Graduate English Oration: "One Journey's End is Another's Beginning"

My maternal great-grandmother Dorenda said that she was born in the year peace was declared...

by Dorinda J. Carter, Ed.D. '05

 

My maternal great-grandmother Dorenda said that she was born in the year peace was declared. She meant the year that slavery was abolished in the United States. Born free in 1863 to a slave mother named Dorenda, she farmed land and raised 15 children in Arkansas at a time when the ability to read and write offered liberation and personal agency for millions of freed slaves. I believe that both Dorendas—one born into slavery and one born free—understood the importance of education as the practice of freedom. They both imagined a future in which their children and their children's children could excel in a country where the benefits of formal learning would be available to all. These two Dorendas who came before me dreamt big dreams—praying for literacy as the gateway to opportunity—while working in a cotton or corn field or rocking a baby to sleep in a small, run-down plantation shack.

One hundred and forty-two years later, on this day, their dreams deferred are actualized: I am honored to stand here before you as the third and first in my family—the third Dorinda and the first person to obtain a doctorate of any kind. Whether you are the first or fifth in your family, this is a day to collectively honor all of our educational accomplishments and to celebrate the formal and informal teaching and learning that we've experienced at Harvard. As we bring an end to this chapter of our educational lives, we begin another. For many of us, today symbolizes the conclusion of our formal training, and we will end this business of acquiring degrees. However, all of us will continue to engage in a lifelong process of being educator and educated. You see, we embarked upon this journey some number of years ago. We sought out a specific skill set, a particular body of knowledge, some shared societal understanding that allows us to exist comfortably in this world. But our journey does not end here.

Today, let us consider how we will use our Harvard education to be the next cadre of foot soldiers for transformation. We gather here on the shoulders of giants: those who often stood in the line of fire in political movements and even wars so that we could partake of this privileged education—an education that affords us the freedom to practice careers in medicine, law, business, public health, education, the arts, among many others.

Throughout its history, Harvard has produced and employed many foot soldiers for transformation. For example, six graduates of the Harvard Law School were members of the 1954 litigation team for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which ended legalized segregation in public schools throughout this country. Additionally, members of the Civil Rights Project of this University work tirelessly for civil liberties, particularly in education.

Thus, our current and future success should not be defined by how much money we make, how many accolades we attain, or even our level of degree from this institution. Rather, the true measure of our success will be in how many lives we touch and in our work for change and social justice in the world. As we begin this new journey, we must use the skills gained here to help others empower themselves and work toward a society where equity and equality truly exist and are not just given lip service.

Teaching is often defined as “imparting knowledge or skill; to instruct in; to cause to learn by experience or example. And learning is often constructed as gaining knowledge, comprehension, or mastery of something through experience or study. Both of these definitions allude to some finite set of concepts which we acquire. Yes, Harvard has provided us with a set of ideas that will inform our future work, but I like to think that our most important learnings have come from moments in which sharing our similarities and grappling with our differences as individuals has afforded us opportunities to co-construct knowledge together.

As we re-enter the larger society beyond these walls, many of us will not be professional educators, but all of us will continue to educate and be educated by life's fortunes and challenges. On this Commencement day, let us commit ourselves to continuing the lifelong process of teaching and learning. Let us go forth prepared to act boldly as educated men and women who vow to transform individuals and communities, institutions, and nations. May we be remembered as givers, not only as receivers, activists and not simply visionaries, blessed beyond our own understanding and a blessing to others. Today we put to rest one journey—and we celebrate that, but we awaken to a new one. As we enter the realm of the educated elite, we should not be elitist in our living. May our humility be remembered in the use of our education as the practice of freedom.

Congratulations and thank you.

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