The 244th Commencement

Tara Prendergast: ‘How Shall We Be?’

May 27, 2012  |  By Courtney Coelho |  401-863-7287
Tara Prendergast “It’s (time) to be reminded of what the last four years at Brown has given us and how we can use that in the world.” Credit: Scott Kingsley/Brown University
Tara Prendergast, from Crawford, Colo., was one of two graduating seniors chosen to address the Class of 2012 at the 244th Commencement. She spoke early Sunday afternoon, May 27, 2012, on the College Green, delivering an address titled “How Shall We Be?” The text of her address follows here. (See also the address by Leor Shtull-Leber and a news release about the selection of the student orators.)

I am honored and grateful to celebrate the journey of these last four years with all of you. Class of 2012 — Congratulations! We have not gotten here alone, so let’s take a moment to say thank you — to our families, the Brown staff and faculty, and each other. Thank you.

As we prepare to enter the world beyond Brown, it is important for us to consider what kind of world it is, what kind of world we would like it to be, and how we might bridge that difference. We have the responsibility and the privilege to do this.

Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” If this philosophy framed the way we as a nation and as a global community operated, we would live in a radically different world. We would not be facing the kinds of disparities and violence that we do now.

At Brown we believe in the importance of educating our hearts. We have learned to champion dreams of equality and justice, to value diversity, to work together, and to be intentional in making choices.

We’ve been taught to consider the ethical dimensions of what we learn. Dialogue and scholarship have cultivated our shared humanity. Of the knowledge we’ve collectively attained, we must continue to ask ourselves: Of what use is this knowledge? And whom will it serve?

I have spent the last four years struggling with what it means to be a Brown student. I was raised in a progressive working-class family in rural Colorado. My own experience and the stories I was surrounded by made me skeptical of the elite, the powerful. And by coming to Brown, I have to a certain extent become a member of that elite.

Of course I am not alone in coming from humble beginnings. Many of us are the first in our families to graduate college, the first members of our communities to make it to the Ivy League. And yet regardless of where we come from, we’ve all been given an education that has afforded us a network and opportunities few people enjoy. By the very fact of our membership in the Brown community we have access to influential people, institutions, and resources. The diplomas we are receiving today are a powerful currency in the world.

We will go on to influence the world in many different ways. Indeed, that is our charge. Some among us will be teachers, poets, community organizers, and doctors; others will be investment bankers, artists, lawyers, social entrepreneurs, writers and executives. Some of us may someday become prime ministers or presidents. But as varied and far ranging as our paths may be, we will be linked through memories, through the education we have received, and through the friendships we have formed. Our different perspectives and experiences can be our greatest assets as we shape and change our world.

The kinds of changes we will make hinge on the way we understand our responsibility to others. Without the constant love and support of my family I would never have had the confidence to apply to Brown nor the ability to meet some of the challenges we have all encountered here. I learned about love and the importance of loving others from my family. Thank you.

Through loving others my sense of purpose has been deepened. Alice is a twelve-year old girl who lives in this city, only 20 minutes away from where we are now, but for whom the opportunities we have are like a fairy tale. I want to share a glimpse of her story with you.

I met Alice in September of 2008 through BRYTE, a student-led volunteer opportunity here at Brown, a week after she had been settled in Providence from a refugee camp in Tanzania. When we met, the only English word Alice and I had in common was “Hello.” We began with gestures and hours of “repeat after me.” Three and a half years later Alice makes better jokes in English than I do. She is able to translate for her parents who still do not speak English. Now, we have conversations that make me think in new ways. “I want to know about God” she recently told me. She went on to ask where Angels were born, why they killed Jesus, whether God and Mary were married. “How did Moses see God?” she asked. “I have not seen him.”

I helped Alice gain linguistic and cultural fluency; Alice helped me gain a new perspective on the society we both live in. Like many of the refugee students BRYTE works with, Alice is stuck in an under-resourced school with an ESL teacher whose English even I cannot understand. The only park she has to play in has become over-run by gangs of desperate youth. And while I encourage her to be proud of where she is from, Alice tells me she wants to forget her mother tongue of Kirundi. And tragically she once hopefully asked me if lotion will make her skin lighter.

We live in a city that is the third poorest in the country for children. In the public high schools of Providence, almost half the students don’t graduate. We are also in a country that has seen its incarceration rate go up 600 percent in the last 20 years. And beyond that, we live in a world where the richest 200 people have wealth equal to 40 percent of the global population.

We are coming of age in challenging times. Wars rage, inequality deepens, and the fates of nations become ever more entwined. We are called upon to consider what it means to be citizens of the world. Winston Churchill famously said, “With opportunity comes responsibility.” What responsibilities do we as Brown graduates have? What do we do with the resources we have been given? And how shall we use our privilege, our power?

I ask that we use it well and justly. Doing so will require a tremendous amount of courage. It is easier is for us to look away, and to accept that life is not fair. It is uncomfortable to think about privilege, sacrifice and change. It is easier to feel numb and insignificant.

Such numbness is self-protective. Yet if we cannot feel, we cannot love, and if we cannot love, we cannot build a better world.

Our responsibility is great, and so is our opportunity. We have the opportunity to use all that we have been cultivating: our creativity, knowledge, curiosity, and inspiration.

Inspiration has empowered me to confront the challenges of our historical moment. From refugees in South Providence, professors, Paula at the Blue Room, the Swearer Center staff, and you, my friends and peers, I have learned how to live … with strength and humility, compassion and joy. All of you have taught me to be unafraid of adversity.

We have no need for fear, because we are inspired, we are well equipped … and we are powerful!