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Student view: What now?

May 12, 2022 - myrah rafiah beverly

myrah rafiah beverly is graduating in the summer of 2022 with a degree in comparative cultures and politics with minors in Korean and Spanish. She is a research assistant for Amanda Flaim, assistant professor in James Madison College, and will be traveling to Cambodia this summer to do research for the Mekong Culture WELL. beverly was the student commencement speaker for James Madison's Spring Commencement ceremony. The following student view is edited from beverly's 2022 commencement speech and has been repurposed with permission.

myrah beverly with Anna Pegler-Gordon and Dean Cameron Thies
myrah rafiah beverly smiles in the Green Room with Dean Cameron Thies in the background and Associate Professor Anna Pegler-Gordon in the foreground. Photo by Rod Sanford.

I am so grateful and honored to be this year’s commencement speaker. As it was mentioned, my name is myrah rafiah beverly, and I would like to welcome and thank everyone for being here today to celebrate the achievements and sacrifices of the James Madison College class of 2022.

Firstly, I would like to echo Dean Thies’s earlier land acknowledgement with part of the extended version as provided by the American Indian and Indigeous Studies Department: “We (as James Madison College) collectively understand that offering Land Acknowledgements or Land Recognitions do not absolve settler-colonial privilege or diminish colonial structures of violence, at either the individual or institutional level. We recognize that Land Acknowledgements must be preceded and followed with ongoing and unwavering commitments to American Indian and Indigenous communities. We push Michigan State University to recruit, retain, and support American Indian and Indigenous students, faculty, and staff.”

So, I thank the land and the indigenous communities that are not only a critical part of MSU’s history, but also our present and future.

When thinking about my history, I remember how I came to Michigan State as my dream school with a flame in my heart burning to learn the ancient arts of politics, writing and the art of saying a lot of things without really saying anything at all.

My first semester was 19 credits (because I didn’t know what a credit was; I thought the more credits the better!). I got my first grade back on a test I didn’t study for because I didn’t think I needed to and thinking "Am I [stupid]? Did no one tell me?" After a tough semester, I still finished on the Dean's List, but felt the fire in my heart flicker with self-doubt.

Since then, I have watched my body grow and my mind mature. I have watched my parents' wrinkles set in; I watch them walk a little slower, and my dad sometimes accidentally calls me his sister’s name. In other words, for the past three, four or five years at Michigan State, all of us have aged with the weight of more responsibilities, obstacles, discoveries and friendships.

Particularly, I felt a certain pressure on my shoulders when COVID-19 reached the United States two years ago. Our classes were completely online, and some classmates I am seeing today for the first time in those two years. Most of us, including myself and my family, lost our jobs or lost our loved ones.

We spoke of war without seeing the war: frontline workers like cashiers, restaurant workers or city bus drivers were soldiers in the war against the enemy virus. We saluted the bravery of healthcare workers, and a face mask became a shield.

The COVID-19 global pandemic intertwined with our country’s underlying issues to inspire nationwide protests against racial and class injustice. In fact, some of my fellow graduates and I were frontline workers as we tried to make up for unpaid internships with companies who could definitely afford to pay their interns. We were still active at local protests and marches. All the while, we were still working towards the degree we earn today. 

So, I am here to address the question every student is thinking or has thought at one point after being left in the wake and crossfire of our world crises and realizing that none of us are invincible. We ask ourselves: “What now?”

What do we do with all of our books, all of our curiosity, all our knowledge and all of our memories? And how do we live with all of our rage, all of our fear, all our injustices and all of our sorrow? What do I do with this degree that I dedicated years of my youth to earn?

myrah beverly delivers her commencement address at Wharton Center
myrah rafiah beverly delivers her commencement speech with deans, faculty and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (second left) looking on from the stage. Photo by Rod Sanford.

During freshman year, our professors warned us, “You will leave with more questions than answers.” And for you all today, I present you with one of many answers that I have come up with from my last four years at Michigan State.

I believe, as writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Meaning, self-care is a form of activism and rebellion that we can all do to create new ways of approaching crisis and injustice. It is a way to counteract the strikes of internalized doubt, hate and restrictions.

In James Madison, it seems like with the weight of newly-absorbed theories, case studies and definitions, you reveal more and more nuances of your hometown, your family and yourself. But often you leave every class with a hole in your heart thinking, “Well, that sucks.” And in that hole where hope should be, you start to accept "that's just the way things are.” But I have realized that our pain, just like your love and your hope, is renewable energy. It’s like the sun to revive you, to power your body and mind and make you instead say: “This is the way things are, but this was never the way things were supposed to be.”

Despite what hustle culture, FOMO or your parents may say, it’s okay to take a break, preserve your energy, and not know what your next move is. Sometimes, resilience looks like going back to your parents' house, or taking a gap year or finally reaching out for mental health support.

Graduating class of 2022: As Madisonians, we don’t like to sit still. We are bound to the call for justice; we make friends with our resistance to learn new ways to approach it, and we are unafraid to engage in uncomfortable conversations. If anything, people are afraid to talk to us.

All of us were once children feeding on a dream, and we owe our success to the teachings of our ancestors, professors and mentors. But I urge you all to also be a little selfish today: You did this. You did all the work. And you are so bright. So, please, class of 2022, if no one has said it yet today: I am so proud of you, I am always rooting for you, and congratulations.