Wofford College Commencement Address 2016

** On May 15, 2016, I had the honor of delivering the Commencement Address at Wofford College, the college I attended for my undergraduate degree. Here is the text for that address.**

Exactly twenty-five years ago I was sitting where you are right now. I was listening to Dr. John Palms, then president of the University of South Carolina, give the Wofford College commencement address in 1991 when I was about to graduate. Sometimes that twenty-five years feels like a heartbeat, a second, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime. It is an enormous honor to be here today. So, thank you, Wofford College, for inviting me. And thank you to every parent, guardian and family member in this audience for making today possible for your graduates. And thank you to all of you for spending the next fifteen minutes of your lives listening to me. Although, you are all trapped at this point. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, faculty, staff, trustees, and fellow alumni, I love you, but what I’m about to say is to and for the graduating class of 2016.

After this fifteen minutes, I will never see most of you again and when I think thoughts like that I always think of the play, The Member of the Wedding, when the awkward, book-loving, southern, not-like-everyone-thinks-a-girl-should-be-girl, Frankie says,

“I wonder if you have ever thought about this. Here we are – right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. And it will never come again. Never in all the world. When it is gone, it is gone. No power on earth could bring it back again. It is gone. Have you ever thought about that?”

I don’t ever read that line as a lament, as a sadness, but rather as an invitation to be in the moment. To try my best to be fully present. And so, I’m going to use my time with you today to talk about what I think it means to be present using some examples from my own life.

When I graduated from Wofford College, I had a boy friend who was also a student at the time……now he is a professor here so you are free to spend the next 15 minutes guessing who he is! I was young, I was madly in love, and I was focused on him and my friends from school and the fact that I was really sad to leave them. The last thing in the world I was focused on was my mother – a single mom who didn’t go to college herself and who sacrificed a ton for me to go to school. What I could not see then, that I see so clearly now, is that that summer after graduation was the last time that I would fully “be” in her presence. It was the last time I would live in her house. It was the last time I would feel like her child. And that summer I was not there, because even when I was physically there I was angry and sullen and obnoxious and selfish because I couldn’t be somewhere else.

That summer was also the last time I would live in Atlanta and be in close proximity to the people that raised me, and here I mean my friends from elementary school and high school and summer jobs and my soccer team and my softball team and my swim team. So my point is this – right now, remember that this past four years has been a top off to the seventeen years of social reproduction that made you, and try to be present in that — in your family and in those networks that raised you up.

I have the best job in the world. Indeed, I think one of the most extraordinary lives in the world. There is rarely a day that I don’t wake up in absolute wonder and think, “Wow, This is my life? I get this?” Getting here was not easy. One of the massive roadblocks early on was that very social world that I just told you to be present in. My mom, who was always supportive of my choices, has eleven brothers and sisters and they all had an opinion about what I should not do once it became clear that I was not going to go to business school, law school or medical school, and that I was not going to stay in Atlanta, get married and have babies. That I was not going to do what was expected of me as a first generation college graduate or as a woman.

Becoming an anthropologist, something that nobody in my family had ever done or even really heard of, did not seem like a condition of possibility to my family. And I endured a range of disbelief, willful disinterest, and outright abusive derision when I went to graduate school in anthropology. I was able, through all that, to be present in my own imagination of the future and to stay focused on the fact that even though nobody thought I could do what I wanted to do with my life, I could. So, try to be present in your own imagination of what your future might hold and don’t let others set the conditions for your possible futures.

So what do I do for work that I think is such a privilege? I’m an environmental anthropologist – What does that mean? An environmental anthropologist kind of smashes together the study of human social, economic and political structures and processes with the study of biophysical structures and processes that make up the natural environment. And I do research on New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, that sits directly above Australia and right under the equator – an extraordinary place that is the most linguistically and biologically diverse place on our planet. A place I visit every year and that I have seen change lots over the past 20 years.

In my research now I spend a lot of time with people who are on the front lines of our current global environmental crisis and our current global accumulation by dispossession crisis. People whose ancestors have lived on islands for thousands of years, when today those islands are washing away because of sea level rise. People who live in the footprint of enormous resource extraction projects – gold mines, timber concessions, oil pipelines, palm oil plantations; people who own the land that these projects are taking place on and yet who are living in unimaginable, for many of you, poverty. People who live at altitudes where you are not supposed to get Malaria or Dengue, but who are now getting these deadly diseases because of global warming trends which increase parasite vector zones.

Sometimes these crises are overwhelming to me, and I become paralyzed with fear and sadness. And then I try to pull myself back into being present in the fact that this is not about me. And I mean this in two ways. First, my job is not be sad, that my job is to produce knowledge about these events in a way that galvanizes action. And second, that the neoliberal ideology that I, as an individual, am the seat of responsibility for global inequality and climate change, is a bogus proposition. I try to remember that the causes for human and environmental suffering are structural and that for us to change them we have to fundamentally change the structures of global power. I try to be present in the fact that while it makes me feel good to recycle and buy fair trade coffee that the real work of change comes with political action. And being present in the fact that that political action does not happen through clicking the “like” button on Facebook, or re-tweeting something, or creating a hash-tag.

And that brings me to the fourth kind of being present I want to talk about. I love social media. Twitter is informative, hilarious, wrong, wonderful and obnoxious. Snap chat is a mystery to me because I am old. And Facebook allows me to see into the edges of the lives of my former students, the people I went to school with, some of my close anthropological friends and colleagues, and a bunch of young activists, writers, artists, and scholars from across the Pacific region. It is amazing. But it is also flat. It shaves off the affective. It erases the bodily experience of human connection.

Last fall, I and five of the people I love most in this world, people I went to Wofford College with, descended, in a middle aged, bourbon fueled, tsunami, on the spectacular front veranda of Anchorage 1770, an Inn in Beaufort, South Carolina, that is owned by two other Wofford College alumni. Our spoken rational was to celebrate the birthday for our mentor Dr. James Gross. But really, we gathered together to feel and be present in each other’s lives.

In the past 25 years, we have become doctors, teachers, scholars, bankers, and business people. We have had children. We have decided not to have children. We have lost parents and other people precious to us. We have come out and lived our lives as who we are. We have gotten married. We have stayed single. We have gotten divorced. We have served in the United States military. We have protested US wars abroad. We have traveled the world. We have stayed home. We have voted republican and democrat and independent. We have, variously, been seen as people want to see us and as we truly are. Sometimes we have been seen in the most convenient definitions as ….. a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal…..We have watched the movie The Breakfast Club a million times!

Here is my point, we get this life with our friends, with the people we love, one time and being present in their lives is so much more than seeing them and interacting with them on a screen. Also, we may not agree on things. We may argue politics and culture and history. But we all understand that what actually makes America great is sustained political dialogue across beliefs and backgrounds – something we learned here at Wofford College. My weekend with these people was a gift.

And that brings me to my final comments on being present. When I was a Wofford College I received a scholarship and if I had not had that scholarship there is no way I would have ever been able to attend this extraordinary institution. In my current position as a professor, I have gotten to know some of the people who donate to my college and university, the people who give money so kids like me and kids not at all like me, can go to school. People who give money to build extraordinary new buildings that change the face of education. People who give time and energy to the institution that they love.

I’ve also been privileged enough to give money to projects and institutions myself. My husband and I have supported the ASAO Pacific Islands Scholars Fund, City Harvest, the Red Cross, Sea Sheppard, the Ronald MacDonald House, the Audre Lorde Project, the Maimafu Village Community School Fund, the Solwara Skul, and the Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research. We are not rich, nowhere near it actually. But we feel that part of being present in this world is giving back to it in the ways that we can.

Those last two organizations that I mentioned, the Solwara Skul and the Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research are organizations that I cofounded in Papua New Guinea with colleagues from Papua New Guinea. I saw something that was needed and I did something about it. I was present in my ability to make positive change. And aware of my privilege as very well educated and well connected professor at a prestigious university. And I mobilized that to try and do good in the world. Be present in your ability to give in whatever way you can – service, volunteering, donations – be present if your ability to help others.

And back to privilege for a second. You leave here with a diploma. Something that you have worked hard for, and that you have earned. And throughout your life you will work hard and earn so many things that will accord you privilege. But you will also be accorded or denied privilege by others based on immutable characteristics. Over the past 25 years I have come to understand that as a straight, white, cisgender, skinny, hearing, neurotypical, conventionally able-bodied person, I am sometimes accorded things that others are not. I have tried to be present in my ability to see and understand the privileges I have and to fight for a world of equality and justice for everyone.

In closing, I want you to remember this: Every social interaction we have leaves a trace on and in us. It becomes part of who we are. Each and every one of us is a living assemblage of every embrace, every conversation, every argument, every meal shared, every laugh had. Every interaction with a person, a place, an animal, or any being. And each of us leaves a trace on others. Keep this in your mind – we make and remake the social world with our every interaction. Try to be present in the fact that although no minute will ever come again, never in all the world, that perhaps that minute becomes us and we are a living memorial to it.

And finally, be present in how strong you are and in the immortal words of Prince, “And if the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy. Punch a higher floor”.

About paigewest

Paige West, the Tow Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, joined the faculty in 2001, the year after earning her Ph.D. in cultural and environmental anthropology. Dr. West’s general research interest is the relationship between society and the environment. More specifically, she has written about the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, the aesthetics and poetics of human social relations with nature, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia, Germany, England, and the United States.
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