Spring 2013 Graduate Speech
Paige Smith, English BA Graduate, 2013
Paige Smith, English Club President, gave this year's student student address at the English Department graduation ceremony.
Paige is from Dana Point, CA. In addition to the English Club, she was also an officer in The Writers' Collective, a creative writing club on campus, and was a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority in college. Paige also has a French minor and will be teaching English in France beginning Fall 2013, then hopefully pursuing a career in professional writing.
If there’s one commonality between English majors, it’s the fact that our degrees will, at one point or another, be questioned. You can never anticipate by whom—it could be your second cousin, that random kid in your GE class, or your roommate’s mother—but you can be certain you will eventually hear the following words: “What do you plan to do with a degree in English?” It’s cliché, dreaded, and inevitable. In an effort to find an adequate response for myself, last year I visited the bi-annual career fair that Cal Poly offers.
It was my first and last experience attending such an event. It was a crisp January day and I arrived eager and polished and shaking in my heels—much like I feel on this very afternoon—with ten copies of my resumé in my hand. I approached with trepidation one booth after another and inquired whether their company might need someone with my unique background and skill-set, which, to be frank, I didn’t even know how to articulate at the time.
I chatted pleasantly with the employees manning the tables and when they asked for a copy of my resumé, I lit up. I handed it over and watched as they glanced at the top section displaying my education. “Oh. You’re an English major?” they said. With a sigh of pity and an extended hand, they pushed the resumé back toward me and said, “I’m not sure we have an opening for someone like you.”
I was crushed and felt defeated. Nothing for someone like me, I thought? I was understandably confused and upset, but their quick dismissal of my potential was not merely an affront to what I study, which would have been offensive enough, but to who I am.
For, as English majors, literature is not simply a representation of our education and the way we’ve chosen to spend our time—it is a representation of our souls. My academic studies as an English student have shaped in infinite ways the person I consider myself to be.
It would have been easy to let the ignorance of those people incite in me doubt about my chosen studies or my worth as an individual. Instead, I couldn’t help but feel they were missing out on what I could offer. Those people evidently did not understand what my particular discipline has taught me.
Our English degrees, the communities we have created in our classrooms, the bonds we have formed with our professors have all provided us with the tools necessary to do, see, and be anything we wish.
How? Some distant relative might ask at Thanksgiving, for example.
Because literature, to begin, makes us citizens of the world. Literature offers us an opportunity to connect to and understand different places, lifestyles, types of people, and ways of thinking and behaving. Stories, poems, and non-fiction all have the magical ability to transport us to places which we’d never have otherwise ventured to: medieval England, ancient Greece, Paris in the roaring ‘20s, the American South, Harlem, and San Francisco in the ‘60s to name a few. The beauty of the literature we study is that, to effectively engage with a text in and out of our classrooms, we must fully submerge ourselves in various time periods and attempt to understand the popular dialects and customs in each; we must traverse the fascinating, enlightening, and often dangerous depths of the human mind; and we must reflect upon and question everything around us: our habits, our predispositions, our cultures, our behavior, our thoughts, even reality.
Engaging with words, ideas, characters, and experiences similar to and foreign from our own lays the foundation for not only a successful individual, but a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually enriched one. We have a greater capacity as English majors to be empathetic, open-minded, grateful, analytical, skeptical, strong-willed, enchanted, inspired, inquisitive, and compassionate because of the literature to which we’ve been exposed. We know how to think critically and creatively. We know how to observe, how to persuade, and how to construct an argument.
And under the influence of brave authors who bare their souls in their words, we can learn how to embrace our faults. Through dialogue with professors and peers, we can learn how to broaden our perspectives, how to change our opinions. By living temporarily in other worlds, we can learn how to dream.
And aren’t these qualities fundamental to living an intellectually stimulating and personally transcendent life? I believe they are. John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his “Idea of a University” speech, says: “He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad.” This is a most important skill and one that, as English students, we practice and hone daily. Because regardless of where you are, who you are surrounded by, or what you are doing in life, so long as you continue cultivating your mind you will always find fulfillment.
The English department at Cal Poly has instilled in us, among this ability, the desire to live—in the paraphrased words of Thoreau—a deliberate life. And so I’ll leave you with these final words: live with intention. Trust yourself. Be proud of your education and your passions. Never stop learning, adventuring, seeking, and challenging yourselves.
And remember this: the next time a job recruiter scoffs at your degree, know that it is this very degree that has gifted you with a mind malleable enough to adapt itself to any situation, a mind capable of storming the world and proving people wrong. Hold this confidence close to you with the knowledge that it is minds like ours, adaptable, capable minds, that will make an impact. Thank you.