‘I once thought Maryland was below me’

Jamie Lee
Jamie Lee

The University of Maryland’s English Department held its commencement ceremonies on Monday and student Jamie Lee gave the following unusually honest speech in which she concedes that she once thought going to College Park was beneath her and that studying English was a self-indulgent exercise. Here’s her speech:

I’ve had a lot of defining moments in college. I got my first part-time job, and my first rejection letter. I was assigned my first roommate, and found my best friend. I turned 19, then 20, and then 21, and I became amazed at how much can change in twelve months. I also found my soul mate…and then found out he’s gay.

 

But none of these are even close to the moment I became satisfied with my choice of study.

 

I resisted declaring English as my major for two years. My whole life I’ve been plagued with this sense of what I should do, based on this perceived idea of correctness. I don’t know where I get this trait from, but it’s why I came in as a freshman journalism major.

 

Study English, my mother told me. I told her I wanted more than a cardboard box after I graduate and decided journalism was a compromise—I’d still write, I reasoned, while pursuing an actual career.

 

My reasoning skills have never been great.

 

Journalism and I do not really get along. I got a C in journalism 100—my first and only C—and didn’t get the point. I stuck with it and kept reasoning with myself. I reasoned with myself for two years before admitting I was miserable. I did not like hounding people for “the scoop,” or leaving out the Oxford comma. I also did not like being restrained by facts—you cannot create in journalism. They call it “fabrication.”

 

I walked into English advising my sophomore year and discussed the requirements. “Does this interest you?” the advisor asked. And I said yes so quickly she asked me to repeat myself.

 

I took my first class under the major. I admired my professor, Dr. Macri, so much for showing that feminism isn’t only about unshaved legs and burned bras, but about splitting a check after a date and not being considered ungrateful. About so much more that was relevant and compelling and challenging. I wish I could say this was my turning point—when I stopped being neurotic and obsessed with the “right” path—but it wasn’t.

 

In hindsight, it’s ridiculous that I felt my choice of major somehow reflected my value, just as how my decision to come to a state university affected how I felt in comparison to my friends at private schools. I am ashamed to admit I once thought Maryland was below me, and I am ashamed to admit I thought English was a selfish, indulgent choice of study, as though I was less noble or helpful than my friends in engineering or biology. “I want to save people,” they told me, noses upturned. “And you want to read literature in an ivory tower.”

 

Okay, they didn’t actually say that, but I felt it insinuated every time I spoke with them. My contentedness evaporated. I wished desperately that I had a different skill set, and I wished to be a dentist or an eye doctor or something, anything. What was I going to do with English?

 

So I panicked. I took a biology course—I have a good memory, I reasoned—and left the worm dissection to gag in the bathroom. I took a logical reasoning course as part of the pre-law track and nearly failed it—which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how I reasoned out other areas of my college career.

 

During this whole process my parents were admirably nonchalant. You’ll be fine, they told me—just be happy. They were so removed from it that my dad might think I’m a communication major—so hey dad, surprise, you’re at the English commencement ceremony.

 

It wasn’t until 2 a.m. on a Tuesday that I had an epiphany. I was studying a family tree for my Arthurian Legends course and was struck by how useless this might appear. But I was enjoying myself—really getting a kick out of Lancelot and Guinevere, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Laughing, even, though I looked manic to everyone around me in the library.

 

In that moment, it became clear that this was no longer about reading literature exclusively, but about researching and piecing together an argument. It was about thinking critically and writing a convincing essay, about communicating. I realized that I was working just as hard as my friends in more technical fields of study. I was learning and building my skills just as they were.

 

A lot has happened since that night. I joined the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House. I became the editor-in-chief of The Paper Shell Review, a journal of critical essays, and Stylus, the campus literary magazine. These experiences all brought their own unique education—in Writers’ House, I made incredible friends, all who were distinctly different from me. And through the publications, I became intimately familiar with concepts like “bureaucracy,” for example, and though I’ve never been a numbers person I found myself drafting budgets and writing grant proposals, all of which were successful. What better real-world experience is that? I have never been in an ivory tower. These opportunities were facilitated by dedicated faculty who pushed their students to apply, by instructors who encouraged their classes to get out there and engage in the community.

 

And with each new position, I became increasingly more indebted to so many people on this campus, who were generous with their time and care.

 

I have spent the past few years around peers who, in this age of Internet anonymity, are unafraid to voice their opinions in class. Peers whose ideas explode off the page, who aren’t just idle bloggers or tweeters, but intriguing writers, authors. Peers who are not in college to trample on their fellows in the rush to find a lucrative job, but who are in college to learn, to engage, to question. I’ve found myself inspired by stellar faculty and staff, yes, but also these peers. In my other classes, I found an intriguing mix of cutthroat fellows and disengaged students, but in English it has been delightfully consistent, as my classes have contained a mix of debate and discussion, instruction and passion.

 

I hear tour guides proclaim that this was their top-choice school and it lived up to every expectation. I’m glad for them, but I think my story, which is a story shared by others, is more telling. We came here begrudgingly and found a community that was impossible not to love. I am leaving with only fondness for this university and for this incredible department.

 

I will never be an engineer or a doctor, but I have learned to research and think independently, and these are all skills I will take with me to my job. Yes, my mother was right (as always): I have a career awaiting me after graduation. Plus, I have fun facts about Lancelot to whip out at dinner parties.

 

So to all of you who heard my ideas and argued with me and challenged me—thank you. And to all of my instructors, who have taken their role as an educator seriously—thank you.

 

In sum, we have achieved something slightly less reliable, but no less remarkable, than our comrades in biology and computer science. We have been daring.

 

We will continue to experience defining moments long after this commencement ceremony—more acceptance letters, more rejections. More friends, maybe even more soul mates, though hopefully yours will love you back.

 

I have found happiness in what I do. I have found a university that I’ve loved more than I ever thought possible. I have found mentors and friends.

 

I offer you this one bit of advice: do not be restricted by the should-haves of this world. Do not always follow reason, because there’s a good chance your reasoning is flawed, and you will only see those flaws in hindsight. I have finally, at long last, abandoned my neurotic obsession with what I should do.

 

Which is great, because we should go forth and feel inspired by insipid platitudes—but we won’t. So instead, I sincerely wish each and every one of you the best of luck and offer my gratitude and appreciation to everyone who helped us get here.

 

Note: Jamie Lee originally gave me the speech that she prepared for delivery and that is what the first version of this post included. This is the speech she gave. The differences are minor.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 20, 2013