August 2019 Commencement Address by Dr. Aram Goudsouzian

Good morning! To President Rudd and the assorted dignitaries with whom I get to share today's stage: Thank you for this honor. I can't believe that I get to deliver this commencement speech to the Class of 2019. Please rest assured: I am NOT nervous. I definitely have NOT had a searing pain in the pit of my stomach for the past few weeks. I was NOT discovered this morning, curled up in a corner of the living room, rocking back-and-forth and muttering nonsense words. I'm fine. I'm totally qualified to do this.

To the family and friends in attendance today: Thank you for your support of our graduates. You are the most important thing in their lives. There are a lot of academic studies that have investigated what makes for a long and happy life. They all circle back to one important answer: you should have sustained and fulfilling relationships with the people who matter most. So please remember that our graduates down here need you. And you need them. On this special day, that is worth acknowledging, and celebrating, and continuing.

Finally, and most importantly, to the Class of 2019: Nice work. You did it. You took different roads to get to the University of Memphis, and you followed different paths when you got here, but you have all reached your destination. In class after class, your professors challenged you to master new information, to communicate in clear and effective ways, to reason your way through problems, to work in a team, to exhibit creativity, to adopt new perspectives. You met those challenges. If we did this right, you are walking onto this stage this morning as a more rational, more responsible, more compassionate version of yourself. For that, you deserve our profound respect. Congratulations!

Now, this will be the last time that you'll ever have to listen to a professor drone on and on. But I'm giving homework. I have two final assignments for you. We can handle the first one right here, right now. I'd like you to recall someone who doubted you. Maybe someone thought you weren't smart enough. Maybe someone looked down their nose at you. Maybe someone judged you because of your background, your neighborhood, your faith, your accent, or your race or your gender or your sexual orientation. Today, on this occasion that recognizes your terrific accomplishment, close your eyes for a moment. Remember those doubters. And think – just to yourself – that they can suck it.

But please: keep it to yourself. This assignment is for your inner satisfaction. There's a purpose here: in my personal experience, there is no more powerful motivation that sticking it to someone. But it only works if you do it in your imagination. We do the world no favors when we expose our crass feelings and impulses. That is easier to do than ever – it takes just a couple of taps on our phones. If modern technology has amplified our public discourse, it has also coarsened it, cheapened it. Our elected leaders are the ones we should hold to the highest standards, right? Instead, some of them summon what Bobby Kennedy once called "the darker impulses of the American spirit." As a quick scroll of the news will tell you, this bad behavior has consequences.

That brings us to the second assignment. This one stretches well beyond today. Here it is: wherever you go from here, please carry with you the values of your college education. It's a common misconception that we go to college to learn how to do a particular job. If that was the case, we'd go out of business; the world moves too fast for that. No, a college education does something more important: It teaches you how to think, how to work, how to be. Consider the university as an extraordinary house for ideas – and for people willing to explore those ideas. A college education, at its best, rewards a set of values. It rewards thoughtfulness. It rewards reason. It rewards discipline. It rewards empathy.

Those values have to shape our public lives. As we face the world, we must be the best versions of ourselves: thoughtful, reasonable, disciplined, empathetic. You already know your own experience, which shapes your opinions on issues. A good education compels you to learn about the experiences of others and to consider their worldview. It forces you to think through an issue and to see that issue from another vantage point.

I came to Memphis fifteen years ago, a young man, with a full head of hair. As my colleagues might admit, I was a somewhat improbable hire for the job – no one, including me, envisioned an Armenian guy from Boston coming here to teach about race and southern history. It remains the greatest gift that I have ever received. Landing this job was not the end of my education – in some ways, it was the beginning. As I was teaching about Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells and James Baldwin and Fannie Lou Hamer and Barack Obama, I was reading, I was thinking, and I was learning. And I saw the world through different eyes.

That education keeps shaping every aspect of my life, in deep and meaningful ways. If once I was an outsider, now Memphis is in my blood. I met my wife here, we raise our children here, and we are part of an academic community that cares about how our students learn and write and think about the world around them. Teaching our students is still the experience that defines who we are.

My hope for you, the Class of 2019, is that your education never stops. Please keep reading and thinking and learning. Please see the world from as many perspectives as possible. And please remember those values. Be thoughtful. Be reasonable. Be disciplined. Be empathetic. If you act as the best versions of yourselves, then the rest of us have no choice but to follow.

My time is up now. Yours is about to start. Thank you for the privilege of speaking at your graduation, and congratulations on this extraordinary milestone.