2015's Student Convocation Speeches

Natalya Samee, Andrew Kim, and Miranda Cherkas share their wisdom.
Photograph of Andrew Kim speaking at the 523rd Convocation.
Photo by: 
Andrew Nelles

On June 13th, 2015, over a thousand UChicago College students graduated as part of the University's 523rd Convocation. Three of their classmates—Natalya Samee, Andrew Kim, and Miranda Cherkas—were selected to give speeches as part of the Diploma Ceremony, sharing memories and advice regarding the journey through college and beyond. The full text of all three speeches is below, followed by each speaker's reflections on the process of preparing their address. All photos by Andrew Nelles.


Natalya Samee | Public Policy major Photograph of Natalya Samee speaking at the 523rd Convocation.

Seven days in a week, eleven weeks in a quarter, three quarters in a year, four years in a UChicago career. Assuming that all holds true, that’s nine hundred and twenty four episodes.

President Zimmer, Dean Boyer, honored faculty, friends and family, and fellow members of the Class of 2015, I like to think about college the way I think about TV shows. Whether you graduate today or did years ago, you have your series premiere – Orientation, a chain of seasons where plots thicken and characters develop. And then, the series finale. Here we are.

Like a TV show, your college life had a series of familiar sets: the places where you ate, slept, read, ran scared. Like a TV show, your college character had an aesthetic: a way of dressing, of being. Like a TV show, your college life had storylines that twisted and turned as time went on.

And what makes or breaks a show? The characters. I stand here today in front of a sea of protagonists.

Let’s look back. The montage makes itself. Think about your best friend. Flash back to the episode when you first met them. Did you have any idea what role they would come to play? In the first season, these people were merely your dorm neighbors, teammates, cast mates, sorority or fraternity sisters and brothers. When we leave this place, they’ll turn into your business partners, emergency contacts, husbands, wives, addiction sponsors. They’ll come talk you down from cold feet the day of your wedding. They’ll sit by your hospital bed and do the crossword with you. They’ll hold you up in your failures and rejoice in your successes. They’ll be so much more than the person you did problem sets with.

As a season stretches on, character arcs evolve. Some people get written off, some get written in. Some main characters blend into the background; guest stars become series regulars. Either way, these people all combine to form part of your backstory. Part of you.

Think about the person you were when you came in and the person you are now. At the very least, your hair is different. Probably better. For some of you, much worse. Go back to the episode when someone challenged your worldview for the first time. The way your jaw dropped before we cut to a commercial break. You’ve evolved, from the kind of coffee you drink to the president you want. This time was the crux of your character’s development. Just as a series determines the spin-off, these four years have set the tone of who you will be for the next forty.

This might be the only time where you, as the writer, have creative control over the show. Sure, you’ll write new narratives, but nothing will be as authentically yours as these last four years. Outside this world, few will know you the way the people around you right now know you—stupidly young, with a terrifying amount of possibility before you. So just make sure that after the show wraps up, you don’t forget to have your 924th episode reunion with the rest of the cast, because they made you the character you are today.

 

Q: What inspired you to pursue the intense selection process to become a student Commencement speaker?
A: Moving so much growing up had me used to categorizing, organizing, and analyzing time based on the places I had lived. Coming to college is no different from moving to a new country, in that you deal with new people, customs, cultures, and expectations. So I did the same thing in my speech that I did with moving countries: I found a very specific lens through which to reflect on the last four years, and speaking at commencement felt like the best way to share it.

Q: How did you react when you found out you had been selected from a highly competitive pool to give a speech at Commencement?
A: I got an email from DJB with an “attached PDF”—I figured it was the modern equivalent of the “big envelope.” I was relieved, thrilled, and nauseous (in that order).

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing your Commencement speech?
A: Writing something that is broadly relatable and also deeply resonant—not just with graduating students, but families and faculty, too. The majority of the audience at graduation is made up of non-students. I also did an “eye-roll” test for every sentence of my speech: “If someone said this to me, would I roll my eyes?” is how that works.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your speech, in 140 characters or fewer?
A: Nostalgia, nostalgia! Care about your friends, but also your enemies! Everyone was important! You're at the crux of who you will be!

Q: What UChicago class, professor, or experience will you remember most fondly post-graduation?
A: Once, my favorite professor, Ross Stolzenberg, was writing on the board. A student asked him a question about the midterm. Something like, “Can my paper be about—” and Stolzenberg paused. He put the chalk down, turned around, wiped his brow, and said, “You’re worried I’m not gonna like it. That’s the rest of your life.” That hit me hard; I’ve worried less since. I have a list of quotes from his classes that I frequently revisit. Stolzenberg was integral to shaping my worldview.

Q: Now that you're graduating from the College, what do you wish you had known when you first arrived at UChicago?
A: I wish I had realized sooner that college is a sanitized environment: not knowing is okay, asking questions is good, and making mistakes is important.


Andrew Kim | Economics major Photograph of Andrew Kim speaking at the 523rd Convocation.

I’m one of the least eloquent people in the entire student body. That’s why I’m an Economics major. But I’m not here to talk about how cool Sanderson is or when the next financial crisis will occur. I’m speaking here today because I have a secret to tell.

I’m actually a time traveler, and I just came back from year 2030 to bring you grave news of what has become of UChicago.

There are only three dorms now, North Campus, South Campus, and Max P. Max P has been repainted neon green due to student body complaints of its previous color.

Due to the Pub Night scandal of 2025, all Pub Night trivia is now multiple choice. Everybody now has at least a 25% chance of stroking their ego with every question.

The Unlimited Meal Plan is required for all four years. Insects are now listed as a common ingredient in dining hall meals so that students should no longer be surprised to find them.

Due to inflation, $1 Shake Day has now become $1.99 Shake Day.

The Reg has officially been renamed the Dean Boyer Renee Granville-Grossman Arley D. Cathy Library of Advanced Theoretically Practical Studies. Everyone still calls it the Reg.

The Summer Breeze Line-up of 2030 consists of the newly reinvented country dubstep artist Tay Swift. North West, who combines the musical talents of her mother Kim Kardashian and the fashion style of her father Kanye West. And a past his prime Jaden Smith. I know. It’s terrifying. There’s actually going to be an in-prime Jaden Smith.

Now I know what you’re thinking, how can we prevent this tragic future from occurring? How can we keep our beloved school from going down this dark path?

It’s simple. By cherishing our traditions beyond this campus.

UChicago’s traditions don’t come from its Hogwarts-like buildings, frat parties, and endless midterms and finals.

They come from us, the students.

We’re the quirky ones who made Scav the world’s best scavenger hunt.

We’re the adventurers who braved the perils of the 171 and 172 buses to class.

We’re the scholars who somehow connected Karl Marx and Kendrick Lamar in our SOSC papers.

For four years we were given the tools to become UChicago students, and wearing caps and gowns doesn’t stop that process.

Wherever the next stop on our adventure may be, graduate school, some fancy bank, or your parents’ basement. Never forget what it was like to struggle and to inquire, to be the odd ball, to share our passions with others.

For these are the traditions that we pass on to whomever we meet. The co-workers we talk to at the office. The cashier who sees our UChicago sweater and asks, “Do you go to UIC?” Our kids who dress up as the Reg for Halloween, the scariest library in the world. 

Dorms will close, professors will change, winters will…stay as cold as ever, but the bonds and conversations we shared with our peers here will never disappear no matter where we are.

We’re not here to relive the past. We’re not here to fear for our future. No, we’re here today to celebrate our passage from one small neighborhood to neighborhoods across the world.

No matter what happens on this campus, I’m sure the class of 2030 will be just as awesome as any other class...except for us.

 

Q: What inspired you to pursue the intense selection process to become a student Commencement speaker?
A: I really didn't know what I was getting into. My apartment mate mentioned something about student Commencement speakers and I asked on a whim when the deadline was. I like to talk and make a fool out of myself, so what better place to do it than in front of tons of people on Commencement?

Q: How did you react when you found out you had been selected from a highly competitive pool to give a speech at Commencement?
A: Shocked. I didn't really think of myself as the type of person who could actually speak at Commencement. I expected those places to be reserved for the "upper tier" UChicago students, the academic geniuses and RSO leaders. It gave me hope that maybe my message will connect to at least some of the student body.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing your Commencement speech?
A: Trying to not write a boring speech. There's nothing worse than a flat speech, one that doesn't resonate with the audience and even more importantly, yourself. Early on I found myself throwing in all of the cliches you find in movie speeches in order to find some sort of general appeal. Then I thought, "Screw it, let's just go off the deep end," and somehow ended up with my vision of what this school means to me.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your speech, in 140 characters or fewer?
A: It'll be fine, life goes on.

Q: What UChicago class, professor, or experience will you remember most fondly post-graduation?
A: Study abroad in Istanbul. I was in a whole different world with a bunch of students I didn't know and zero command of the local language. Even though I stood out as the "foreign tourist," the locals were gracious in their hospitality and assertive in their political and social discourse. The slower pace of life there showed me how much we stressed ourselves out in bustling from place to place, trying to get things done asap. Sometimes we should take our mind off work, sit down with some friends, drink some tea, and enjoy the time we have together.

Q: Now that you're graduating from the College, what do you wish you had known when you first arrived at UChicago?
A: You're going to bang your head against your desk. You're going to bang your head against the wall. You're going to think that you've failed and that you suck compared to your peers. Don't worry about it. That frustration is an integral part of college and growing up. Everyone's four years here are unique to themselves. Everyone succeeds in some aspects. Everyone fails in even more aspects. Don't focus on the grades and numbers, but instead cherish the connections you make with your peers. A good friendship is worth a lot more than being the number one student.


Miranda Cherkas | Political Science majorPhotograph of Miranda Cherkas speaking at the 523rd Convocation.

I’m a first generation college student. As a Quest Scholar, I have a full scholarship. That means that college wasn’t always a given for me. I remember when I was 11 years old, I came home from school and told my dad how excited I was to one day attend college, hopefully one where I could cheer on a Division 1 football team. I just assumed that my parents had been saving for me in a college fund, like all my friends’ parents had done. However, my dad became very quiet (very unlike my father) and said, “Miranda, I would love if you went to college, but if you are going to go to college, you will have to get there yourself. Your mom and I can’t help you. No matter what, as long as you do your best, we will be proud of you.” It was that day, when I was 11 years old in 6th grade that I decided that one day I would earn a full scholarship to one of the world’s best universities. I am honored now to be giving a graduation speech at the University of Chicago.

Be proud of yourselves, Class of 2015! Be proud of every final you ever aced, and every class you mastered. Be proud of every interview you ever rocked and every internship you ever earned. Mostly, be proud of this day, Class of 2015. Today, we are graduates; tomorrow, we are alumni. We’re here—we did it!

But most importantly, be proud of the times when you didn’t do your homework. Be proud of when you put off your paper or your problem set so that you could help a friend in need.

Be proud of when you forgave yourself for a bad grade and gave yourself a break, whether it was a walk around the Reg or a dollar shake.

Be proud of every Scav you ever scavved, every cultural show you ever performed in, and every time you realized the importance of sisterhood and brotherhood.

Be proud of when you went to student counseling because you decided that you didn’t have to do it all on your own anymore.

Be proud of when you took the time to tutor neighborhood children or to call your parents.

Be proud of the beliefs you still hold after 4 years here, but also of the beliefs that you were humble enough to let go.

When I came to this school 4 years ago, like many of you, I felt like I walked naively into Hogwarts. But for me, it was never about witches or wizards. I felt like I walked into a school of geniuses. Let me tell you, every day with you has been a constant, humbling experience. There have been times where I didn’t know if I was as good as everyone else.

But what I’ve learned, is that it’s not about being the best—it’s about being my best. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be proud of yourself when you do get the job or win the award—no, you absolutely should be proud then! But also at the end of the day, you will be proud of yourself not because of how much money you make or how many A’s are on your transcript, but because you can say that you gave it your all in everything you did.

If what my dad said is right, then it was never about outdoing everyone else, but about becoming better than yesterday’s version of yourself. Your experiences, passions, and talents are perfect for something, and my hope for you is that you find that something. I know that you will. Congratulations, Class of 2015.

 

Q: What inspired you to pursue the intense selection process to become a student Commencement speaker?
A: I was so grateful when I was chosen to go through the process because I felt my message was worth sharing. For the past few years, I have heard my friends really throw shade on themselves because they didn't feel like they were good enough. My speech is all about not comparing yourself to others and feeling satisfied with your best work.

Q: How did you react when you found out you had been selected from a highly competitive pool to give a speech at Commencement?
A: Excited! And nervous, but mostly excited. I just wanted to be humble, do a good job for my friends and family, and not trip when I walked to and from the podium. I also worried a little bit about whether I would be tall enough to reach the microphone...

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing your Commencement speech?
A: In my speech I share a personal story about applying to college as a student from a low-income background. It has been challenging to find the right balance between being proud of my story without also sounding like I'm bragging or fishing for sympathy.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your speech, in 140 characters or fewer?
A: Be proud of your good grades from college, but also be proud of how you shaped your priorities, built your character, and did your best even if you failed.

Q: What UChicago class, professor, or experience will you remember most fondly post-graduation?
A: Oh man, that's hard. I will look back fondly on participating in Scav. I was in Breckinridge House, so we took Scav very seriously. I loved creating or finding ridiculously cool things for no other reason but for their own sake and feeling unified with my "one house, one team." My first year, I went on the Scav Road Trip through Iowa dressed in overalls and deer antlersthat will be a funny story to tell!

Q: Now that you're graduating from the College, what do you wish you had known when you first arrived at UChicago?
A: When I first arrived at UChicago nearly four years ago, I wish I would have known that it was my responsibility to be kind and agreeable with even those who disagreed with me (and that there would be a lot of those!). I wish I would have known that the University intends to tear us down before letting us build ourselves back up better than we were before.

Tagged: Convocation, student speakers, graduation, commencement