2018 Commencement Address
Commencement Address by André Aciman
Ph.D. Programs in Comparative Literature and French
May 30, 2018
I'm extremely honored to share the stage tonight with Chancellor Milliken, with today's honored guests, and the trustees of both CUNY and The Graduate Center. Thank you, President Robinson and Provost Connolly for inviting me to speak.
Let me congratulate this year’s graduating students of our M.A. and Ph.D. programs for arriving at this one, most special day of your lives. To use a word that has acquired a new, zen-ish meaning these days, your journey as graduate students culminates in this auditorium. Something that for many of you started quite a few years ago and was punctuated by hard work along the way has finally reached its goal. Life grants few such moments when we can feel achievement, accomplishment, and success in one and the same breath. Take a moment and think to yourself: “This is what achievement feels like.” For many of you, your friends, colleagues, and loved ones are here to rejoice in your success with you. For others, your loved ones are far away. But they are rejoicing for you as well. So don’t cheat yourself of the satisfaction that comes with success. Seize the feeling, nurture the moment, cradle it as best you can, because by so doing you’ll learn how to find it in you again and again in the roads ahead. You certainly felt it the day you finally deposited your thesis or took your last qualifying exam: “That’s it,” you said, “mission accomplished!” And, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you also thought: “Now I can tell them what I really think of them!”
If you are still unable to access this feeling of accomplishment and pride, well, then reach up to the top of your head and feel this silly hat they’ve made you wear tonight. It too spells success.
So I am so thrilled for you. Kudos and my sincerest congratulations.
We all entered this thing called graduate school with many hopes and not a few misgivings before the hurdles awaiting us. If you didn’t have misgivings, then you really didn’t understand graduate school. Misgivings punctuate some of the more difficult corners of all successful careers. Questioning and doubting are part of every endeavor, of every faith, inasmuch as doubting what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, is part of being in graduate school. The mantra here is not just Montaigne’s famous “What do I know?” but something far more radical: “Could I be wrong?” You’re not only reinventing yourself in graduate school, you’re reinventing your material, you’re reinventing your field, your discipline. No wonder you were scared!
In this connection, I am reminded of the association of craftsmen known the world over today as the Companions of the Tour of France — nothing to do with bicycles. This association of future members dates back to Medieval guilds in France and Germany and still today asks young apprentices and artisans to spend a long time touring their country and learning from master craftsmen. Theirs is a hard life, but they always come back having taken from their masters what these had to give and many times invented something better, something new. This is what you’ve done. The road is always hard and there is no saying what hardships still lie ahead. But you’ve learned how to weather difficulties. And you’ve given the world something that was never there before. You’ve given the world something that was never there before.
As I like to tell my students when they’re struggling with a paper: From nothing, before you started writing, something will eventually emerge. From nothing something. It may fly in the face of physics — and the scientists in this room should forgive me but it’s how all great ideas are born. From a mere hunch, from the germ of an idea, from a passing suggestion by your adviser, something amazing finally emerged.
I spoke of hope, pride, and success and I mentioned misgivings. Let me dwell on misgivings a moment. And let me cite my own checkered path as an example. I graduated from CUNY’s Lehman College and got a Ph.D. from Harvard. But when I was in graduate school in the mid-seventies, jobs for Ph.D.s were impossible to come by. Graduate school itself was hardly a happy place. Like many of you here today I was a foreigner and came here as an immigrant and like many of you too, I was the first in my family to attend college, to say nothing of graduate school! In my darkest hours, graduate school always seemed like a farfetched luxury that wasn’t quite scripted for first-generation immigrants. Maybe it’s for the next generation, I used to think. So many of us here today who are born elsewhere are long familiar with hardship and with all manner of difficulties and humiliations littered along a path where sometimes we still feel cut off, displaced, uprooted, homesick, and often so unentitled. But we are also resilient, we adapt, we are persistent, and, above all, we want to create a new life for ourselves and for those we love. So, after you are handed your degree, wherever the job interview and whatever your doubts, remember my law of four proofs: a degree is (1) proof that you have single-mindedly mastered a subject; (2) that you have completed a long project within a reasonable period of time; (3) that you can do many, many things with the knowledge you’ve acquired. And (4), your degree is proof of your enduring and lifelong commitment to create knowledge and to pass on that knowledge.
When all of you look back to your very first day in graduate school there it was, already staring at you, the embryo of your degree today, you were already incubating it back then, except you didn’t see it, didn’t know it, maybe didn’t even trust it. So today I don’t only want to ask you to learn to trust what comes from you, and only from you, but to trust in your capacity always to succeed whenever you put your mind and heart to something. Leave this hall with gratitude, with joy, and — why not — with a glimmer of subdued arrogance for the tasks you’ve accomplished. But leave with the resolve and confidence to seize the wonderful opportunities awaiting you in life. And finally, remember your mentors, feel free to call them by their first name, and if you wish, tell them what you really think of them. This, after all, could be the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
Congratulations, and thank you.