2021 Senior Keynote and Student Reflections
Each year, Denison invites members of the senior class to submit commencement speeches to be considered for the senior keynote at the Commencement Ceremony. The winner is chosen in a competitive process by a committee of faculty, staff, and students. Only one speech can be chosen, however, all the finalists are exceptional. We share them with you here.
This year’s Senior Keynote is President’s Medalist Sara Abou Rashed, an International Studies and Creative Writing double major with a concentration in Middle East and North African Studies. She is a talented poet and public speaker, who wrote and co-produced her own one-woman show, “A Map of Myself: My Odyssey to America,” which she has performed in many venues here on campus, in Columbus, and across the US. She has been a leader on campus working to promote the arts and cross-cultural understanding.
Hello and the biggest congratulations to you—to us—Class of 2021, my fellow graduates, soon to be alums; our parents and loved ones; our faculty, staff, and extended Denison family far and near, present and absent, in chairs and on screens. This is the day we’ve dreamt of since we first stepped foot on campus and guess what—against all odds, it is finally here—and we’re here, together—to welcome it.
I remember last year when we were juniors and thought we were the lucky ones, but life had a way of humbling us like that. And I remember the times we used to dread waking up early in our dorm rooms, sprinting to make to class, our calves burning from walking uphill. To say that this year has been unique is an understatement.
It is unlike any other not only by our standards as Denisonians, as college students, or even as Americans, but as global citizens more interconnected than we could have ever imagined. Those who made it before us to graduation often complain that when college ended, so did the manual of next steps and they were suddenly confronted with the real world.
I like to think we’re special, that the real world wanted to meet us early, so it did.
We have now spent over 12 months in continuous historical times, we cannot wait to greet the boring old days at the door. And it pains me to say this past year brought more suffering than anyone expected: the loss of family and community members, of ways to make a living, of plans and hopes and rest and peace. Each one of us struggled, at one point or another, to keep going, to sit still in looming uncertainty and loneliness and doubt. And against these hard life lessons, it also didn’t help that our own class lessons seemed harder than usual during the pandemic, that we almost approached a civil and world war a few times, that the murders of Black and Brown people continued at alarming rates, that even now, as I speak to you, my own home country, Palestine, is facing the latest attacks and rising in death toll.
The world is not always a happy place. Yet, if there is one thing we take away from our Denison education, it is the ability to take action even in the worst of circumstances. This place has showed us what it looks like to speak up, to be critical and creative at once, to look through someone else’s eyes, to crowdsource, to empathize, to advocate, to create, to rise not by avoiding failure but by learning quickly from it, to turn to art, to literature, to merge science and athletics, research and performance, to find the vitality and will within us instead of surrendering to what’s around us.
While other universities struggled to stay open, we put resources together, made accommodations, launched two academic accelerators and made up for missed opportunities. Not only did Denison continue to provide its top-tier interdisciplinary experiences over our 4 years, it thrived and expanded even in times of global hardship.
So to the class of 2021 I say, when Denison thrived, we thrived with it—we are resilient and adaptable and informed and articulate and worldly and innovative, so please give yourself a round of applause for everything you’ve done, because you, my friends, are the nation’s next leading forces in every field imaginable—and wherever we go, the rigor and richness of our Denison experience will go with us.
We are forever bound by this mighty hill.
And while our time here may have felt uniform in many ways, today, we’re reflecting on moments of our own. It’s hard to forget how I hesitated as a high schooler to commit to Denison because I felt welcomed yet “different” but my mother said, “If you don’t go there, somebody braver will.’’ The rebellion of teenage years prevailed and she wasn’t wrong. It takes bravery to belong here and to stand out whether in a headscarf or without, to love the way Denison loves and support like Denison supports.
I’m forever grateful for the change I endured here: from an 18-year-old grappling with her sense of voice to a leader unafraid to use it. Because this is what Denison does best—it sees the potential in us and decides that something must be done and together that we would do it. And today, we did it!!!
I extend my mother’s words to you and commend you for your bravery and pray that that you never have to use Zoom again, that you hold onto the good times and remember the end of our time here not as time lost, but as time repurposed; and our relationships not as severed, but perhaps tested; and our joy not as diminished but simplified—to see people’s teeth again, to exchange a handshake, to crowd an elevator.
Trust me, soon, the world would soon get all of this back and more. So in the spirit of celebration and as some of you might have expected, I do have a poem for you—though this one, I didn’t write myself, but always come back to and today, I dedicate it to you all but especially to my dear friend Adriana Santiago who left us too soon.
won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton, (From the Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, published by Copper Canyon Press)
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Denison and the Microcosm: Extending Community Beyond the Hill
In our first week of college, President Weinberg shared with our class the idea that Denison is a microcosm of the real world. I’ve thought about his likening of Denison to a microcosm of larger society quite frequently over the past four years, and I have come to a conclusion that is perhaps the most predictable conclusion a liberal arts student could come to: I both agree and disagree. At times when I’ve considered this metaphor, I’ve found it very humorous that my problems as a Denison student are compared to those faced by the rest of society. Honestly, I will be exceptionally bummed if I walk away from this ceremony and Duo Two-Factor Authentication is still one of the biggest stressors in my life. I will be super shocked– and probably arrested– if my postgraduate social calendar still involves mass streaking events.
Yet, in essence, I agree with President Weinberg. Our small community acts as a microcosm because it prepares us for global citizenship in big ways. The very foundations of the liberal arts have prepared us to be lifelong learners, to seek education and tough conversations in all walks of life. Denison’s exemplary pandemic response prepared us to take care of others, even when that care requires us to make great personal sacrifices. Most importantly, our work in the classroom has prepared us to question the ways things have always been done, to question the way stories have always been told. As Denisonians, we examine the biases and positionality of not only the academics whose ideas we consume in the classroom, but we also use these skills to examine each other and ourselves. This is the backbone of both autonomous thinking and being an active participant in democracy, and it brings me immense peace to envision the ways in which each of you will practice these critical skills in so many sectors of society. I have great faith that each of my fellow graduates will question the way things have always been done, and will create innovative, revolutionary new ways of doing.
On the contrary, I have also noticed aspects of our community that don’t translate into life outside of this institution, aspects of our community that disprove this theory of the microcosm. In every instance that I have noticed this, I have also ached for a world that looks more like Denison University. I ache for a world where it is commonplace to take those we disagree with out for coffee, for a world where thriving arts and culture programs are viewed as integral to societal well-being, for a world in which help is so abundant that you rarely even have to ask in order to receive it. This last part– the idea that help is offered so abundantly and enthusiastically at Denison– is a virtue of our community that has never stopped surprising me. In my first few months as a Denisonian, I was awestruck by the little acts, by neighbors who taught me the most efficient way to kill stink bugs in my dorm, by professors whose open office doors prompted hours-long conversations, by staff in the dining hall who remembered I had an exam and were kind enough to ask me how it went. Upon reflection, these moments were often simply the beginning of something much larger, of relationships, mentorships, and friendships that have permanently altered my life trajectory. My experience is far from unique, as I am confident that each of you can name at least one member of this community who has invested in you in monumental ways.
When I think of those individuals at Denison who have invested in me– and the list is long– I am often reminded of a quote said by former First Lady Michelle Obama, “When you’ve worked hard, done well for yourself, and walked through that door of opportunity, do not let it slam shut behind you. Reach back, hold the door, and offer others the very same chances that helped you succeed.” It is a hallmark quality of Denisonians to hold the door for others. With this in mind, I cannot help but think of how the world might look different if this theory of Denison as a microcosm of global society was real. If every person on earth held doors open for others in the ways Denisonians do, we would live in an exponentially more kind and more just society. So as we leave campus and disperse into our respective corners of the world, I hope that you will spend some time deciding what qualities of this community you think are most needed elsewhere, and I hope you will pack them up and take them with you. I hope that you will often be reminded of those who believed in you, who invested in you, who held a door open for you. Most of all, I hope that you hold the door open for others in the same way it was held open for you. Reach back. Whatever you do, don’t let the door slam on your way out.
Ladies and Gentlemen, faculty members, staff, and most importantly the Class of 2021, Good Afternoon/Morning.
Another class’s time has come and our journey is near complete. The wise revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education serves as a fundamental building block in any community and one of if not the most important tool for overall societal improvement.
To stand before you all today moments away from receiving this powerful tool of transformation in the form of a Bachelor’s Degree feels like nothing short of a miracle. As a Denisonian, I believe I have truly received a multifaceted education and communal learning environment. I consider myself a great example of the Denison difference. I have learned the importance of shaping the future I want through my developed positionality.
My name is Gaquise Jones but to my close friends and valued mentors know me as GiGi. I am a proud first generation student from the West side of Chicago. Today I will receive my degree in Global Commerce with an Economics minor. Through the rigorous course curriculum of the Global Commerce Major, I pursued a transregional focus between South Africa and China researching their dynamic, economic markets through the cultural & social norms that affect them. The Global Commerce major has equipped me with a set of tools that help to think more globally and inclusively.
When it comes to my positionality as a Black woman at a predominantly white school, exposure and growth have been fundamental principles in my development. I look into the crowd and recognize the many long-lasting and impactful relationships I have been able to foster.
This recognition reiterates the importance of education and its many multifaceted interpretations. Education surpasses the classroom. It is in the spaces we occupy, the opinions we share, and the decisions we make. The diverse Denison communities have offered each community member a unique and life-changing educational experience. We are not the same people we came here as 4 years ago.
And over the past four years, I—like all of you—have worked to transform my developed education into a set of life skills needed to provide a smooth transition into the real world. But as we’ve all learned in the past year, sometimes no matter how much preparation you do, life will still throw you a curveball. COVID-19 was our curveball.
In a strange way, I accept this pandemic as a blessing in disguise. It helped put an emphasis on a lot of pre-existing societal and class issues occurring on a daily basis across our country. It was an event that affected the entire world on an even level in terms of social freedoms. I believe in a lot of ways, the pandemic has created the necessity for global partnership, while also being a time to recognize how little social welfare was regarded. From the pivotal Black Lives Matter protests to the politically shifting election of 2020. I truly wonder if Trump tweets will be used as DBQ response prompts on a future APUSH exam.
But all jokes aside, the COVID-19 pandemic has also taught us the importance of adaptability. When we adapt, we change our way of thinking to better serve a greater purpose. Adaptability requires determination and resilience because many times in life, we won’t be able to exercise the level of control we desire. And that’s okay! Looking forward, I think there are several important things to remember that I hope we can all take away from our Denison experience:
- One, Be selfish in the most selfless way. Recognize your immediate needs without forgetting to acknowledge the needs of the valued people in your life. As we enter this next phase in our development, we need to be proactive in molding and shaping our desired future. We have the control and autonomous advantage of being strong-willed individuals. Denison has prepared us all with an invaluable set of skills to identify what we need professionally and personally. We have the education now it’s time to apply!
- Two, Understand your non-negotiables. What are things that are crucial in the next part of your life, whether it be personal or professional? Be aware that you will sometimes need to negotiate and more than likely step out of your comfort zone. It is important to know your own worth in order for others to believe it as well. In life, the ability to communicate your needs and capabilities is crucial for success. For example, having a career that works and contributes to culturally immersive spaces is one of my non-negotiables. I have experienced an array of different culturally immersive experiences at Denison especially with my summer abroad in Cape Town, SA through the Denison Internship Program. These life-changing experiences wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t recognize and advocate for my worth. This recognition is also imperative in the face of a challenge. For example, my semester abroad was cut short due to the pandemic. In what seemed like a perilous situation, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I was able to adapt and work diligently to finish my semester and develop a great sense of self through the process. So continue to help yourself by knowing yourself. Be open and honest about what you’re worth and make sure you communicate this value to every audience in the most effective way.
- Finally Three and Probably the most important: Be patient with yourself and recognize that in most cases we are our biggest critics. If there’s one thing college has taught us, it is the importance of being able to take a break! A moment of self-care and moment to exhale. Being an educated individual is not for the weak. It is a constant dedication to the bettering of yourself and the world. No one has one distinct, linear plan. Our plans change and evolve. That’s life and we have to treat it as such, and don’t worry if the change is less than desirable. That is where our insightful adaptability skills come into play.
As Nelson Mandela also said: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” College should not be the best four years of your life but a great four year journey, where sometimes we fall down. But with each shortcoming, we are able to take away a lesson and get back up. And once you’re back up, you’re more prepared to handle an even greater challenge because you have not only improved your overall sense of education but you also have the experience to support.
One of the hardest pills to swallow as we begin our post-Denison lives is that life doesn’t owe us anything. We’re all just here living, but what a strangely rewarding life we live. We wake up everyday with the courage to face the unknown with a copious amount of faith and trust. We get to experience joy and love but also sadness and loss. The friends we’ve made, the relationships we’ve fostered and life-long impact we all share! We have all gone through some struggles and hardships, felt the pressures and hesitations of failure, but still we’re here, y’all! About to start all over again and continue living… and continuing to get back up.
We are Denison strong, and we WILL be the change the world needs.
Fellow graduates, I am humbled to stand before you today and I preemptively thank everyone for laughing at all my jokes about this hill that we call home. Parents, family members, friends: this is a celebration to be shared with you, for this accomplishment is the product of visits from parents, phone calls from siblings, and texts from friends.
Anyone who knows me well, understands that I am particularly bad at saying goodbye. More accurately, I avoid goodbyes at all costs, fleeing rooms, jumping into cars, even running away when I see fit. And for many of us, today presents a difficult challenge as it is in essence is a glorified goodbye. The reminder that this may be the last time I see my peers faces migrating to and from A-Quad or soaking in the elusive Ohio sunshine on the grass in front of Silverstein goes against every piece of my being. I wonder when I will see these faces next, or more accurately these eyes and eyebrows.
In a final year faced with uncertainty, we entered the fall with the not far lost memory of leaving for a two week spring break. Unsure if we would make it to the first snowfall, there was a phrase that stuck with me through all this that made the uncertainty less intimidating. I find myself using it to cope today as well. Made famous by the circus it goes “I’ll see you down the road.” It replaces goodbye with a reminder that nothing is final. It’s simple, unapologetic, and does the job when you are a circus clown or college graduate incapable of bidding farewell.
I think it goes further as I see a parallel between the circus and our academic institution. I know it sounds like a stretch, so hear me out. When you dive into what a circus really is, a diverse and gripping work of art, it is unimaginable in its totality until it is personally experienced. Denison is quite similar. The unusual becomes normal, different acts come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts, and you are left in awe of what you experienced.
First, the rarities in life become normal. Seeing exotic animals, like deer, in close encounters has become the norm or watching painted bodies run through residence halls in the February night doesn’t seem that strange. The oddities of our Denison experience become a part of our daily routine and we learn to accept them as they are. This prepares us uniquely for what may lay ahead, creating a more rounded, accepting worldview and trains us for the unpredictable world outside Granville.
Just as the circus can’t rely on a sole act, a liberal arts education lays its foundation in the beauty found in every specialty. At Denison, we see these disciplines are all connected into the formation of our education. I learned this when I switched majors second semester junior year, relying on my advisor and the Spanish department to let me into two classes without prerequisites so that I had a major to graduate with. They caught me when I needed it most, and I showed them that with a little help I could stick the landing. But Denison is more than just one major, everyone here has shown that they are capable of juggling many acts at once as we all know the feeling of taking that final class outside your major to fulfill that one GE you need to graduate.
When it is all said and done, you are left in awe. I look around at my peers who have been by my side for nearly four years, and I am nothing if not impressed. Each and every person has worked toward something greater than us as individuals, to build a community that surpassed all expectations of what could be done during global pandemic. We connected despite the six feet between us, we united campus in a time where our country was divided, and most importantly we kept moving forward even when we didn’t know what lay ahead, relying on each other to navigate each step.
But now, we have the privilege of sitting here to reflect on how the challenges we overcame may influence our future. The years after college you are on the road, moving jobs, apartments, cities, so we have no choice but to continue the trajectory and keep moving. There is no final destination, each of us moving toward a different end points. Therefore, there is no final goodbye, so just as chance brought us all to Granville, I have faith that it will bring us together again.
So graduates, congratulations on an incredible show, and I’ll see you down the road.
Thank you [person who introduces the speaker]. And thank you to the students, staff, faculty, and families that made these past four years the strange, unprecedented, and incredible time they were. If you asked me 4 years ago whether I imagined delivering the commencement speech to a room full of masked faces, I would have said you were crazy. When I look out at the faces of my peers, or rather the top half of your faces that I can see, I see a room full of resilience. I see a student body that has faced unimaginable loss and challenges head-on and has risen to the occasion each and every time. I see a collective of individuals filled to the brim with different passions and motivations, all working together towards the common goal of becoming “critical thinkers and discerning moral agents”. Well, I think we did it, guys. President Weinberg, I hope you’re proud. We’ve juiced Denison of all she has to offer, ready to leave the Big Red nest and be exceptional members of society.
As a Denison docent, I was trained to share my “Why Denison Moment”, the moment when I decided Denison would be my home. I’ve told the same story to scores of prospective students: the magic of the “Denison Venison”, the air of kindness and acceptance I felt the instant I stepped foot on campus, the life-changing conversations with Theatre Department Chairman, Mark Evans Bryan; but it wasn’t until recently that a prospective student asked me “Why do you choose to stay?” Why do you choose to stay. Think back to your college search. You’re visiting schools, meeting current students and staff, seeing the absolute best version of each university. But what you don’t see are the late-night cram sessions before a full day of testing, the sweaty, beer-soaked floors of the party barn, the Shorney bathrooms on a Sunday morning. Those are the little charms you learn over time as a Denisonian. So why choose to stay? For me, the answer is three-fold: community, opportunity, and accountability.
The Denison community is one of the strongest forces of nature I’ve ever experienced. You could be in the middle of nowhere, donning your Big Red sweatshirt, and someone will come up to you and say they are, or someone they love, is a fellow Denisonian. The Denison connection is real. People are proud to come from this community. We are small, but oh, are we mighty. The connections I’ve forged in my time at Denison are some of the most precious of my life. To my professors in the Education and Theatre departments, thank you for constantly believing in me and setting me up for success in all of my life-long endeavors. To my Burpee Seedy Theatrical Company family, thank you for giving me a place to be an absolute weirdo with zero judgment… 99% of the time. To my student coworkers in the Office of Admissions, thank you for being one of the most supportive, organized, intelligent, and compassionate groups of people I have ever had the pleasure to learn from and grow with. I choose to be a Denisonian because of these communities I’ve found within the greater Denison family.
The opportunities I’ve been blessed with in my time at Denison have been astronomical. Where else could a girl with zero experience, skill, and perceived interest in computer science end up taking a class all about storytelling in coding? Denison has allowed me to challenge what I thought possible for myself. It gave me the opportunity to grow as a future educator, student teaching ages ranging from kindergarteners to adult learners looking to get their GEDs. It gave me the opportunity to grow as a theatre-maker, setting me up with several internships with not-for-profit arts organizations, not to mention introducing me to both Steve Carell and Michael D. Eisner in the same year. And it gave me the opportunity to grow as a person, befriending people with identities, experiences, and opinions differing from my own and challenging my worldview. I choose to be a Denisonian because of the opportunity Denison offers for growth.
While community and opportunity are pillars of the Denison experience that shaped my choice to continue to be a Denisonian, they both mean nothing without Denison’s accountability. This accountability is a promise between the school and the student body itself. A promise that so long as the students care enough to hold Denison and one another accountable, we will collectively strive to be better. This past year, Denison did the seemingly impossible, it managed to stay open and provide a relatively normal campus experience during a pandemic. However, the experience for students placed into quarantine housing was not up to Dension standards. Rather than lament the traumatic experience of being quarantined in those first couple weeks of school, a group of students banded together to create a list of ways the experience could be improved and shared them with heads of Student Development and by the time the next group of students were placed in quarantine, the experience was a little bit more bearable. Denison is in no way, shape, or form a perfect institution, but it’s constantly getting better because of the relentless and earnest voices of students like us, Class of 2021. A class that loves this school and asks it to be better, holding it accountable for that sacred promise between school and student. No, Denison is not a perfect institution, but if I’ve learned anything in my time on the hill it’s that perfect cannot be the enemy of good. We must all continually strive to be better. I choose to keep that promise to hold Denison accountable for its actions when I choose to be a Denisonian.
President Weinberg has said that he hopes these four years are not in fact the greatest of our lives, but rather a stepping stone to better and brighter futures. Futures where we can continue to choose to be Denisonians, seeking connections, scholarship, and holding each other accountable for a better tomorrow. Futures where we critical thinkers and discerning moral agents have autonomy over our situations in life and the power to change them if the reasons to stay don’t outweigh the reasons to leave. Wherever we end up in life, may we never forget that staying is an ongoing choice that we continue to make every day. Congratulations, Class of 2021, I am so impressed with the body of potential standing before me and I cannot wait to see where life takes us next.