The Pandemic as a Portal to a Better World
College of Education 2021 Commencement Speech
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2021
Buenas tardes. Good afternoon. Today we gather to celebrate the graduation of undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin! Felicidades! Congratulations! Super exciting!
Much gratitude to our students and each family for having accompanied us throughout this difficult time period of a pandemic, an epic Winter storm, a racial justice movement, political division and strife, Zoom and hybrid classes, synchronous and non-synchronous, online, remote, and in-person modalities that have not only given us a new vocabulary and skills, but a new sense of the present. Ongoing news reports have often characterized this moment as an “inflection point.” This means a turning point that can turn in a positive or negative direction.
We do have a choice and we make choices every day—not just what to do, but who to be. The pandemic reminds us that our beingness—who we are and how we be—is just as important as what we do.
May we contemplate through these words I share today how this coming together of our doingness and beingness signals the direction that this turning point takes.
Renowned novelist and human rights and ecological movement activist, Arundahti Roy asks, in her April, 2020 essay published in the Financial Times, how we can make the world anew? The answer, she posits, is in the virus itself, if we will only allow it—through the lessons we have learned—to be a portal to a better world.
To cast this moment in this way is not at all to minimize the uncertainties, stresses, and crises you have experienced throughout—with a good number among us experiencing enormous strife, hardship, and tragic loss in the context of this extended period of illness, lockdown and restrictions.
To the contrary. We honor you and are mindful of those who are no longer with us, including friends and family members who had plans to be here celebrating your remarkable accomplishments. We trust that they are here with us in spirit today.
Adding to this is a loss of rituals, observances, vacations, family visits, and the like that have taxed our souls and psyches, frequently leaving us feeling de-centered and oftentimes adrift.
At the same time, we have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Recent news on the imminent COVID variant headed our way complicates matters, making it hard to fully anticipate what lies in store for us in the coming weeks and months. Roy’s notion of a portal to a new, better world holds, nonetheless.
I think most of us agree that the world has shifted and that many things won’t go back to what we had taken for granted as “normal.” As disconcerting as this thought can be, I want to make a few observations about the pandemic experience that suggest why we should remain hopeful and positive. Specifically, I point to six areas of growth that hold enormous promise for us as individuals and as society, going forward.
- First, we re-learned the important life lesson of being flexible. Planning is essential. Goals and targets are, as well. However if you’re flexible and adaptable, not only was life easier, but you made the best of a less-than-ideal situation. And now you are here, an exceptional generation, with a major story to tell about mid-course shifts and adjustments while remaining true to yourself and following your North Star.
- Second, the pandemic reinforced the notion of just how much we all depend on one another. Despite individualist American lore, no one is ever truly self-sufficient. The reason I am here today is the same reason you are here today. It’s that my parents and family loved me—my grandparents, too—and encouraged me to pursue my wildest dreams. And you’re all also here because you, too, are loved, deeply loved, and you had a few good teachers. And probably more than just a few. Let’s love our teachers and mentors.
- Third, so much of what we used to take for granted is now more meaningful. Simple acts of kindness became less random and more sincere—smiles and well-wishes, more heart-warming.
I feel confident that we as staff and faculty, we all share in the joy of running into our students and into each other in the hallways, during lunch, or in the parking lot. Little did we know that we had it so good when called upon to attend that occasional 8:00AM breakfast-taco staff meeting, that 12:00PM brown-bag talk, or afternoon office hours to meet with you, our gifted and brilliant students.
I recently met with one such student from our 2020 cohort who said that she wanted to meet me in my office, feeling that she might graduate, never having had the opportunity to see me and talk to me in person. The feeling was heartfelt and mutual.
- Fourth, I trust that we all also have a fresh sense and appreciation for “giddiness,” for being “giddy.” Just being in the presence of others, especially dear friends and family, with whom we have not physically interacted in a good while, stimulates that sense of excitement and newness that the word, “giddiness,” conveys. It’s almost child-like.
Above and beyond the obvious delight of graduation, don’t we all feel just a tad giddy right now? Just to be together is wonderful? Not remotely, but physically? In the flesh. Don’t your legs feel a little rubbery just to be here in this space today? I know mine do.
It’s a sensation beyond feeling nervous or “jittery.”
In Spanish, the closest word for “giddy” might be mareada o mareado. Te sientes un poco mareada o mareado hoy? Yo sí! Pero viene de la novedad de estar juntos en persona. My sense of giddiness comes from the novelty of being in person. After all, our last two commencement ceremonies were remote.
These observations hint at how we ourselves have changed personally and professionally from this experience of a pandemic. Every day of life is precious. Every human being matters.
May we invoke the sacred way contained in the Mayan concept of In Lak’ech which is the Indigenous version of the Golden Rule.
Tu eres mi otro yo,
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mí mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Sí te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.
May this wisdom for planetary peace and justice be the beingness that accompanies our doingness.
- Fifth, in a new way we learned that we could be simultaneously professional and compassionate.
I remember after Spring break in 2020, after things shut down and all seemed in disarray, that a beautiful and naturalistic discourse on “grace” surfaced. “Showing grace,” “having grace, “giving grace” were expressions of love and caring that we certainly heard in our college and I imagine throughout the university.
I remember thinking, “Wow! Did Dean Martinez just say that?” “Did I just hear Dr. Victor Saenz, my department chair, say that?”
Their words of encouragement were the much-needed salve for the soul.
In the schools, we similarly heard a lot about socioemotional learning and how that needed to be our focus.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. May we all walk a path so wonderfully perfumed.
- Finally, our appreciation for one another has been enhanced. I have the distinct impression from my own experience these past one-and-a-half years of being out of the classroom and re-entering this fall, that our students were noticeably happier, even excited, about being together. Just being together was its own reward. Even in online environments, I imagine that most of our classrooms were largely experienced by our students as sanctuaries, a special place of comfort, a kind of ironic, if welcomed, “grounding” for a world that has felt upside down.
All of these learnings that speak to the heart provide clues to that grander, expansive vision of that better world that is within reach. We’ve lived it. And how awesome for all of us to imagine ourselves as not solely more credentialed, but more loving, more caring, more forgiving, and more compassionate because our consciousness is less one of separateness and division and more one of greater interrelatedness and interconnectedness where this is not an abstraction, but a lived experience.
Albert Einstein once said that when we experience ourselves as separate from the whole of the universe, this is an optical delusion that places limits on our consciousness. “This delusion,” he said, “is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” (Ricard & Thuan, 2009, p. 72)
As we emerge from this pandemic and the many lessons we have learned, how provocative and evocative for us to think of the world as more beautiful today than before and ourselves as more comfortable in that empty space that allows us to glimpse into our souls, and grasp our own limitless potential for love, forgiveness, caring and compassion.
You, our 2021 graduates from the University of Texas at Austin, are the generation of destiny for a world that beckons you to weave creation in the midst of chaos, to author a fresh, redemptive narrative of the human experience that allow us all to survive, thrive, and perfect the union.
A heartfelt congratulations again to the class of 2021! You made it!
Godspeed! Love and light! Muchísimas gracias!
Thank you very much!
Copyright 2022 by Dr. Angela Valenzuela, Ph.D. Image from Commencement used with permission of UT Austin.