Thank you, Dean Boyer, for such a generous introduction. It’s so wonderful to look out and see you all here.
Welcome to the University of Chicago! I want to start by first saying Congratulations! This has no doubt been a challenging year and a half with what feels like a pile up of crises as they related to the COVID-19 global pandemic, civil unrest in the struggle against racial injustice, devastating wild-fires and hurricanes brought on by climate change, the insurrection, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years after 9/11, heightened awareness of mental health struggles around the world, and so much more. The fact that you have not only survived but thrived after an incredibly challenging year of high school or work is a testament that you are the most resilient class ever.
I cannot tell you how excited and thrilled my colleagues, and I are to welcome all of you to campus after this long stretch of physical distancing and remote learning. As a small campus, the magic of this place comes from the intellectual fire power that is only possible when we are gathered in person. The energy, curiosity, and diverse perspectives that you contribute bring this place to life. I must say that convening in formal attire for this address in Rockefeller chapel feels especially meaningful this year. Because, over the past 18 months I have almost grown accustomed to seeing many students attend classes in their pajamas. It feels great to look out at a beautiful crowd of people dressed to the nines. You all look stunning, and I feel so energized by your presence already.
It is an honor for me to be delivering this year’s Aims of Education address. There is something quite unique about addressing you at the start of your college career here, rather than the end. This is the beginning of what I hope will be the first of many stimulating interactions that will take you on an incredible journey.
This address is supposed to be about the aims of education. As a sociologist, I hesitate to offer a definitive general answer, as all perspectives are informed by history and past experience. Thus, my answer is informed by my unique background as a first-generation college student from a working-class family and the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who fled a war-torn country at the end of a long war in the late 1970s. When I look back, I still remember my first day stepping foot on a college campus. I was filled with so much excitement, hope, and optimism. I was also nervous, I had no idea what to expect from my roommates, my professors, and all of the people in my new social world. But, I was in a new environment where suddenly anything felt possible. I look back on my time in college as a time filled with all sorts of new discoveries.
In this address, I warmly and humbly invite you to conceive of your time at the University of Chicago as a time to engage in three forms of discovery: self, social, and scientific.
Let me start with self-discovery, which is arguably one of the most selfish and yet important things you can do. This is a time when you get to strip away parts of who you were raised to be by your parents, extended family members, community members and really ask yourself who do YOU want to be. What are YOUR passions? What are the world problems you hope to be part of solving? What matters to you? What keeps you up at night?
What are you called upon to do with your unique gifts in this world? With more than 4.5 million COVID related deaths worldwide, this pandemic has taught us that life is short and precious and if you only get one how do you want to live it? How do you want to spend your days?
Let me tell you a bit about how I answered those questions. I could never have imagined in a million years that I would become a professor at a small, private, elite university in the Midwest with arguably, no, the smartest group of students from around the world who push my thinking to new heights every year. But even before this, I could have never even imagined that I would complete a PhD.
My path of discovering academia as a potential career was not conventional. Let me explain. My parents never went to college, for years growing up they ran a billiard hall that catered to single men, both refugees and immigrants, who did not have families of their own. I saw the same men come in every weekend from morning until close—many of them came on weekdays and would spend most of their time shooting pool & often betting large sums of money with each other. When I was younger, I saw them through an individualistic moral lens: as lazy, unrespectable, and for the most part, useless.
It was not until I got to college that I began to understand these men’s stories through what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination. It was then that I began to understand that the personal troubles each individual man faced in that billiard were part of larger economic, social, and political contexts. Their private travails were public issues that reflected patterns of U.S. imperialism, the aftermath of a long and drawn-out war-- that parallels to the war in Afghanistan today--, a changing U.S. economy, immigration patterns, and gendered transformations
The home I grew up in was extremely patriarchal. As the oldest daughter, my place at the dinner table was right next to the rice cooker where I learned to serve my father, mother and all my siblings. And unlike many of my Asian American friends, as a young woman, I was strongly discouraged from pursuing higher education. In my social world at the time, women went to college to meet decent guys and get their M.R.S degrees. In that context, a bachelor’s degree was fine, but a doctorate degree was something I was discouraged from pursuing. There was so much noise around me. I was told not only by my parents, but by so many people in my home community that knowledge was power, and a PhD would make me too intimidating for any man to want to marry? What man would want to marry a woman who was smarter or better pedigreed than him? What was the point of getting a PhD if I would have to eventually give up my career to take care of my children later in life? Men and women alike both warned me that if I chose this career path, I would have to give up any dreams of having a family of my own one day. To be fair, my parents weren’t totally off base. This kind of messaging was all over the place,
In fact, true story, when I was an assistant professor, I was dating this guy who I was super smitten about. One night over an extremely nice dinner he dumped me and explained that he felt like I used words that were too big for him. Who knew “satiated” was a big word right?
I attended UC Santa Barbara, a beautiful school along the coast of California known for being a big party school—probably the opposite of what the University of Chicago is known for. Being in a university setting exposed me to a whole other world view. For the first time in my life, I got to learn about women doing cutting edge research across the STEM fields and in the social sciences. I discovered female professors like Tejal Desai who at that time won a Visionary Science Award and was also named one of the top 10 scientists in the nation. Dr. Desai now runs a lab dedicated to optimizing drug delivery. She was not the only one, Prof. Sangeeta Bhatia trained as a physician and bio medical engineer runs a lab dedicated to leveraging micro technologies to treat and diagnose cancer among many other diseases. She also happened to be a passionate advocate for diversity in science and engineering.
In the humanities and social sciences, I found myself getting lost in the works of feminist scholars engaged in cutting edge historical and social science research that examined gender and power through an intersectional, global lens. Theory—as my colleagues here at Chicago are obsessed with— comes from a Greek word meaning “to look” or “to see” and feminist theories articulated different ways of seeing or understanding women’s lives and the socially constructed dynamics of gender inequality. While much of this work has come under attack as “ideology and not science” the truth is so many women have pioneered data driven work across multiple fields. This is because they have brought new ways of seeing to data—not despite it.
I was most inspired by: anthropologists like Gayle Rubin and Susan Gal, biologists like Amanda Adeleye, historians like Amy Dru Stanley, legal scholars like Martha Nussbaum, political scientists like Cathy Cohen and Linda Zerilli, sociologists like Kristen Schilt, and the late Lauren Berlant, a leading feminist scholar whom we all miss so dearly. These women and nonbinary scholars produced rigorous, data-driven research to show how gendered relations have operated across time, organizational structure, culture, and political regimes. What blows my mind is that half of those people on this list are my colleagues and your professors. While at that time, I could only have dreamed of getting to meet any of these professors let alone take a class with them while I was a student. But, you all have that extraordinary privilege now right here on this campus.
This past Tuesday I got to welcome a group of graduate students to campus and it reminded me that you have them too! I spoke briefly with Kimberly Liu a fourth-year PhD Student in Applied Mathematics working at the intersection of computational neuroscience and machine learning. How cool is that?
I am still learning so much from them today on my own journey of self-discovery. Reading and engaging with their works opened my mind to seeing other possibilities beyond the deeply patriarchal worldview from my childhood. I will also say that they helped me imagine a life where I would not have to choose between my family and a career with an ambitious research agenda.
In fact, I am married to a brilliant social scientist and over this pandemic we had a baby girl whom we named Evelyn. She is quickly learning how to use her voice and make herself heard at all hours of the night! In fact, last night she was up at 2:00am babbling away. Who knew teething was so hard!
That was my unique journey of self-discovery that started in college, but I must say continues to evolve over my life course. I hope that during the time you spend here you will get to take a deep dive into a wide variety of data backed research which will not only shift your world views but inspire a new way of thinking, and a critical lens to take with you into whatever areas you ultimately pursue.
If there is one piece of advice that I wish I could give my college age self it would be that everyone’s journey is different and that everyone arrives on their own time. Life is not linear, and if it were there would be nothing to discover.
If you take this journey of self-discovery seriously, you will pave your own path that brings all of your unique interests together.
Let me now talk about social discovery.
As a sociologist who is interested in the study of people and our society, I cannot help but think about how one’s journey of discovery is relational. Let me explain what I mean by “relational”. When we think about intelligence, discovery, or innovation, we often think about the stereotypical person wandering the forest in deep thought contemplating the meaning of life, only to find discovery like being hit by a lightning bolt. From a sociological perspective, the world doesn’t quite work that way. For sociologists, intelligence, discovery and innovation is driven by the people we are around. The people with whom we interact—especially those whose views are different from our own.
At the University of Chicago, your journey of social discovery is bound to be relational. You will learn from the intimate and impassioned debates and conversations with classmates, especially in our core curriculum. And what riches you will find all around you to guide your discovery! One infamous phrase that has been used to characterize these kinds of relational experiences at UChicago is “where fun goes to die.” In preparation for this address, I met virtually with a group of incoming students and learned that some chose to attend UChicago precisely because of this reputation.
When I asked them what that meant, Eric an incoming student from San Diego, explained that he really enjoys the late nights with friends trying to solve math problem sets and the sense of social discovery that comes with doing that together.
To the outside world, UChicago undergraduate students have a reputation for being the opposite of Harvard students. Rather than joining a bunch of social networking clubs—Chicago students are supposedly awkward, super nerds, who take their academics so seriously that they are incapable of fun. This very identity is not only one that students take on but also that faculty take seriously. In fact, if I’m honest it is also what drew me to this place. I wanted to be around people who were willing to do everything it takes to produce the most cutting-edge rigorous research. I went down that path during my first 6 years here, on my pathway to tenure, only to learn this is not only unhealthy, it is unproductive.
Let me share a secret. Those who have been around here long enough can attest this. The truth is, some of my most creative and innovative work has come from finding fun and joy in community with other people on the journey of discovery. What pushed my thinking the most were the deeply engaging conversations I had with students in the classroom, in my office hours, and while we were all away at one of UChicago’s global centers in Paris, Hong Kong, Dehli, and Beijing. In my years here, I have seen one too many a student take that infamous motto so seriously that it has been detrimental to their mental health. That has forced me to step back and really interrogate the idea that great work and brilliant ideas are solely the product of killing fun or joy. Similar to the myth that real genius is tortured, self-destructive, and entwined with madness.
It is so important for you to discover what brings you JOY, and to use that as a guide as you move forward on your path of social discovery. You have all made it here, so let go of the brute competition and find ways to build each other up and help each other on a path of social discovery that is only possible when we are open, connected, and supportive of each other.
What makes the University of Chicago so incredible is that it is a world class university with people coming from all around the globe and from big cities and small rural communities within the United States. In the small group I met virtually in preparation for this address, there was Mei from New Jersey, Sophia from Minnesota, Raquel and Kiana from California, Joseph & Austin from Miami, and Henry from Michigan among others. There were also three students—Shane, Cayde, and Samuel—here who are part of the veteran’s program after serving in the US air force, navy, and marines. Just by being here, you get to be in conversation with and learn from one another to open yourself up to world views that very different from your own as you discover your ever evolving ones.
Another key characteristic of the University of Chicago’s relational experience is its emphasis on independent inquiry and freedom of expression. One of the University’s fundamental values is open discourse that exposes students to multiple perspectives. The University of Chicago takes seriously the “battle of ideas” that feeds the life of the mind and drives the discovery of new knowledge.
In your journeys of social discovery, I encourage you to approach this fundamental value in a relational manner, which means seriously interrogating what freedom of expression means in “theory” versus “practice”. In theory, free expression at its best is about diversity and inclusion and exposure to people from all walks of life. It is about celebrating our differences even when it makes us uncomfortable. In theory, this also assumes that we live in an equal world unfettered by power relations.
In practice as I’m sure you all realize, the reality of expression is messy, nuanced, and always relational. We know, that some voices are not only much louder, but they are also more powerful than others. The weight of that power can effectively create a silencing effect that does not foster freedom of expression on equal grounds. Indeed, it can be to lopsided or distorted as to impede the freedom of inquiry that is our raison d'être in higher education.
As a professor in the classroom environment there are many questions around the potential LIMITS of freedom of expression. Can anybody really just say whatever they want? What for example is the difference between speech that constitutes harassment, “hate speech” or “offensive speech”? If the essence is that students should expose themselves to offensive speech and create a compelling counter discourse, then in theory all students should feel capable and empowered to speak up at all times regardless of how unpopular their ideas are.
But it is also important to recognize moments when speech hinders our ability to listen to a truly diverse set of perspectives, and learn something valuable. Institutions, like the University of Chicago, are made of up people. We have our values and our cultures and now you are part of this place, and YOU will play an important role in shaping the environment around us. As you enter this space, I would invite you to think relationally about social discovery as it relates to freedom of expression. Who will be on the receiving end of your freedom of expression? Who has the power or freedom to ignore your speech and who doesn’t? If we so value diversity and inclusion of all views, whose speech are you going to give weight, respect, and recognition?
Inclusion is not something that just happens, it is something that requires thoughtfulness, care, mutual recognition, and sacrificing privilege for the less privileged. It also requires that we ask ourselves: When am I talking too much? Or, am I taking up too much space? When do I need to listen more so that I too can hear and understand where my classmates are coming from? Students need to do this for “selfish” reasons too—to grow personally and intellectually.
On a relational level, this requires compassion, empathy, and understanding that the people around us are constantly evolving and are on their own journey of self-discovery. What they say—tweet or post—in one moment may not reflect who they grow to become during their time here. So, we as an intellectual community, must constantly ask what do we need to do to create a space where everyone can contribute and where all values are equally heard? We also need to be generous to each other, to foster trust on which collaborative discovery rests.
As we move from the micro to the macro or from the self, to the social, I would now like to invite you all on a journey of scientific discovery. This is after all a research university where many of the faculty are involved in detecting, observing, and understanding new phenomena. We are all in the business of advancing knowledge, shifting paradigms, and making radical breakthroughs with new technologies. Many of you have already started your own journey of scientific discovery in high school with an assortment of new experiments, thought projects, and innovative designs.
Let me share a bit with you about my own journey of scientific discovery. With a lot of mentoring on the part of my former professors, I decided to pursue a PhD in Sociology at UC Berkeley. There I carried out original research in Southeast Asia on women identified as victims of sex trafficking. At the time, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, and the public were invested in raising awareness on this issue. Feminist scholars who I grately respected theorized this as one of the most extreme forms of gender exploitation. However, there was not a lot of rigorous research on the topic. Sex trafficking statistics were hard to come by given the underground nature of the phenomena. But we also did not know much about the social, economic, and political conditions that made women so vulnerable.
Then, journalists and academics alike wrote about poor women across the global south in need of rescue. So I decided to move to Vietnam where I carried out nearly 2 years of ethnographic research to study this phenomenon. For 15 of those months, I worked as a hostess and bartender in four different bars that were seen by outsiders as sex trafficking hotspots. However, as I got deep into the field research, the data and evidence I gathered pushed me to realize that I entered the field with a worldview and a set of misguided assumptions about women that were not only wrong but harmful to their lives.
For instance, when I asked women why they were working as sex workers in these hostess bars nearly all of them told me that this was a choice and one that provided them with higher pay and more viable forms of mobility when compared with their other options such as work as maids or in garment factories—places where they were far more vulnerable to exploitation and rape and often had to work longer hours for less pay. What I later came to realize is that we needed new theoretical and analytical tools to grapple with what I was finding.
But there was even more, I went to this field thinking that I would find men looking to exploit their fetishes of Asian women as submissive, docile and hyper-sexual. Instead, what I found was a group of Western men negotiating a deep sense of Western decline in a context where the United States and Europe were mired in the 2008 global financial crisis. This also happened to be a time when Western economies were stagnating while East and Southeast Asian economies were on the rapid rise and incredibly dynamic.
So much so, that the vast majority of foreign direct investments going into places like Vietnam was coming primarily from other East and Southeast Asian nations like China, Hong Kong, and South Korea. These economic transformations, I discovered, were tightly woven into the social and cultural fabric. The local sex industry became a critical space to look at how gender helps to facilitate the movement of money into the nation.
The study reveals how a group of women we once thought of as helpless victims, actually played an important and critical role in shaping the movement of money into Vietnam’s formal economy. In a context where few people had faith in rule of law, hostess bars became critical sites where men relied on the labors of women to help facilitate relations of trust and broker business deals.
Publishing these new findings was no easy feat. As it would turn out, when I returned to the United States it would take me years to publish much of this work because it was so hard for people to imagine a world in which women would choose to enter sex work, where men followed a strict moral order that guided these bars, where the west was on decline while East and Southeast Asian economies were incredibly dynamic, and where efforts to rescue these women by non-profit organizations actually put these women’s lives in greater danger than did the actions of their male patrons. Still, I felt that it was important to find a way to articulate my findings in a way that stayed true to the data regardless of how unpopular they were at the time. The data, the evidence, had to speak for itself and anything short of that would be a disservice to my research subjects and a failure to advance knowledge in the social sciences.
As I reflect on my own journey of scientific discovery, I realize that this aligns with UChicago’s tradition of confronting uncomfortable insights.
As you embark on your own journey of discovery that will likely challenge your own evolving assumptions, let me talk a bit about some of the ways you might consider joining the many professors here in a collaborative project. In my move to the University of Chicago, I decided to embark on a new research project for my forthcoming book titled Spiderweb Capitalism: How Global Elites Exploit Frontier Markets.
For that project, I had the privilege to work with 13 incredibly talented UChicago undergraduate students. Five of them traveled with me to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Singapore to collect data while the other eight helped me organize and analyze much of the data. The students got first-hand experience of what it was like to work in the field, carry out interviews, transcribe audio recordings, code and analyze the data.
We spent hours thinking through emergent themes and patterns and their energy and intellectual curiosity helped carry the project forward.
They used this rich experience as a springboard and went on to forge their own unique paths. None of them went on to do exactly what I do, but they are doing things that are arguably far more interesting. One student Gaurav Kalwani went on to forge a career in public service as a Carnegie Junior Fellow where he worked as research assistant on nuclear policy questions. Khoa D. Phan has gone on to pursue a Phd in Sociology at Northwestern where he is carrying out research at the intersection of gender/sexuality, family and law. Lucas Penido served on the editorial board of the Chicago journal of sociology and eventually went to work at a nonprofit affordable housing equity fund.
These stories exemplify just one narrow area where we found a way to contribute to the field. Today, there are so many other pressing global and local problems for you to try and tackle. As you think about forging your own journey here think about the research teams that you might want to be a part of and how that might enrich your intellectual journey here.
You arrived at a moment where our core mission requires a vigorous defense. This is a research community where we are collectively motivated by an investment in data, research, and science. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a legitimacy crisis as it relates to evidence-based research and science at the highest levels of government. Over the past few months, we have seen physicians fighting a two-front crisis: a public battle over the legitimacy of their work and motivation, and an assault on public health that undermines efforts to defeat COVID-19.
This dual crisis, I would argue, requires an interdisciplinary approach on the part of: virologists, chemists, epidemiologists, physicians, and social scientists working to advance new medical technologies to fight this pandemic but also asking why so many communities are reluctant to trust data and evidence based science. It requires us to grapple with all the ways that science has been used in nefarious ways to undermine that trust particularly in low-income, rural, and minority communities.
Consider the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in African American men. This ethically abusive study was carried out between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a group of 600 African American men in Alabama—399 with syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease. The purpose of the study was to examine the effects of the disease when untreated. The men were not informed of the nature of the experiment, were promised free medical care, and were told that the experiment would only last six months when it extended to 40 years. And 10 years later by 1943, penicillin was a widely available form of treatment, which the participants in the study were not offered.
Similarly, experimentation with Atomic bombs carried out from 1946 to 1962 by the United States government resulted in more than 1,000 nuclear tests on unknowing US servicemen who were exposed to ionizing radiation while present in a site of a nuclear explosion. These servicemen, known as “atomic veterans”, were forced to take an oath of secrecy. Hank Bolden, an atomic veteran, told a reporter that, “They wanted to see how live soldiers would stand up to being exposed to radiation”.
To be sure we have come a long way since then and have learned a great deal from these past mistakes. We have built frameworks for more ethical research practices that protect human subjects, and we are continuing to evolve as we question and improve our research methods.
Still, that history surely shapes our current moment. My fellow sociologist, Philip Cohen at the University of Maryland has analyzed data from the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey Data looking at COVID-19 vaccination rates. He found that— the individuals who are getting vaccinated in greater proportions are in households with incomes above $150,000 per year, who are white & Asian, & who hold Bachelor’s degrees while vaccination rates are much lower for those in households where the incomes are below $25,000 per year, Hispanics or African Americans, people serving in the military, and those with less than a high school education.
These are all complex problems that require not just research and evidence backed science but an understanding of the social, historical, and cultural contexts that shape how people make sense of the kind of knowledge we are all working hard to produce. This is most pertinent for low-income and minority communities.
I remain hopeful that together we will find ways to reach across disciplines to advance science while also working to better inform the public in ways that not only restores the legitimacy but also trust in science.
Let me end with a few closing remarks. As you embark on this new journey of self, social, and scientific discovery I hope that you will fall in love— with yourself, each other, the city of Chicago, and the world of new knowledge that will also play an important role in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.
I hope you will celebrate each other’s differences by giving those whose views are different the benefit of the doubt.
We all must remember to exercise compassion for ourselves and others as we fail and make mistakes along the way.
Over the next four years I hope you find joy, laughter, and love.
While it may be intimidating to be around so many brilliant scholars, super talented peers, never forget that you are here too.
You matter and you have so much to contribute in ways that will surely surprise yourself.
This morning at 3:00 a.m. as I was desperately trying to get my daughter to go back to sleep, I turned on a baby lullabies station and this song from I am Moana titled “Song of the Ancestors” came on.
The lyrics seem fitting for my remarks today so these are from Evelyn:
The journey may leave a scar.
But scars can heal and reveal just: Where you are.
The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on Earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you
As I look out at all of you in this audience, I am hopeful and confident that YOU will change the world that my daughter will grow up in for the better.
You are after all the most resilient class ever.
I wish you nothing but the best as you begin this journey, and I cannot wait to meet you all in person.
 Voight, Heidi. 2020. 'Hidden History: America's Atomic Veterans', NBCUniversal Media.
 PN Cohen figure from US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data, Sep 1-13, 2021 (Week 37)