Student Stories

2016's Student Convocation Speeches

On June 11th, 2016, over a thousand UChicago College students graduated as part of the University's 527th Convocation. Three of their classmates—Hannah Gitlin, Kris Pittard, and Konje Machini—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. 

Hannah Gitlin | Fundamentals: Issues & Texts major

Graduation makes the short list of Big Life Moments. At this time of year, the “Graduation” section at the Hallmark Store is at least as big as the “New Baby” section. It’s funny how Hallmark has a monopoly on memories.

There is no Hallmark sentiment that adequately sums up our time here. There’s no “Sorry it was so cold at Summer Breeze” card. There’s no “What HUM are you in?” card for first years to send one another flirtatiously. There’s no card that says “Roses are red / violets are blue / I think it’s seventh week, but it could be eighth week too.” Nor should there be. Those would be terrible cards.

50 years from now, when you find a box of graduation cards in your basement, you’ll know that “congrats, you did it” doesn’t tell the whole story of what you did here, but I’ll give Hallmark a break on that one—it’s hard to think of anything that could. Graduation happens neatly within the confines of this ceremony, but college happens messily, in vaguely remembered bits and pieces that resist orderly clichés.

The particulars of this ceremony may just go the way of blurrily remembered Scav items, frantically completed SOSC papers, and all the math that we humanities majors learned in high school. But, you know, that’s okay, because I know at least one thing we’ll all remember about today.

The stupid hat.

Why on EARTH is it so poorly engineered? Maybe now that we have an engineering school, we can figure out on a molecular level why these plastic death traps won’t stay on our heads without bobby pins, superglue, and wishing really hard.

But maybe that’s wishful thinking—maybe graduation cap technology has progressed as far as it ever will. But maybe someday when we’re scanning the impossibly immense databases inside of our heads, we will be struck by the remembered feeling of plasticky satin against skin and say to ourselves, “Ah yes, that was what graduation was like.” Yes, these hats are weird and uncomfortable, but memory isn’t always easy or comfortable either.

We have milestones like graduation, and symbols like the cap and gown, to help give structure to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. But the stories that make it onto our college curriculum—it’s not because they have a structure, but because they in some way change a structure. Aren’t your most memorable college stories not the ones that fit neatly onto a Hallmark card, but rather the ones where you felt something inside yourself change in some small, but important way? It’s easy to remember Cobb Hall as a pretty building, but its ivy-covered walls are far less important than all the tiny ways you’ve changed inside those walls.

Imagine that you hold in your hands an envelope. You rip it open and take out the card that dwells inside. The front is blank, so you flip it over. But the back is blank, too. You open it up. Blank.

Consider graduation a blank Hallmark card.

50 years from now, what you’ll have is what you write in it. 


Q: What inspired you to pursue the intense selection process to become a student Commencement speaker?

A: Mostly, I thought writing the speech would be fun. Also, I figured I wouldn't be selected, but knew that if I didn't try, I'd be mad at myself. Plus, I thought that if I maybe fell down and injured myself or if a bird landed on me or something, I could go viral. That's always a plus. 

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 was more than a little surprised. There are a lot of really cool people in the Class of 2016. And now they all have to listen to me talk for a couple minutes! I texted a bunch of my friends like "LOL GUESS WHAT". It's wild. 

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing your Commencement speech?

A: The hardest part was the fact that a convocation speech is supposed to resonate witheveryone in the audience. I know, like, hardly any of the people in the audience, statistically speaking. I don't know what stuff they like, I don't know what they'll find funny, I don't know if they'll even be listening or if they'll be scrolling through Yik Yak or something. So I think the speech I ended up writing was largely a reflection of the difficulty / impossibility of writing something that resonates with everyone.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your speech, in 140 characters or fewer? 

A: The takeaway from my speech is to decide for yourself what you want the takeaway from my speech to be. 

Q: What UChicago class, professor, or experience will you remember most fondly post-graduation? 

A: It's literally impossible to narrow it down. Mock Trial has been a really huge part of my college career, and getting to travel a lot and hang out with my friends while doing so has been a huge blessing. Academically, getting to work with amazing professors like Malynne Sternstein, who let me do the weird major of my dreams, has been life-changing. Q: Now that you're graduating from the College, what do you wish you had known when you first arrived at UChicago? A: After doing the whole "highly selective college" thing, we're so used to the process of applying to stuff, and of waiting for the subsequent validation. So I got to college, and immediately tried out for a bunch of theater-y performance-y RSOs, and I was really hoping for the validation of being selected, and it didn't immediately happen. I let myself get really discouraged, and I was like "all right, well, I guess I'm not good at this thing." That was really stupid of me! If you're passionate about something, you don't need the validation of that thing's "designated RSO" in order to pursue it. You don't have to wait for people to hand you opportunities -- it's okay to just go do stuff. Do the stuff you like to do! Be the kind of person you want to be! You're allowed to!

Kris Pittard | Physics and Public Policy double major

President Zimmer, Dean Boyer, honored faculty, friends and family, and fellow members of the Class of 2016, for what has to be about the millionth time, I’d like to congratulate us all. Regardless of where you came from, or where you’re going, graduating from the University of Chicago – graduating from college at all, is an incredibly impressive accomplishment – so congratulations to us, today’s Class of 2016.

And we really are today’s Class of 2016. We’re not the same group that came in four years ago, and we’re not even the same class as one quarter ago. Some of us have been here for three years - #overachievers - and some of us have been here for five or maybe more. Some people transferred, some went on leave.

And two people who should be here this afternoon passed away.

So if we can’t even say that we all spent the same four years here, what can we say that we have in common? There is no such thing as the UChicago experience – what was quintessential for someone could be peripheral for someone else. My UChicago experience was defined by Booth and Wendt Houses and by basically being a band dork – other people will look back on their time here and see it dominated by sports, economics, RSO’s, or truly embracing the city of Chicago. Or just living in the Reg.

So what on earth do we all have in common? I think there are three things: we all came here, everyone did the real life equivalent of the Facebook “wow” emoji the first time we saw Dean Boyer’s moustache, and none of us ever opened our copies of Doing Honest Work in College. But I’d like to talk about that first one.

Even though all of us chose to come here for different reasons, we were all here; we have all lived UChicago with each other. When I look out at this crowd, I see people who have done incredible things, whether they wrote brilliant essays, made a real life patronus for Scav, or just got eight hours of sleep per night. I know that there are even more of us who I never had the pleasure to meet. I think it’s important for us to remember that we are all that incredible person to someone else at this school – that by virtue of being here today we’ve all done incredible things, no matter how visible they were on campus, or how many likes they got us on Facebook.

But as we celebrate today, we also look at the future – I think all of us with some mix of excitement, nervousness, and wondering if people in the real world will give us strange looks when we mention Marx. But after years of living the “Life of the Mind”, how do we carry that life forward into the real world and give it meaning? How do we transition from decades of preparing to make a difference, to actually beginning to make that difference? As Uncle Ben pointed out two Spiderman reboots ago, with great power comes great responsibility. And I think the duty that falls to every single one of us is to figure out how to take what we have learned and use it to help make the world a better place.

The way that each and every one of us does that will be different. It may be someone figuring out a way to solve world hunger. It might also be helping someone struggling with their identity. It could even be teaching in a classroom of fourth-graders or fourth-year college students. Those two groups are probably a lot more similar than we’d care to admit. And yes, finding our way to do good in this world will be hard. But so was everything we did here. And after years of seeing the people sitting in front of me make the impossible into the routine? I don’t just think we can do it – I know we can.

Thank you.


Q: What inspired you to pursue the intense selection process to become a student Commencement speaker?A: My time as an RA the last two years really opened my eyes to the sheer diversity of UChicago experiences, and I wanted to talk about the fact that there's not just one stereotypical UChicago experience - there are as many as there are students here. Additionally, I used to do speech in high school, and one of the events I did was called Oratorical Declamation - basically where you would give a speech that someone else gave. 99% of the time they would wind up being speeches by famous people at college graduations, so I had probably listened to hundreds of graduation speeches by the time I left high school! So, those two things combined made me think that speaking at commencement might be a good idea!

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 actually found out moments after a pretty devastating inner-tube water polo loss, so I don't think it sunk in until later - and then I was very happy!

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing your Commencement speech?A: Probably the hardest part was keeping it to three minutes. I think my original draft was a little over six minutes. It was very helpful though, as it made me cut through everything to get to the essence of what I wanted to say. Plus, it made me take out a lot of jokes that I thought were hilarious, but no one else did!

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your speech, in 140 characters or fewer? A: There is no definitive UChicago experience - everyone has had an incredibly unique time here. Each person's experiences are significant! 

Alternatively, *happy face emoji* *graduation hat emoji* *people emoji* *star emoji* *star emoji* *people emoji* *book emoji* *world emoji* *happy emoji* *old man emoji* *spiderman emoji* *graduation hat emoji*

Q: What UChicago class, professor, or experience will you remember most fondly post-graduation? A: Being an RA for Booth House has far and away been my favorite experience in college. I originally came to UChicago because of the House system, and I think one of the best things here is when a house actually starts to feel like a home. I think my proudest achievement in college has been helping to make Booth House into Booth Home, and I couldn't have done that without the incredible residents that I had the past few years! I also wouldn't feel right if I didn't give a shoutout to Professor Ian Desai, who taught me all year in Readings in World Literature, which was definitely my favorite college class!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 known just how many doors are open to you in college. If there's a thing you want to do, whether it's more academically oriented, just for fun, or whatever, it's so easy to do that here. There are entire offices here dedicated to helping you figure out how to do whatever you want! I think I only figured that out my third year, and I tried to take advantage of that, especially during my senior spring!

Konje Machini | Anthropology, Pre-Med major

There’s a cat that lives in the alley behind my apartment. It’s a fat cat. I’ve taken to calling him Bernie—Madoff, not Sanders. Needless to say, this is not the type of cat you want to take home to your parents. But even with all his flaws, Bernie has become a familiar face, something expected. I wouldn’t pet him, but I don’t mind when he eats my trash. And I’d be sad to see him go. To borrow an idea from a friend, Bernie is a part of my community.

Community’s a weird thing in college. From the moment O-week started, we all got real busy doing the work of finding it. By the end of O-week, you’re golden. You’ve got it! Rest assured, by fifth week it could look very different. Now, fast forward to second or third year. Maybe you’re leaving the dorms for an apartment. You’re excited to ‘live on your own’ but you’re afraid that you’ll have to start over again. You’ll miss your housemates. Even the weird one who ate grilled chicken breasts for every meal at Bartlett—they too were a part of your community! Eventually you start to fill out the old contours and maybe some new ones. Community is always something you’re working at. It’s never a finished project.

Community morphs, shrinks, and grows. It is built, and it is shattered. In triumph and achievement, we celebrate the community. In tragedy and loss, the community mourns—something we’ve had to do too often this past year. While you may not be connected directly to these moments, it’s community that amplifies our joy, and it’s community that supports us in our grief. Within these moments we can see the fruits of our labor in creating community.

If all goes according to plan, in a few short moments we’ll get our diplomas. So then what? What community do we belong to now? I think this question is familiar to most graduates or most anyone in a time of transition. I myself am a bit terrified at the idea of having to start all over again. New city, new job, no friends—O-week with none of the free swag.

What I’ve been trying to point to is the way in which community always remains to be defined. The process of creating it is the work of defining it, and we’ve had four years of not just theory, but of actually practicing what community means. In a sense, leaving this school, we aren’t really starting from nothing. We get to leave here and continue redefining and expanding our community, so that it can be so inclusive as to have room for strange alley cats. We all get to and have to do this work. You probably came to college hoping to find a community. Maybe at this point, you’ve had some practice building one.

Congratulations Class of 2016! We’ve finally made it! And that’s really something to celebrate, no small feat. Here we are, done, mostly. Before we go our separate ways and because we clearly haven’t had enough homework already, I wanted to leave us all with one last assignment, the quintessential SOSC essay prompt: define community. 


Q: What inspired you to pursue the intense selection process to become a student Commencement speaker?A: Being part of the selection process for becoming a speaker was not really on my radar until I received the nomination. From there I thought it'd be a fun exercise to try to come up with a speech condensing college into 3 minutes, certainly not expecting to get 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: Throughout the selection process, I limited my expectations and was very pleasantly surprised. It was gratifying to know that I could contribute something to convocation and the college. 

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing your Commencement speech?A: We are encouraged to come up with some key takeaway. So that's where I started. It was really hard to not sound too abstract and to ground what I wanted the takeaway to be in our experiences in the college. 

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your speech, in 140 characters or fewer? A: Community is not a given. We create it and we can always do a better job of creating it, and that's exactly what we have to do after graduation.

Q: What UChicago class, professor, or experience will you remember most fondly post-graduation? A: A fond, very UChicago, experience I'll remember after graduation, is dressing up with a friend for my last general chemistry final in first year. I don't remember how I did on the test, but I do remember the fact that for most of the day, because we were wearing all black, people would come up ask if we were going to a funeral--to which we responded, "Yes, the death of chemistry." 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 known that things turn out okay, and it's very okay to ask for lots of help.