Date May 29, 2022
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Student voices shine as Brown commemorates Class of 2022

In a sunny, spirited celebration, three Brown graduating seniors addressed Class of 2022 members, encouraging their fellow graduates to honor their roots while forging new paths ahead.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Sunday, May 29, on a sunny afternoon atop College Hill, many thousands of family members, guests, friends and mentors gathered on the College Green to cheer on the Class of 2022 graduates during Brown University’s 254th Commencement.

After processing up the hill from the First Baptist Church in America, where 1,677 bachelor’s degrees had been conferred by Brown President Christina H. Paxson, or from graduate and medical ceremonies across campus, the newly minted graduates settled in for the University Ceremony.

Though Brown’s time-honored tradition of lifting student voices at Commencement remained, this year included a distinctive twist: Of the two senior orations, one was delivered jointly by two students.

Alexandra Ali Martínez and Kaitlan Bui, both California natives who — of course, for this class — first met on Zoom during a Royce Fellowship orientation, collaborated on their speech, taking turns at the mic in an address titled “We are the Bearers of Many Stories.”

Martínez, a Rhodes scholar who concentrated in Latin American and Caribbean studies and international and public affairs, has deep roots in the communities near the U.S.-Mexico border, where she grew up. Bui, a Fulbright scholar who earned her bachelor’s degree with concentrations in English and East Asian studies, is part of the first generation in her family to be born in the U.S., to which her family immigrated from Vietnam.

Together, they delivered a powerful speech that weaved together stories of their respective migrant communities, reflections on their Brown experience, and meditations on how their fellow graduates can change the world beyond the Van Wickle Gates.

“I think to myself about the poem by Hieu Minh Nguyen: ‘How lucky I am to be missed by those who have run out ways to hold me?’” Bui said. “For four years, we held each other so beautifully. But after all of this, will we be held again?”

“Will we be held, and will we hold again?” Martínez carried on. “Yes. We will continue the same way we have been taught by all those who love us.”

Speaking directly to their families who sat in the first rows of the audience, Bui and Martínez shared how they learned to hold tight onto the stories of their families, of themselves, and ultimately, of their cultures and the millions with which they share them.

“Year pass, and we grow up,” Bui said, “We leave home, and then we build a new home here, at Brown.”  

Martínez continued, “As first-years, we had to learn how to hold new things, new people. As a class, we learned how to hold each other.”

To continue holding each other, she said, they have to let each other.

Referencing “Book of Genesis” by the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, the pair encouraged their fellow graduates to imagine a book full only of the word let. “We’d continue in rounds, saying ‘let’ and ‘let’ and ‘let’ until even silent dreams had been allowed,” they recited.

“And in that letting, may we begin to uplift each other in every way,” Bui said.

Hold, let, uplift: Martínez and Bui urged their peers to do exactly that, for both themselves and for others, as they venture into the next chapter of their lives, whatever it may hold.

“As we continue to grow as bearers of many stories, may we create, together, a future of love and joy for all,” Martínez said. “In this future, we say let and let and let — ‘until even silent dreams are allowed.’”

Purpose through a pause

The second Class of 2022 oration, delivered by senior Michelle Liu, extolled the importance of identity and purpose, and similarly included a refrain to “let”: “Let us pause.”

At a time when new graduates may feel the most rushed — to join the workforce, to apply for their next degree, to travel the world before life’s responsibilities fully emerge — Liu suggested instead that they pause.

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic put a significant pause on their lives, Liu recalled the first spring semester of 2020, when students moved back to their homes, suddenly scattered across the world after having been part of such a tight-knit campus community.

“We reminisced about life before the pandemic with a newfound and profound appreciation for our Brown community,” she said. “For me, cherishing the past isn’t the same as dwelling within in. Rather, it’s a way we pause and remember the forces that brought us here.”

For Liu, one of those forces was being raised by an immigrant family who made its way from Tianjin, China, to Houston, Texas. Their survival literally depended on their success — their hustle, Liu explained — and she found herself listening to a proverb her mother always said: “Don’t be afraid of going slowly. Be afraid of pausing.”

“But stepping back, I realized I couldn’t keep chasing ambitions without a sense of purpose,” Liu said. “What if, in fear of pausing, I was trying to fulfill a dream that was not my own?”

Liu ultimately earned her degree with concentrations in sociology and statistics, but at the beginning of her career at Brown, at the wishes of her parents, she chased after computer science courses and software engineering roles. But it was never what she looked forward to: instead, her joy was workshops in advanced fiction.

“I spent lulls in my days writing by hand and making sense of a path that was different from the one laid out for me,” she said. Her dreams of being a writer were persistent and uncompromising. So she honed her storytelling, developed a purpose, defined what she wanted to do, then actually did it.

“But first, it took a pause…” she said. “Without pausing, we risk our lives conforming to expectations. We risk never fully understanding why we do the things we do. We risk never challenging our preconceived notions and envisioning a life beyond our imagined scope.”

Liu acknowledged the fear and uncertainty that comes with pausing. It takes courage to pause. But looking around at her fellow graduates, she said the Class of 2022 is bright enough, talented enough, ambitious enough, and — most importantly — courageous enough to take on the challenge.

“I have not a single doubt that beyond the gates, each of us will make a difference in this world,” Liu said. “Let us pause to ask ourselves what kind of difference it will be. Let us pause to consider how we want to live. Let us pause to consider how we will sustain our visions… and as we feel the tassels rest against our caps and the knowledge we’ve accrued stir within us, let us for now, for the final time together, relish the pause.”