Emma P. Pierson '14, Senior Class Speaker

Commencement Speech

Emma Pierson

I arrived at Clark University with its slogan ringing in my ear, "Challenge Convention; Change Our World." But in its echo there was a heavy question: How can I be extraordinary enough to actually do that? Well, I am so happy and thankful to be able to tell you all that I think we, the class of 2014, have figured it out together.

In my junior year at Clark I joined the University Swimming and Diving Team. Although I had taken lessons growing up, I had never been on a team before, and I had no idea what to expect. When I emailed Coach Phillips, he informed me that while I was welcome to try it out, it would be an enormous commitment and very rigorous. Indeed, it was, and while I hated it deeply at times, it changed my life. The experience consistently ripped my comfort away from me; almost every morning, it ripped me out of my warm bed and tossed me into a freezing swimming pool where I had to endure more physical exercise than I knew I could handle. During the particularly grueling workouts, I can recall an adjustment happening somewhere between my body and my brain, at which point I went from feeling like a victim, subject to the injustice and cruelty of sports; to feeling like a warrior, like the goddess of chlorine, the strongest women alive, refusing to let pain and fatigue stop me.

My point is not that we must all become athletes, but that we must not veer away from what is different, difficult, or dark. No, not at all. Rather, we must go towards what is different, we must explore what is dark, taste how bitter it is, and feel how vast. And all it takes is a little bit of momentum. Do you remember when you were a kid and you reached that threshold where you learned how to swing without someone having to push you? All you had to do was lean back and stick your feet out in front of you and you would begin to generate this momentum; you would feel yourself going higher and higher each time, until you were soaring above the whole playground. Everyone is brimming with potential energy like this; all of the potentialities of the world are stored within us, sleeping, waiting to be woken.

During my first two years at Clark, I barely ventured off campus. I was fearful of the dilapidated buildings that I had seen only from car windows. I was uninterested and dismissive of the people that gathered around the store fronts and street corners because I assumed I could not identify with them, and that was that.

However, one morning I decided to walk home from Union Station and right then, my relationship to Worcester began to transform. Although the storefronts were weathered, they were colorful; the streets were lively with music and different languages. With each person I passed I felt nourished; the rich and textured variety; the different sizes, the deep-set furrows in the faces, the uncanny but deliberate outfits, the unlikely couples, the spectrum of skin tones, the weariness, the resilience. Our culture often encourages us to put what is different in the same category with what is "bad," and what is normal in the same category with what is "good." This system of classification is oppressive, even for those of us who are "privileged," because it encourages us to fear what is different; to choose on the basis of fear. That twenty minute walk was all it took to realize that I do not want to be afraid of people that are different to me.

The laws that allow our flesh to break open are in agreement with the laws that allow that flesh to weave and fold and heal. As living beings we are undergoing constant forming and falling, tearing and mending the fabric of our selves. This is how our world goes on; skin will always break, fruit will always fall from the tree, daylight will always fade to darkness. Although they may be unsettling and uncomfortable, if we deny these inevitabilities—if we fear them—we are denying ourselves the privilege of loving difference, of being different and being powerful. Indeed, our empowered selves seek adventure; they do not linger in the shallows, afraid that they will drown; they get caught in the storm and develop this desire to come out alive, like a bouquet of fire trapped in the chest.

Clark University has always encouraged its student population to explore shadows and pursue adventures. And we do! For four years we've been surrounded by men who wear short shorts; by women who celebrate their bodies, however big or small; by students who ask difficult questions, assume enormous responsibilities, and revel in these challenges with joy and with pride; by professors who praise their students for choosing the road less traveled; by people who come from everywhere, who share and celebrate their experiences with others; by afros and blue hair and no hair; by men who hold hands to celebrate both platonic and romantic love; by the kindest cafeteria workers and faculty members whose faces make you want to say, "Have a fantastic day!" We must continue to reach out and touch what is strange; what is tender. We must break from our comforts, and realize we are stronger without them. We must risk talking to the person next to us on the bus, even if they look mean or they have headphones plugged into their ears. We must let ourselves be vulnerable enough to love what is different, and then that love will shine out of our faces as bright as stars. Everyone around will have to look and wonder, "Who are those people, so full of love and fearlessness, that they're shining like stars?" This is how we can all be extraordinary enough to change the world. Thank you, Clark University, for allowing us to be different. Thank you, class of 2014, for being so full of love.