Thursday, June 05, 2008

My Graduation Speech

It's been almost three weeks since ends of finals, end of what was a memorable four years at the Institute of Technology to say the least. Time seems to just blaze by when I was finally enjoying college, a semester in which I finally learned to balance work and play. A friend told me that he thought I worked hard and played hard, a compliment dear to my heart. Just a semester ago, the only part that suited me was the working hard part.

Looking back, I never realized how much I gave myself to earn my degree until I finished. I never thought getting a college degree would entail a roller-coaster ride of emotions. From the lowest point of depression so deep that I felt like my degree was like quicksand, and I was slowly but surely being suffocated by classes I no longer understood, homework I no longer knew how to do, and good grades I failed to get. It did nearly kill me for I no longer knew who I was. Before college, I was the straight A student from high school who was on a academic highway towards destination Stanford. Then I entered the U of M, thinking it was just a pit stop for continued success. Yet, this pit stop had me halted for nearly three and a half years. It was a time of gray skies and storms of tears that came howling out of me when everything seemed so overwhelming. I was paralyzed with fear of failure, and my greatest fear came true. In my first semester of college, I used my one time withdrawal to drop out of my introductory computer science class. I skipped quizzes in my multi-variable math class because I couldn't bear the thought of not knowing a single answer to the questions. By not being there, I could pretend that I was sick, an excuse for my fears. However, no matter how many quizzes I could skip, I had to show up for the final, and it was the longest three hours of my life. The white spaces beneath the questions seems to goad me, daring me to fill them in. I couldn't because I didn't know any of the answers. I was nauseated with fear and I was failing right then and there. Dark thoughts played through my head like a song on loop back, and I never felt so small, so insignificant. I was a ghost, going through the motions of attending class, but my spirit inside was shattered. I became invisible in front of the mirror and wanted to become invisible from all those around me. My parents tried to support me academically, but the emotional hurdle was one obstacle that I had to cross over on my own. I eventually got a C- in the class, and received a phone call from my adviser who suggested I should drop out of the honors program. My ashen face upon hearing the news made me look even more like the ghost I had become. I tried to find ways out, like by telling myself I hated the major, and that I was being forced by my parents. However, there is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction, and I realized that it had already expired because I was in the drivers seat.

I realized I was unhappy because my dreams and the wishes of my parents were on diverging paths. I also realized that I feared trying to change things or seemingly hard things (like my major) because I was afraid of failing. What if my efforts and hard work were futile, and that no matter how hard I tried, I still failed? It would leave deeper gashes than just not trying at all. However, by then, I had failed. There were circuits I didn't know how to build, homework that I had to come home every weekend to have my father help me do. Friends wanted to know why I went home every weekend, and every time I had to refuse weekend plans because of homework, I felt my insides crumble piece by piece. Eventually, friends stopped asking if I was around, and I had achieved my wish of becoming invisible.

Now in the words of JK Rowling, whose words sum up my thoughts but with a better vocabulary and better paid speech writers, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me, my degree. I held onto the belief that even though I might hate this degree and hate everything I am learning, I had to finish it to just to prove to everyone, but most importantly myself that I can achieve what I thought was impossible. Had I really succeeded at anything else or switched my major, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I would never be able to do. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I had nothing to think about but to persevere and study. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

I know that most people didn't fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies, like Vanessa. She offered me help when I had nothing to offer in return. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

So I did use a time turner, and decided to start my college career all over again by applying to Carlson. I know that I could still fail, but it is no longer something to be afraid of. I have welded together the once broken pieces of myself into something stronger. I found inner strength that I know will carry me forward in life, and so I shall walk, with confidence that I am no longer standing on the edge of me, but that I have arrived.