We are so thrilled to congratulate Amy Zhou, UWaterloo English and Economics, who has been named valedictorian and will be speaking at convocation this year. I asked Amy if she might consider contributing a post to our blog, and she kindly agreed. Read on to find out what she didn’t include in her speech, how she wasn’t sure she’d make, and where to hear more from her! And special thanks to Amy for this guest post!–JLH
Valedictorian speeches are hard to write. There are tons of Wikihow and “How to do it” articles online that are supposed to help (and to be honest, I used one as a starting point) but, all the same, they’re hard to write.
I agonized over mine: I meticulously parsed words and sentences, scratched them out and bit my lip while wondering are these experiences shared enough and is it effectively celebratory?
I ran through my speech in the unfinished boiler room of my student townhouse. I had lugged my full-length mirror downstairs and propped it on a plastic container to watch my lips form words and to make sure my smile carried to my eyes.
My first run-through, to my horror, clocked in at seven minutes long.
Seven minutes! I panicked, They’ll cut the microphone at that point!
So I started cutting, scratching thick black lines through memories, verbs and sentences.
I paused over “We made it!”. I cut it.
My reasoning was that it was implied, simply by the fact that the valedictorian would be addressing a room full of people who had “made it”. If they were in that audience, I reasoned, they’d already made it, and they’d know that they had made it. It’d be redundant if I included it.
And yet—in the talk-off (when all of the valedictory nominees gave their speeches to a panel and to each other), I heard the phrase over and over from my peers.
We made it. We made it. We made it.
Convocation is flashy. It’s showy. That’s obvious enough to anyone who has ever seen photos of people at their convocations on social media. We wear big black gowns that easily double as Hogwarts cosplay (I’ve friends who used their high school gowns for the premiere of Deathly Hallows II), and hoods that are colour-coded to specific faculties and programs. Our steps echo loudly as we walk down loud aisles to an enormous stage, we shake hands with the President, and cameras flash.
It’s entirely symbolic, and thus, in the way that most symbol-laden things are, a little kitschy and totally cheesy. I’m sure that we all have friends who skipped their own convocation because they’re corny, “extra”, and a waste of time.
I crossed out We made it! on the hard copy of my speech and I deleted it off my electronic copy, but if I were to do it over again, I’d pause more before I scratched it out.
Crossing that stage and taking your diploma is a clear symbol that you’ve made it and we don’t have a lot of opportunities to celebrate that act of making it in such clear and loud imagery. Sure, there’s a sigh of relief when your official standing comes out on your transcript, and you see that “Degree Awarded” on your unofficial transcript, and there are the likes and comments of congratulations that come popping on your newsfeed when you post your grad photos on Instagram or change your profile picture on Facebook. But I don’t think there’s anything as present as crossing that stage to show that you did it, that you made it through. It’s a symbol recreated over and over in movies, novels, and personal pictures saying many things, but one thing especially loudly:
You made it.
Of course, this symbolism of crossing the stage and grabbing your diploma—it doesn’t speak to everyone. Its celebration and joy can be communicated through a variety of different fora, be it in your own private ceremony, with your own loved ones, at a restaurant, alone—anywhere.
To me, it doesn’t matter where it is, so long as you do something to acknowledge that you’ve done it, that you’ve made it, because it sure as hell wasn’t easy.
I’m very conscious of the period in my life when I thought I wasn’t going to (couldn’t) make it to the end of the year, let alone the end of my degree or even the rest of my life. It was, as I’ve called it before, the black hole era of my life.
“I was worried you weren’t going to graduate,” my Mom admitted to me at breakfast, some weeks ago. We were joking about that black hole era now that, thankfully, it’s far enough away from my present reality that we can joke about it—now that I wasn’t calling home crying home everyday, lying awake in the darkness and sleeping through the day. Her tone before this was joking, but this admission was coloured at the tips with that worry and concern that loved ones clutch to themselves and try not to let you see.
A statement like this would have set me ablaze with anger at the end of high school. How dare you even suggest that this was a potential possibility, I would’ve fumed, Of course I’m going to graduate. Of course I’m going to be on Honour Roll.
But now, at the end of my undergrad, I paused.
“Me too,” I admitted. And it was true: every semester seemed to present some fresh crisis of a class for which I felt woefully unprepared and didn’t deserve to be taking (it was usually an Economics class). Some semesters even presented me with emotional disturbance, Jobmine stress, existential despair. I slept through a job offer because I was so depressed. I dropped my thesis and one of my Microeconomics classes when I couldn’t take it. I sank a lot of emotional energy into people who didn’t want it. I fell into whirlpools of circular thoughts and questions asking who and what I was that I could never seem to answer or escape. I took on too many extracurriculars because I didn’t want to be alone. I was desperately lonely.
But I made it through. I’m here. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
I made it, almost entirely thanks to the support and love of people in my life.
This final act of making it– these motions of crossing the stage, accepting your diploma, shaking hands, and smiling at the camera- it’s as much as an act of celebration, of thanks, for these people in my/your/our lives. I wouldn’t be here without the support of my parents, without the ears and laughs and kindness of my friends, without the belief of my professors and employers.
In the end, all this is to say that this essay is kind of a spoiler: I’m not going to say “We made it!”. I actually did cross it out of my speech, and I kind of wish I hadn’t.
But don’t think, on the day of convocation, days (!!!) from now, that I’m not thinking it: my gratitude and celebration for this act of having made it (both mine and yours) will be infused in every word I say because we’re here, we made it, and this period in our lives, this messy, scrambly period right after the completion of our degrees when everything is bittersweet, exciting, scary, and full of potential is your time in the spotlight and your time to celebrate.
So congratulations, my fellow English and Arts graduates of 2017: we made it.
You can read more by Amy at her blog.