me so well and put so much faith in me to be able to go forth and share my passion with everyone else.”

Spalter hopes to share pride and passion with her peers as they prepare for life beyond Brown. 

“I want to be sure that everyone leaving graduation day feels celebrated and seen, and that they recognize their journey as unique and important, whether they have the big, great job and all of their plans laid out or they have no idea what’s next,” Spalter said. “Nothing is simple, especially getting to graduation day at Brown. This is a day to acknowledge that and wrap our arms around each other.”

Speaking up and speaking out

On Sunday morning of Commencement Weekend, a few blocks away at the doctoral ceremony on Pembroke Field, Bai will urge his fellow graduates to learn to cherish vulnerability and revel in the positive change it can bring.

“I’m probably going to feel so nervous when I speak, but that’s kind of the whole point of the speech, right?” he said with a laugh. “I feel vulnerable, but then I think of all the speakers before me who felt the same way... I realize I’m not alone, and it’s worth it to speak up.”

Learning to find his voice and push through the discomfort of making it heard was something Bai says he was only able to do at Brown.  

Bai grew up — and received his bachelor’s degree in psychology — in China, where he said the culture surrounding individual identity is vastly different. His first few years in the United States were spent pursuing a master’s in cognitive and behavioral sciences at Illinois State University. Even after being in the U.S. for a while, he said, he still felt uncomfortable with garnering too much attention or taking up too much space.

“Before Brown, I was always the quiet person in the group,” Bai said.

During a poster presentation at a conference in Minnesota, Bai was approached by Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences William Warren, who remarked on the similarity of their research interests: Bai’s research focused on interpersonal action coordination, and Warren’s Virtual Environment Navigation Lab at Brown researched similar work, but on a larger scale — crowds. The two continued correspondence, and soon, Bai was pursuing his doctorate in cognitive science under Warren’s guidance.

That’s when things started to change.

Because of the cultural background I have, I’m not used to speaking out ... But I had this realization that I wanted to change that. I made a breakthrough, I stepped out of my comfort zone, and I faced my own vulnerability. I faced what I’m afraid of, and everything was OK.

Jiuyang Bai Class of 2022 Graduate School doctoral speaker
Jiuyang Bai

At Brown, Bai began participating in English language workshops hosted by the Center for Language Studies and the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. He wanted to connect more with the Brown community, but felt held back by the language barrier.

“So I thought, what’s the best way to communicate without language?” he said. “That’s how I ended up as part of the Brown Swing Club, and it turned out to be a big success for me.” After years of attending their free dance classes, Bai decided to serve as a board member, organizing lessons and events.

He also gave back through CLS language hours, where he signed up as a Chinese language facilitator; every Monday, he would hold conversations with Brown community members hoping to improve their Chinese language skills. Through that group, Bai said he met a friend who was instrumental in inspiring him to take more initiative when it came to making his voice heard.

“Language learning and living abroad has been one of the most rewarding experiences,” Bai said. “It’s like growing up again. I learned so many different perspectives, and they all boosted my personal growth.”

After the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States, as the nation witnesses an abhorrent peak of violence directed toward Asian Americans, Bai felt divided about whether to participate in the resulting protests.

“Because of the cultural background I have, I’m not used to speaking out,” he said. “I had never gone out on the street to campaign for something. But I had this realization that I wanted to change that. I made a breakthrough, I stepped out of my comfort zone, and I faced my own vulnerability. I faced what I’m afraid of, and everything was OK.”

After that experience, Bai said he couldn’t stop thinking about how vulnerability can enrich personal growth, and ultimately, that’s what he hopes to impart on his peers during his Commencement address.

“Everyone should speak out, and you cannot rely on other people to make your voice heard,” he said. “Realizing that changed so much for me, and this is an ending that I never could have dreamed of.”

That ending, however, is also just the beginning: Inspired by Che Guevara’s famous motorcycle journey across South America, Bai will start a new adventure as he rides his bicycle from Providence to Seattle, where he will begin work as a research scientist for Meta, working to revolutionize the design of new assistive technology such as smart wheelchairs and sensory substitution devices.